A couple of months ago, I sent a present to a couple I know whose had just become parents. It was a very fine work of art, an original by a local artist, featuring a well-known Bible verse from Isaiah 43 -- "I have called you by your name; you are mine." I had inserted the name of their son in the middle of the verse, so it read like this: "I have called you by your name, Owen Oliver, you are mine."
Seems like a perfect verse for a baptism, doesn't it?
You just have to conveniently lift that one verse from Isaiah out of its context and you get a great sentiment: God calls us by our name at our baptism; we belong to God. God holds us in the palm of his hands. I could go on and on. It's a great verse. At my first church, we even had a big banner commissioned with this verse printed on it; in felt letters, we personalized the banner for every baptism: "I have called you by name -- Alicia, Daniel, Mary, Madison...... you are mine."
Yes, this verse seems perfect for a baptism, and it is, conveniently, the first lesson for The Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, but really, the words originally had nothing to do with baptism.
Also, there is the verse immediately following:
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.
Can it be true? What is the Lord promising here? To pass through the waters sounds a lot like the Israelites' first Great Escape, the Exodus from the land of slavery to the land of freedom. But what about the second promise? "when you walk through fire..... the flame shall not consume you."
On our last night in Mexico, we went out in the dark and windy night to stand by the sea to watch what they called a "Fire Show." We didn't know what a "Fire Show" could possibly be, but who is not fascinated by fire? So we stood there, folding our arms across our chests, and watching, listening to the drums beating insistently, and watching as men and women made intricate designs by juggling with fire. The fire made circles and lines and hula hoops around them, but they were not consumed. We were in awe of them, because of their agility, their skill, and because they were not afraid.
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you," says the Lord.
Do not fear.
Do not fear the fire, or the water, or the chemotherapy. Do not fear the scorn of others, do not fear poverty, or wealth, or prejudice, or oppression. Do not fear. I will be with you. The rivers willl not overwhelm you.
I see the woman with her chemo cap, or the man who has been out of work for months, or the family who is coming apart, or the woman who's been banging on the door of the state legislature, or the man who needs medical assistance, but he's been cut off. And I think, how can I say, "the rivers will not overwhelm you"? how can I say, "you will not be burned"? Sometimes I can see the burn marks. Sometimes I can see the scars.
But there it is, I can also see: the rings of flame, the hula hoops, the figure eights dancing while the crowd gasps at the beauty and the danger.
Do not be afraid, they say. You were meant to fly, to soar, to walk through the water, through the flames: to be free.
I have redeemed you, he promises.
And somehow, somehow, it all has to do with the One who went down into the water, the one called Beloved Child. God knew him by name, and yet he was overwhelmed, he was burned. I can see the scars.
First, he walked into the water. That was the beginning.