I preached on Isaiah 43 for the Baptism of Our Lord this weekend, rejoicing in and struggling with the words of promise there:
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.
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.
I have to tell you, that as I read, really read these words that I have loved for many years, it felt like I was hearing some of them for the first time. And when I read the words When you walk through fire.... the flame shall not consume you, the word that came to my mind was Auschwitz.
What does this promise mean in the face of the ovens of Auschwitz? Auschwitz seems to mock every promise that God is making the exiles in Babylon. So many people were consumed in the ovens there, and in many god-forsaken places.
And then I thought: wait a minute. Notice who God is speaking to. God is speaking not to individuals, but to Israel, to Jacob. He's not promising the survival of any individual person (at least not in this text), but he's promising the survival of the people, of the nation, of Israel. It's as if God is saying, even if you incinerate 6 million people, you cannot destroy Israel, you cannot destroy my chosen people. Or, if we want to hear this promise in a Christian context, no matter how many Christians are martyred, you can never destroy the Church, because the Church has a purpose in the world.
Now don't get me wrong, I do believe in individual salvation, and that God cares for our individual lives, preservation, and our eternal life with God. But I also think maybe, maybe, there is something bigger than going on here, something bigger than the Evangelical catch-phrase, "Even if you were the only person on earth, Jesus still would have died for you." Yes, our individual lives are important, but it's also true that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, a mission greater than each one of our lives.
Baptism is that way, too. When we are baptized we are joined to Christ, and we are joined to his people too. We become a part of this great mission of mercy, this great mission of reconciliation. We receive the promise of life, salvation and forgiveness of sins -- but we receive this promise as a part of a community, and we are resurrected as a part of a community as well. The reign of God is a community -- a beloved community.
And Isaiah is saying: You can kill us, but you cannot kill this beloved community, you cannot kill this chosen people, because God wants it to exist.