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Passing Through the Waters.

Epiphany 1, Common Lectionary Year C

Isaiah 43:1-7

©2016 Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

Many of you know I am English,
born into a Roman Catholic family in the north of England.
I went to convent schools,
I went on retreats,
can (still) recite the Ave, the Pater, the Nunc and the Benedictus
in Latin and English.
I even went to Lourdes once,
but a bout of blood poisoning while I was there
kind of put paid to any first hand
devotion to Mary. …. !

I tell you all this, because it was the spirituality of the 1970s
Catholic Renewal movement which shaped my soul,
and most especially at a particularly difficult
time in my childhood when my older sister died,
and our family was breaking under the strain
of a complicated grief.

When there was no one else to turn to,
when I felt like I was drowning in despair,
burning up with fear,
there was only God,
whom I found
or more likely, who found me,
in the daily round of music
ancient and modern,
in the convent chapel.
One contemporary song felt like it had been composed for me:
Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you,
I have called you by your name, you are mine.

When you walk through the waters I’ll be with you,
you will never sink beneath the waves.

When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames….

You are mine, O my child, I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love….

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you,
I have called you by your name, you are mine.
I didn’t know back then
about the origin of these words
-words of promise to a people
whose identity had been shattered,
but one thing I did know, then,
and in countless occasions of turmoil
in the four decades since then,
is that Isaiah’s words,
God’s promise of fierce, unbreakable fidelity,
unfailing love,
work.

Branded, through repetition,
into my heart, soul, mind, and life,
these words of Isaiah, have become,
a living, redemptive, healing, Word of God;
capable of pushing back the tide of depression,
tamping down the fierce burning fires of fear,
and consoling the deepest of griefs.

I dare say that this passage of Scripture
was chosen by the lectionary makers
as a sort of appetizer for the upbeat Gospel story,
where the voice from Heaven,
calls out on a bright, sunshiny day to Jesus,
“Hey, Son, Love you!”

But how much more powerful
these words of God’s promise become if we imagine
Jesus, rising from the baptismal water,
not only in jubilation, but also with a knot of fear in his gut,
knowing that the Gospel he will preach will lead him to a Roman cross.
“When you walk through the waters, I’ll be with you,
you will never sink beneath the waves… Do not be afraid.”

I see this same Jesus, left abandoned, hands bound,
awaiting the sentence of Pilate,
and I imagine his soul quietly singing deep within,
“When the fear of loneliness is looming,
remember I am at your side. Do not be afraid.”

I see a refugee child or woman,
staring wide-eyed fearful in the immigration hall,
and I imagine, that with welcome badges and smiles,
a prophetic hum begins,
“When you dwell in the exile of the stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
Do not be afraid, my love is stronger than your fear.”

I see on my TV and newsfeeds
the horrors of flood waters,
the raging bush-fires, an icy house-fire,
from which a parent must drop a child to death or safety,
and I want to sing across the miles to them
“When you walk through the waters I’ll be with you,
When the fire is raging all around you, you’ll never be consumed by the flames.”

Today I see a parent, holding their new son,
our newest member of this community,
and you can hear them whisper as he suckles and sleeps,
“I have called you by your name…. I love you with a perfect love.
God loves you too, and will be your protector and shield.
Do not be afraid.”

Today, in this congregation, I see two wives newly widowed,
grown children mourning the loss of their anchor, their dad,
a community reeling in shock, and grief,
and I could not be more grateful to the serendipity
of Holy Coincidence,
that the lectionary has given us this text today,
singing, seeping deep into our hearts and hurts;
Do not be afraid, I have redeemed you,
paid the life price for you,
“You are mine, o my children, and I love you with a perfect love.
Fire, water, flame, flood, exile, loneliness, sickness, death, grief,
none of it will ever cut us off from this love of God,
this cherishing of us, of all, by God.

Hear it,……. God’s promise.
We are in this life, all of it, together,
God with us, naming us beloved…..
Hear it, the life-giving Word of God to us, today, of all days….

Sing anthem.

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