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I suspect that one of the things that many
Christians--and, for that matter, many Jews and Muslims--take for
granted is their relationship with God.
We live in a God-saturated culture. If you are carrying any money with you--bills or coins--it tells you “In God We Trust.” Whether we do or not.
We have known about God for as long as we can remember. And even when we may have been inactive in the church, we nevertheless may have continued to have an understanding of and relationship with God.
But what IS that relationship?
There are many branches of Christianity that raise questions about our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but I’ve not heard the same kind of emphasis put on our relationship with God. And maybe that is because we don’t think of God as a being with whom we would have a personal relationship.
And yet, if we look closely at the writings in the Hebrew Scriptures, we find at least hints of a God who just might like to have a personal relationship with us.
We find accounts of conversations of God with humans, and we find statements that God makes through the prophets.
In these statements, we find much that lends credibility to Jesus referring to God as his father, in the most intimate sense.
But in the Hebrew Scriptures we find a multi-faceted God, a God of many behaviors and personalities. It is not the stereotypical God of wrath and anger that many of us may have been taught in our childhood; nor is it the sweet old man with the long flowing beard sitting on a cloud to whom we pray to do nice things for us.
If we look to the end of the forty-second chapter of Isaiah and the beginning of the forty-third chapter, we can find contrasting images of God.
In the twenty-fifth verse of the forty-second chapter, we read,
“So he poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.”
But notice the shift in the following verse, the first verse of the forty-third chapter:
“But 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.”
God couldn’t pile it on much thicker than this. We have as many as six affirmations of God’s ownership and responsibility.
I created you.
I formed you.
I am protecting you.
I redeemed you.
I called you.
I own you.
I’m reminded of a scene from a movie in which a wife briefly left her husband in the midst of difficulties and then returned. And she remarked, “How could I ever leave you? I’m in love with you. I’ve always been in love with you.
“Even before I met you I was in love with the idea of you.”
And in the Hebrew Scriptures we find a God who keeps coming back to remind us and to remind Godself of who we are in relationship to God.
However, we need to understand this verse as referring not only to a person, but also to a nation, the nation of Israel.
And we need to remind ourselves of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis, after which Jacob is told, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Indeed, God HAS named God’s people.
These affirmations would seem to cover all the bases, but it is only beginning to establish a foundation for what follows in the succeeding verses. God unloads some details for how God will indeed be protecting us.
In the second verse we read,
“When 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.”
In the story of the Exodus, we are all familiar with the crossing of the Red Sea, of how, through Moses, God parted the waters.
We may be less familiar with Israel’s crossing over the Jordan into the promised land, recorded in the third chapter of Joshua. God instructs that
“When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
But beyond the references to the Exodus event, the fire and water of which God speaks are symbols of judgment.
We are familiar with water as a symbol of baptism. And we know that John the Baptist told his followers that the Messiah would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. So we can understand fire and water as cleansing, refining experiences.
And through those experiences, God will not permit the fire and the water to overwhelm God’s people.
“For 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.”
We can understand what God means when God speaks of Egypt. God is speaking of the Exodus, of providing the means of escape from Egypt, overcoming the Pharaoh and his armies in their efforts to detain the Israelites.
What is meant by Ethiopia and Seba is less clear, and scholars are not in agreement. But speaking of these three countries as a ransom, as an exchange suggests that God is speaking of sacrifice, that God is giving up something for the Israelites.
We might also observe that when the children of Israel came to the promised land, they displaced a large number of other peoples, among which Joshua lists the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites.
But was this really a sacrifice on the part of God? Well, maybe not. But it would seem to be an indication of God playing favorites, of God establishing priorities.
We might say that parents ransom parts of their lives for their children. They give up things that are less important to them than their children. These sacrifices may be in the form of physical possessions, or they may be sacrifices of styles of life and work.
I’ve known of pastors who intentionally forego moves that could be professionally more rewarding in order that their children’s education in a particular community will not be interrupted.
And women frequently make major sacrifices to stay at home to rear their children, rather than work outside the home. I doubt that God giving Egypt as a ransom was any more signficant than parents making their sacrifices.
The word continues,
“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.”
It is good that God feels this way:
You are precious.
You are honored.
You are loved.
And we would like to believe that God feels this way about us. In fact, is this not the message that Jesus brings to us? Is this not the message of Paul to the Gentiles?
But a problem besets us. These attitudes come at a cost. The cost is other people and other nations.
Does God really love EVERYBODY? Well, apparently not. It seems that in these verses God is playing a zero-sum game. God cannot show God’s love to the Israelites without withholding it from other peoples and nations.
Now, I don’t think we need to throw out Jesus’ message of God’s love; but I do think we need to take into account Israel’s perception of itself. It needed an understanding, rightly or wrongly, of the meaning of its wars.
And on its balance sheet, victory was understood as righteousness. If they were defeating other peoples and nations, then God musts be on their side, giving up those other peoples and nations because God loved the Israelites.
It is an ugly attitude, that might makes right, but it is nevertheless an attitude that must be dealt with in scripture.
You may recall the opening verse to the story of David and Bathsheba: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.”
The seasons of war were as predictable as football seasons are for us.
God’s message continues,
“Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I 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--”
It is a statement of homecoming. God is gathering the exiles, all those who have been driven away, all those who are in bondage. It is a promise of restoration, of restoring the Israelites to their homeland, to Jerusalem.
Now, I have a real problem believing that a spiritual God is into real estate holdings; but I think that therer may be a deeper message here for all of us.
Jesus spoke of Jerusalem in the thirty-fourth verse of the thirteenth chapter of the gospel accoring to Luke in this way, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
That, too, is a statement of homecoming, but of spiritual homecoming.
In this passage form Isaiah, the Jews are scattered, dispersed; and in that dispersion they have lost their identity. It was an identity tied up not in spiritual things but in the land of Israel and in the city of Jerusalem and in the temple.
In a sense, their identity was caught up in idol worship, because they could not imagine God outside of Israel, Jerusalem, the temple.
But for us, I would hope, a spiritual identity is possible beyond such material anchors.
Is it possible for us to “come home” in a spiritual sense?
I’ve heard stories of Christians who could not bear to build a new church or even to move an old one. Congregations lose members who do not believe that God is in the new building. Folks refuse the possibility of ever replacing an old decaying building, because it was in that building that they, their parents, their grand-parents, and their great-grand-parents, were all baptized. And God could not be elsewhere.
Can we come home? Can we be restored to God through Christ as God restored the Jewish people?
Listen to whom God is calling in the seventh verse:
“everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Who does that leave out? Anyone?
I think it depends on our attitude, upon our relationship with God. As we understand God, are we not all created for God’s glory? As we understand God, are we not all formed and made by God?
Many times throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we have records of God becoming upset, angry, of almost giving up on God’s children, and then returning to being a loving, accepting God who goes out of the way to care for the children.
We can translate this for all of us. I believe that it is not a message for only the Jewish people. If there is a divine, spiritual message, it is for all of us. And I think that is a point that Jesus would want us to see, that Paul would want the Gentiles to see.
As we proceed into a new year, may we re-experience a God who continually restores us and protects, who wants to tell us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And may God’s grace be with you throughout the new year.
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