Uniform Lesson for January 8, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Isaiah 43:1-4, 10-12
Having just last week experienced the underside of God’s promises in Chronicles—the expectation that if God keeps God’s promises to us, we should demonstrate similar fidelity to God – we encounter a different tone to God’s promises this week in Isaiah. This week’s lesson makes clear that context matters. While last week’s promises anticipated Israel’s coming exile, this week’s promises are given to God’s people in Babylon as encouragement for them to return. The “ifs” of last week’s passage are replaced by the first person promises of God—to redeem, accompany and protect. God now promises to restore and protect God’s people on the way, though it is not a way without costs or challenges.
As God created, so God creates again
If one thing is certain, it’s this: God’s people did not create the cosmos at its beginning, and they did not form themselves as a nation on their own. This passage emphasizes God’s hand in the nation saying, “but now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel” (v. 1). As God did all the heavy lifting in Genesis and in Exodus, so God will do all the heavy lifting in bringing God’s people back home. All they are asked to do is “not fear” and serve as “witnesses” of what God is about to do (v. 1, v. 10). Just as God had created light out of darkness at the beginning of time and transformed them from slaves into a nation coming out of Egypt, God is the one who will continue to call and redeem them, based on God’s choosing alone.
Isaiah 43 contains some of the most intimate and personal God-talk in all of scripture, repeatedly serving as rationale for what God has done and will do in the future. God has called us because we are God’s (v. 1). God will redeem us because we are “precious in God’s sight” and because God honors us and loves us (v. 4). If we want to find one verse that summarizes the good news of the gospel, we probably can do no better than the three words at the middle of our lesson: “I [God, the only God] love [actively, persistently, sacrificially] you [those whom God has chosen grounded in God’s choosing alone]” (v. 4). God’s promises don’t get more clear, personal or reliable than that! Of this gift, we are the gracious recipients; regarding this ongoing giving, we should be exuberant and extravagant witnesses. When it comes to the subject of biblical sentences, it’s God, God, God. When it comes to the objects of biblical sentences, it’s us, us, us as representatives of all of God’s creatures. Now that’s a promise indeed.
Through the waters and the fires
Nevertheless, if we’re listening, God’s promises are not for a carefree life nor for easy walking. As the editors of our lessons remind us, Isaiah 43 is a promise regarding waterproofing and fireproofing, rather than a promise of no floods or flames at all. The waters may threaten and slow and challenge us but they will not overwhelm us (v. 2). The fires may scorch and scare and scatter us but they will not consume us (v. 2). As “Amazing Grace” goes: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come./‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” This is a promise of accompaniment and ultimate protection, not a promise of a suffering-free life either individually or collectively.
Furthermore, our redemption will not come easily or freely, but at a cost. Just as slaves could be redeemed out of slavery, so God is ransoming Israel out of Babylon and Egypt and Ethiopia through a deep and costly engagement in international affairs. God will raise up a king, Cyrus the Persian, who will ransom Israel from Babylon with the help of other nations. This is a risky and reckless exchange of prisoners grounded in God’s grace alone.
The waters and fire of baptism
Perhaps it’s therefore appropriate we study this lesson on the Sunday designated as “The Baptism of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptist promised Jesus was coming to baptize God’s people with Spirit and with fire, so too Jesus submitted himself to a baptism of water and fire (Luke 3:16, Luke 3: 21ff). Just as God did not promise us a carefree life, so too would Jesus face both the waters and fires of this world. Yet Jesus, like Israel, would not ultimately be either overwhelmed or consumed.
Why is “through” such a hopeful word?
Want to receive worship-related content in your inbox on Mondays? Sign up here.