First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I am going to declare a position of great controversy today, and declare that I loved Russell Crowe, as Javert the honorable policeman, in Les Miserables, the cinema movie. It is true that he does not have that rich baritone I usually love in that role, but I do think he was perfect for his part. In cinema, unlike in theatre, we can get up close and personal with the pathos and agony of a character, not to mention Russell Crowe's ability to give a brooding side glare. No one can brood like Russell Crowe. In the cinema, unlike in the theatre, we were right there in Javert's face. He got personal.
Today's Isaiah reading puts us right front and center, up close to God's face, so that God can whisper his eternal love and care for us. God will do anything for God's chosen people. God names us, giving us identity, and value. We are not just a people upon the earth- we are claimed as God's own forever. The people are the ones asking the question of "Who am I? What makes me worthy? Where do I belong?" We don't hear those questions stated outright, though. We hear only God's answer: "You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you." God declares he will give the earth's most precious things in exchange for us, for we are the most valuable thing in all God's creation. God would give up everything to secure our safety and happiness. Today, God gets personal.
God makes a series of "I" statements, to establish a relationship through legal exchanges, on a cosmic scale. Remember, no one in this era used debit cards, which make money intangible and invisible, something that only we know we have. No, in this time, money was the hard denarii that you gave, or the wheat you brought in trade. Money was a firm, tangible exchange, and relationships as legal tender still existed. God offers very valuable things in exchange for us. If we were to seek an equivalent today, we'd be thinking in terms of money, so it's as if God said "I would give the winning Powerball ticket up for your happiness, I would give up my fine houses for your peace, I would give away my Ferraris for your sake." The countries God offers in the reading are powerful countries; God would give up any political alliance, any financial security. You are worth more than corporations or politics.
In the Isaiah passage, we see God's emotional side. God gets personal with us. God shows the softer side of his existence, laying bare God's own feelings for us. God yearns for us, desires us, wants us more than anything else. Think for a moment of the person you love most, and how much you might do for that person. Some of us have already lost that person whom we love most, and think for just a moment of that empty spot in your soul. That is the sort of love God bears for us, and that is the sort of longing he has for us. In fact, I'll give you some trivia. We talk a lot about gods love, here in the church, but this marks the only time that God actually states his love using that phrase- "you are precious to me, and I love you."
This means, then, that we are in fact the object of God’s greatest affection. We are the kin-dom of God. The part that makes it interesting for us now is very globalness of our community. God names us, giving us identity and value. Now this message was first given to the Israelite people, though today we understand that this message is for all God's people. How do we globalize this? We globalize this- we make this message for all people- because it is so very personal. God tells us individually of his love. I can't tell you how you respond to God's love- each of us decides what to do with being the recipients of that love individually.
I know it can be very hard to believe that we are actually beloved. Often, god does not seem personal at all, but distant, remote. God seems to be an abstract comment. Usually we can put a personal face on God with the person of Jesus, as if Christ were God's close up. Yet today, in this Isaiah, god takes a unique opportunity to proclaim I love you, in so many words, explicitly, clearly, and that god would give anything, pay anything, give up any valuable.
That is what God offers us today- a unique moment in scripture when God gets personal, and for once is starkly clear about exactly what he wants s to know. No parables, no metaphors, no prophets, no angelic messengers.
After a season of wider and mystery, of a miraculous baby born in a manger, of angels and visions, of a star in the sky leading mysterious wise people to a unique child, after a season of metaphor and prophecy, we come now to this. Maybe we've taken down the decorations and returned to our own regular life. Maybe we've put away the wrapping paper and packed up the glitter. And it is here, in the humdrum, cold days of January, that god gives us a clear, plain message. No smoke or mirrors. Just clarity, and love. You are gods beloved, and there is nothing more valuable in all existence than you, and you are precious in God's eyes. He says so, Godself.
Thanks be to God for that clarity and simplicity.