How Does a Weary World Rejoice? We Remember our Baptism

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

A new student looks out on a sea of strange faces in the high school cafeteria, wondering where she should sit, which group she should join, how she will be accepted. 

An older man groans in his sick bed.  Retirement from his successful law practice had been difficult enough.  But now, he is felled by long Covid that leaves him lethargic with nothing to show for his days.  Used to accomplishing a great deal through his work, he feels worthless. 

A middle-aged woman walks down the hall in her empty house to look at her daughter’s bedroom.  On the walls and on the bookshelves are pictures and souvenirs of childhood and high school, left behind when this youngest daughter set off for her first year of college.  Now the mother wonders what lies ahead, not just for her daughter, but for herself.  She feels cut adrift; she is not sure what her purpose is. 

A younger man drives toward his hometown.  He has been away for two years in a minimum-security prison for misappropriating money at work.  His time in prison has ended, but he wonders if the true penalty he must bear for his wrongdoing is a lifetime sentence. 

Who are we?  What defines us?  What is our purpose?  Where do we belong?  These questions, which come to the forefront in adolescence and young adulthood, never really go away.  Whether we ask them explicitly or only subconsciously, we often look for the answers in all of the wrong places – whether it is in our popularity or acceptance by peers, our work or achievements, our roles or our ability to be needed by others, or our successes or failures.  None of those can deliver us what we need.  Because none of them last.  What we need is to hear what Isaiah has to say. 

In Isaiah 43, the prophet speaks to a people bloodied, bruised, and beleaguered.  They have been sent into exile after their army was routed by the Babylonians, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, and their homes lost.  They feel abandoned and punished by their God.  Indeed, in the preceding chapter, chapter 42, the prophet declared that these disastrous results are not just the consequence of the marauding Babylonian army.  They are also the consequence of Israel’s arrogance and disobedience of God.   

Cut off from their home and community – and their sense of being a favored nation, the Israelites are having an identity crisis.  Who are they?  It depends on your point of view.  The objective observer might say they are a “tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women standing on the margins of a hostile empire.”1  The embittered exile living among the Babylonians might say, “We’re God’s ex – we’re the rejected lover, the dumped partner, the embarrassing skeleton in God’s cupboard.”2  Who are they?  The beleaguered Israelite might say, “I am the one who has lost my footing, about to be overcome by the rising waters.  I am the one surrounded by an out-of-control fire, about to be destroyed.” 

This is where the people find themselves at the beginning of Isaiah 43.  But what flows in these seven verses are some of the most beautiful, tender, affirming, and encouraging verses in all of the Bible.  Do you think that the Old Testament God is very different from the God revealed in Jesus Christ?  Then you haven’t heard Isaiah 43. 

Who are the Israelites?  Hear what God has to say – not just to the Israelites as a whole but to them individually.  Each of the Hebrew “you’s” in this passage is singular, not plural.  It is as if God is speaking to eqch of them – and to each of us, personally.  “I am the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, Carter.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, Carter; I have called you by name.  You belong to me, Carter. 

Take a moment now to hear these words again – except this time, as I read the names, put your own names in it: “I am the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, _______.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, ________; I have called you by name.  You belong to me, ________. 

At the center of this passage in verse 4, are the most important words: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  Who are we?  We are those who are made by God, loved by God, and belonging to God.  We are precious and honored.  This is where we derive our identity, our purpose and meaning, in the fact that we belong to God.  In the truth that we are precious to God. 

With God, there are no”ex-es.”  God never dumps or rejects us, even when we disobey God or turn away from God.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to our actions.  Nor does it mean that God is happy with our arrogance or disobedience, or our complacency to the needs of others and indifference to justice for all.  Indeed, God gets angry with us when we hurt others, hurt ourselves, or hurt God’s creation.  But God’s anger is always an expression of God’s love, a love that will not ignore or condone our disobedience, a love that always works to draw us to our true selves, a love that always rushes out to welcome us back. 

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and I love you.”  The words of Isaiah are echoed in the words of Luke 3 at Jesus’ baptism.  And they are echoed in our own baptisms. 

The words spoken by the prophet in Isaiah 43 and the words spoken at our baptism are also words to remember and hold on to when the waters rise, or the fires threaten, and we get scared – as will inevitably happen at some point or another.  Did you notice that Isaiah does not say, “if you pass through the waters” or “if you walk through fire.”  Only “when.”  When the waters rise or the fires approach, remember your baptism, remember Isaiah 43.  God will never abandon you.  Instead, God will reach out to anchor you in the rising flood and show you the way through your trials by fire. 

How does a weary world rejoice?  We remember our baptism.  We remember that we are beloved and precious in God’s sight.  We remember – because we can too easily forget who we are and whose we are.  This why we are given the opportunity any day to remember our baptism, but especially today when we recall Jesus’ baptism.  The world can be a difficult and scary place that can tear us down and make us feel unworthy and all alone. 

So, remember your baptism.   

But remember this as well.  As with Jesus’ baptism, our baptism is not an end point, but a beginning point.  We are claimed by God at the baptismal font – and called by God.  We are loved by God so that we can freely share that love – with God and with others.  In our hurting world, there are so many others who need to hear the good news that they are beloved.  In our hurting world, there are so many people who need to experience what love has to give. 

Dr. King and his famous speech about his dream – that is God’s dream – that every person would know their worth and dignity, that they would know they are God’s beloved child, whether or not they are baptized.  Because God does not start loving us when we are baptized.  No, our baptism is a demonstration and confirmation of God’s love that is already there – for us and for everyone else. 

Our baptism is not an end point, but a beginning point.  Not long ago, I heard about a man who volunteered each year for over 30 years to work on at least two Habitat for Humanity building projects a year.  A gifted carpenter, he had to take time off his paying job to do it.  Why did he do it?  He told this story: 

He was a Vietnam War veteran.  Returning home from his military service, he struggled to readjust.  He had no close family structure, so he drifted – town to town, job to job.  The one thing he did have was a talent for carpentry, so he usually could find a building site that needed an extra hand. 

Finally, in a small Midwestern town, he signed on to help build a development of six moderately sized and affordably priced houses.  He told the foreman that he would be happy not only to do carpentry but also to provide security, bringing his sleeping bag with him and spending nights on site.  So, he did that house by house. 

The owner of the company was impressed by the man’s abilities and commitment – and he was also aware that the man apparently had no other place to sleep.  So, at the close of the project, almost a year in the making, the business owner took the man aside and said, “I want to thank you for what you’ve done.  And I want you to stay on with the company.” 

Then he handed the man a set of keys and said, “The sixth house is yours.  Take it.”  “But I can’t pay for it,” the carpenter said.  To which his employer answered: “You’ll find a way.” 

“My volunteer work,” the carpenter said when telling his story, “is how I have repaid him.  At least twice a year, I put a roof over the head of someone who needs it, just as he did over mine.”3

Who are we?  Our baptism reminds us that we are God’s children, made by God, claimed by God, and loved by God, who takes delight in us. 

Who are we?  Our baptism also reminds us that whatever stage or condition of life we are in, we are also God’s agents, planted in the world to pay that love and grace forward, sharing the gift that has been given to us. 

And when we do, a weary world can rejoice! 

  1. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary, trans. David M.G. Stalker (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 118.  ↩︎
  2. Samuel Wells, “The Five W’s,” http://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/sermons/Jan10The FiveWs.pdf. ↩︎
  3. Dr. Michael Brown, “Does Baptism Matter?” http://day1.org/4406-does_baptism_matter. ↩︎