“A Demanding Redemption”
Isaiah 43:1-7 Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
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. 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.” (NRSV)
Matthew 2:1-12, 16-18
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (NRSV)
When Yahweh says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,” let’s remember that this news comes to a people who are still in Babylon. Their outward reality doesn’t match the pronouncement of the prophet who says that God has already redeemed the people.
On top of that, not all Hebrews consider themselves captives. While some are ready to return to the land of their ancestors, plenty of Hebrews are ambivalent at best. At least three generations have been born in Babylon, and since Babylon has been a relatively tolerant captor, going to Jerusalem will be, for some Hebrews, leaving home, not returning home.
I have to imagine that Isaiah’s announcement, instead of drawing the people into hopeful celebration, throws them into turmoil because redemption can be a frightening thing. Indeed, when Yahweh says Don’t fear, many Israelites are terrified because deliverance from captivity means deliverance to a much more spacious and open-ended life.
It reminds me of a character in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” An elderly inmate named Brooks learns that he has made parole, but after having spent his entire adult life in prison, prison life is the only life he knows. It’s the only life he can handle. So, when Brooks learns that he’s about to be released, he grabs a friend and threatens to murder him. Others talk him down, but for the old man, freedom looms as the ultimate prison. So, after his parole, Brooks, released but not really redeemed, checks into a halfway house and immediately hangs himself.
I sometimes think that “traditional Christianity” is hanging itself. The customary affirmations proclaim that by God’s amazing grace, we’re being “freed from our sins.” But the church’s response to this good news, and very often its manner of sharing it, conveys more incarcerating fear than redeeming grace. Fearing rather than loving God, the church often mistakes doctrinal correctness for faith. And honestly, since Constantine, the church has been defined more by its association with political and military power than by Christlike generosity and justice. Desiring more in the way of comfort and security, many followers choose the life-diminishing safety of rigid dogma over the true freedom of servant-hearted discipleship.
Now, doctrine is good insofar as it helps us to talk faithfully about God; but statements about God are not God. Making theological arguments about the Holy Spirit isn’t the same as the awareness of God’s breath stirring in our own breath. Writing a dissertation on the Incarnation isn’t the same as recognizing God’s face in the face of a stranger. We experience God’s life and liveliness most fully in the realm of silence, awe, and service.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,” says God. Babylon cannot hold you. Water cannot drown you. Fire cannot consume you. These statements ring hollow when we try to reduce them to dogmatic certainties. But Isaiah invites us into that spacious, feral, demanding homeland called redemption.
Old Testament professor Kathleen O’Connor says that Isaiah’s words, “I have redeemed you,” hearken back to Leviticus 25: “If resident aliens among you prosper, and if any of your kin fall into difficulty with one of them and sell themselves to an alien…anyone of their family who is of their own flesh may redeem them.” (From Lev. 25:47-49)
Redemption is the responsibility of family. Isaiah is making an extraordinary connection here. He says that in redeeming Israel, Yahweh, the Creator of the universe, claims them as family, as next-of-kin. To hear God lay claim to Israel as family prepares us for a similar scandal when God makes it even more specific, when God says to one person, Jesus of Nazareth, ‘YOU are my son.’
Jesus teaches us that the faithful response to God’s grace, is simply to live in the radical and redeeming freedom of God’s love, to live as ones not only blessed, but blessed to be blessings, and that means learning to let God’s love flow through us for the sake of others.
“Most of us,” says Richard Rohr, “were taught that God would love us if and when we change. [When in] fact, God loves [us] so that [we] can change. What empowers change, what makes [us] desirous of change, is the experience of love and acceptance itself.”
Not all acceptance is created equal. Herod welcomes the Magi, but his hospitality is self-serving. In fear, he opens his door to these aliens, but only to use them. He says he wants to worship the new king, when his desire is to destroy him. At great risk to themselves, the Magi defy Herod, who, being so terrified of losing power, sends his followers out to kill every male child two years old and under. Rich and powerful, Herod may have looked free, but his actions were those of someone enslaved to the lords of wealth and dominance.
Right now, much of humankind, and certainly we in our nation, languish in what feels like Isaiah’s deep waters, storm-swollen rivers, and raging fires. And present anxieties have unsettled most of us. Doctrine and experience, however, tell me that God, as the Alpha and Omega, sees into a future of God’s own making. So, I do believe, more importantly I trust, that God sees that, come what may, Love wins. Love overcomes. Because love, and only love redeems.
So, wherever voices encourage resentment, division, and violence, followers of Jesus are to live as bold and defiant reminders of God’s redeeming grace. We are to speak a new language. And while Jesus calls us to challenge selfishness, greed, racism, sexism, indifference to suffering, our speech is not only the words we say but the ways we live. Jesus-followers live differently intentionally. Knowing that our hearts and lives belong to the one who has redeemed us, we hear but do not heed the voices that ignore justice, grasp for power, and demand violence.
Instead, we hear God say, “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.” That is our call: To follow Jesus into the waters of baptism where everyone is redeemed and claimed as members of God’s family.
It can be dangerous to defy the Herods of the world. So threatened are they by God’s grace and justice that, for their own benefit, they will act as if they are humble servants. They will deceive people of faith. And to preserve their power, they will commit unspeakable brutality against their own people. Isaiah reminds us, though, that come what may, we need not fear. The outcome of the struggle has been decided: By the grace of God, we have already been redeemed.
Isaiah and Jesus challenge us to embrace and celebrate our God-given redemption. So, let us do so. Let us live joyfully and hopefully in the only true and lasting freedom—the freedom to love as we are loved, the freedom to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, the freedom of the family of God.