“Ransomed by Love”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme, “4 New Year Blessings”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 13, 2019
Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-7
1But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
I swear sometimes I feel like such an “old-timer.” Some of you are old enough to remember a television series named, “Kojak.” Kojak, played by Telly Savalas, was a detective for the New York City Police Department. His catch phrase was, “Who loves ya’, baby?” Well this morning I want to answer that question as part of this series of messages on “4 New Year Blessings.” The answer to the question, “Who loves ya’ baby?” is God. In fact, God’s spokesperson, namely the prophet Isaiah tells Israel just how much God loves them, and in turn, us.
God, who Isaiah reminds us created us, redeemed us, calls us by name, and “will be with” us, loves us so much that whether we pass through rivers, or walk through fire, we will not be drowned or burned, because the love of God is with us. This God, who loves you so much gives nations in exchange for your life. This God who loves you so much calls you “precious,” and “honored,” and if you doubt it God says it in just so many words in verse 4: “and I love you.” Any doubts now? This may seem like old news, but can you begin to fathom how much God truly loves you? Who loves ya, baby? Even if no one else does, God does. Period.
The people of Israel were having a hard time believing this, remembering this when Isaiah spoke these words. The God speaking these words through Isaiah, called YHWH by name, had given these people a land of their own. That land was now controlled by Babylonian pagans. The temple they had built to YHWH in Jerusalem, “which had stood for 350 years as the physical and spiritual center of their religious lives, was a smoking ruin. And because the temple was no more, the regular priestly practice of sacrifice and offering had been disrupted, seemingly forever. The king directly descended from David “had been blinded and rendered childless by Nebuchadnezzar.” With all that reality “staring them in the face, one can be sure that many of the exiles lost faith in the God who had made those promises; perhaps that God did not finally exist after all.”
In the face of this pain, spiritual and physical and communal, God spoke to the prophet these words of comfort and hope. God spoke these words of love and of promise. God spoke and God acted. God did bring those exiles home, God did bring blessings because they were precious in God’s sight, honored, and beloved. God said, “Do not fear, for I am with you!” What words of hope and of love.
John Holbert [“You are Mine,” Patheos.com, January 13, 2013], tells the story of his wife’s back surgery, required after her years as a professional dancer. She could no longer walk without pain. The surgery was “successful” but the pain of recovery was even worse on many days and it took over 3 months to recover. She was in bed unable to walk on her own, unable to leave the house. She spent three more months creeping along with the aid of a walker, then months of physical therapy.
While she was in bed recovering and often in great pain she often asked John to read scripture to her. This passage from Isaiah 43 was the one she asked for most often. “In fact, she soon had it memorized and would speak it aloud with” him as he read it to her. John says, “I cannot describe the great and soothing comfort these words provided for her,” and for him and he says whenever he reads these ancient words again, he can still see her face as she received the promise of God’s healing presence through the poetry from 2600 years ago. Ancient words, but ever true, as the song says.
Although I didn’t focus on it, this is the Sunday the Christian Church has historically used to focus on Jesus’ baptism. And many of these words from Isaiah are echoed in the words to Jesus – “you are my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” And it is of course, the waters of baptism that poured over Jesus that echo God’s promise here in Isaiah: “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” These are the promises God makes to all of us and that we mark when we baptize someone, not because our baptizing anyone makes it true, but in doing it we make public what God does for all. One of the things we have gotten wrong over the centuries in Christianity is this insistence that God loves Christians more than others, or that God only loves Christians. God created all people. Our faith in Christ should primarily guide us to know how to live out our relationship with God – how to live in the world as Christ did, as a beloved child of God in relationship to others whom God loves equally and blesses just as surely.
Theologians talk about Jesus as the “incarnation” of God, the human manifestation of God – God “in the flesh.” And sometimes we forget the humanity of Christ in our focus on his “Godness,” his holiness, the miraculous and uniqueness of his life. His humanity, his choice in the face of other options to love rather than to hate, to forgive rather than to condemn, to heal rather than hurt, to seek community and welcome outsiders into community when too often as humans we want to exclude anyone not “like” us is really the key to living faithfully. Like him we are called by our baptism not to let fear of others cause us to turn away from the foreigner, the person of another faith, the infectious leper, the hated tax collector, the convicted thief. I think he was able to do this because he believed God’s promise to be with him, that he was called by God’s name, created for God’s glory, and formed and called to life by God.
Here is why that matters: you and I are also created by God, redeemed by God from exile – the exile of sin, or our separation from other human beings, our hatreds and fears, all of it. We are precious in God’s sight, honored and loved. And when we know this and believe this we will be all the more able to love others, to serve others, to see that others get the same just and compassionate treatment that we think we deserve. When we are more fully certain that God’s blessings are for us we will be free to love others. In other words we are freed by God’s love to love others. We are ransomed from hatred and fear and human divisions by God’s love.
When I hear those who call themselves Christian speak hatred or division or put limits on God’s love I shake my head. They don’t really believe in God’s love. They don’t know how much God loves them. They are afraid that God’s love is a limited commodity, only available to the one with the right “stuff.” The Gospel is the proclamation that God’s love is for the whole world. The good news is God says to everyone what God said to “Jacob” in our reading this morning, because “Jacob” was the whole nation of Israel, not just some guy named Jake. It was a promise of blessing to all people in exile – whether that exile is from God’s love or any other kind of exile: physical, spiritual, communal. “I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; …. For I am YHWH, your God, the Holy One… your Savior…. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life…. “I will say to the north and the south – ‘Give them up, do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
This matters because you matter. And so does the homeless exile, the LGBTQ daughter, the drug addict son, the Jew, the Greek, the male the female, all matter to God. We too easily forget that about ourselves and often about others. We give people labels and names, I guess to make ourselves feel better than them, maybe to make them feel less than they are. The best story about this is one I have told before, a long time ago, and I guess since I have been around so long – I guess that [and quoting Kojak] makes me an “old-timer” – I can get away with repeating it, because some of you will not have heard it before, and hopefully those of you who have will forgive me retelling it.
One of my favorite preachers and writers was Fred Craddock. Craddock tells the story of an evening when he and his wife were eating dinner in a little restaurant in the Smokey Mountains. A strange and elderly man came over to their table and introduced himself. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and you know they have a name for children like me, a name that shames a boy and his mama. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us. I always figured they were making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. Finally he said, ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”
“What’s your name?” Dr. Craddock asked.
“Ben Hooper,” he said. “My name is Ben Hooper.” Dr. Craddock said he vaguely recalled from when he was a kid, his father talking about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected a fellow who had been born out of wedlock as the governor of their state. His name was Ben Hooper.
You too, are a child of God. So is your neighbor, so is the person you maybe fear or hate or think most unworthy of God’s love. And in case you were wondering, let me remind you again of that other “old-timer,” Kojak. “Who loves ya’ baby?” The answer is God. God loves you. Go claim your blessing, go claim your inheritance. AMEN.
 Joanna Adams, “God Believes in You,” day1.org, Jan 10, 2010.