Because God took on our humanity in Jesus, and because Jesus commands us to love one another as he loved us, and because he left us with his Holy Spirit, we are challenged to recognize that he is still at work in the world through the love and support of our family members, our friends and co-workers, and sometimes, maybe especially, through the unexpected generosity, kindness or life saving act of a complete stranger.
This passage from Isaiah is about the promises of redemption and restoration for the Israelites. The promise is that the Lord, our God, will be with us throughout all of life’s difficulties. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, tells the Israelites that they have nothing to fear, for he has redeemed them, and, “I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” (verse 1) When we read this in Isaiah we recognize that he is speaking to the Israelite people at the time, that it is the Israelite nation that he has called by name, and claims as his own. Because of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we can read this passage a bit differently. When we read these words, we understand that God is saying these things to each one of us personally.
Because we have lived, we know, as the Israelites did, that life has its good times and its bad times. Sometimes troubles threaten to overwhelm us, to sweep us away like a flooding river, or to drown us in heavy seas. Sometimes we find ourselves in the firestorm of some life threatening event, feeling as if we are going to be consumed by the fire. But God’s promise to the Israelites here in Isaiah remains true for us today. What does he promise? That he will be with us through it all. We need not be afraid.
What is our challenge here then? It is as it always is. It comes down to the question of faith. When we being swept away in the raging waters of difficult times, or are caught up in the firestorms of life, that is when our faith is tested. And our faith gets tested a lot in life. God promises us, though, that we are not alone, that he will always be with us. That is the theological truth here. Because God, the source and totality of truth, says it, we can believe and have faith in it. When we are in the midst of our troubles, though, theology seems a distant, intellectual thing. Pain and suffering are tangible, immediate, and often overwhelming. When caught in the stormy seas of personal troubles, the lighthouse marking the safe harbor is not always in our sights. We may catch a glimpse of it as we crest a wave, but lose it again in the deep wells of fear in between. The lighthouse (God) is always there, but when we cannot see it, that is when faith is challenged.
We are all familiar with the poem “Footprints In The Sand” by Mary Stevenson. It speaks about having a dream that you are walking along a sandy beach with Jesus. Scenes from your life flash across the sky before you. In each scene you see footprints in the sand, sometimes two sets, at others, only one set. You are bothered by this because it appears that when there is only one set of footprints in the sand, it was during the times where you were suffering, in anguish, or sorrow, or a defeat of some kind. So you question Jesus, somewhat petulantly, saying, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you the most, were you not there for me?” Only to be stunned by Jesus’ reply, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.” This is a perfect parallel to the words of God in today’s reading from Isaiah. Suffering is personal, real, and immediate. When we are in the midst of it, our world narrows down to the self. It is I who am suffering. It is not some abstract metaphor. It is as real as it gets, and it is happening to me. In these times we sometimes “forget” that God is with us.
As Christians we are challenge in another way as well. Because God took on our humanity in Jesus, and because Jesus commands us to love one another as he loved us, and because he left us with his Holy Spirit, we are challenged to recognize that he is still at work in the world through the love and support of our family members, our friends and co-workers, and sometimes, maybe especially, through the unexpected generosity, kindness or life saving act of a complete stranger. God’s promise is true. He is with us. We need only to open our eyes and our hearts to recognize this. And we must continually open ourselves up to his generous gift of faith. It is his desire to give it; it is our responsibility to open our minds and our hearts to it.
Lord, you tell us, “Do not be afraid.” Help us to believe in your presence and your loving concern for us at all times, but especially in our troubling times. We believe, but we ask you to help our unbelief, to strengthen us in our faith. We ask this in the power of Jesus’ name. Amen!
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