Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 43: 1-7)

There is a minister sitting in his study one day, working on Sunday’s sermon, when he hears a knock at his door.  He looks up to see a strange man standing in the doorway.  The man is in his 60’s and looks rather worn from the journey.  His beard is unkempt and his eyes hollow.  His whole body is clenched tight.  Not sure what awaits, the pastor invites him in to take a seat.

The man barely sits down before the words stumble out of his mouth: Pastor, just tell me, what happened to the steeple!  There’s an edge to his voice, as if there’s some great need in having this matter addressed as soon as possible.

The pastor, a little caught off guard, collects himself and explains.  The church is undergoing some building renovations, one of which is the tall steeple above the sanctuary.  It’s being cleaned and will be put back up by month’s end.   It had only been down since earlier that morning.

The pastor senses there’s more going on here than an inquisitive community member inquiring about a church steeple, so he asks the visitor where he’s from and he responds without hesitation: I’m from exile, pastorExile.  The pastor asks what he means by that.  And that is when the man shares his story.

He is an Iraqi War vet, and all these years later he still suffers from the trauma of war.  He often wonders why he survived, and sometimes even wishes that he hadn’t.  Upon returning home, he just could not adjust back to life as it was for him before, so he decided to “get away from it all” and try to heal his wounded soul on his own.  So with the little money he had, he bought some remote land out in the county with a shack of a house on a slight hill.  From his bedroom window he could see the city skyline miles away, which is exactly the way he wanted it.  It served as a symbol of the distance he longed to put between himself and the rest of the world, where he could deal with his anguish and pain in solitude.  For over a decade he rarely left home for the city except to grab groceries and make occasional visits to the VA.

It’s appropriate that this man described himself as being from exile, for that is exactly where he was from.   That perpetual state of disconnect and drift.  That sense of wondering if you’ll ever truly belong somewhere.  That uncertainty that anyone who cares; that fear that you very well may not be able to make it through.  Exile is painful for all these reasons and more.

Exile is the backdrop of our scripture this morning.  There are two seminal moments in the history of God’s people as recounted in our Old Testament – there is Exodus and there is Exile.  The former, the story of the Hebrews’ 40-year journey in the wilderness as God led them to their new home.  The latter, the devastation that followed the destruction of Jerusalem and the people’s life in Babylonian captivity.  Exile.  It was more than a bad case of homesickness.  The land Israel was, for God’s people, their spiritual foundation and center.  And being removed from their land threw into question everything they believed about themselves and their God. All those years in Babylonian exile for God’s people were more than a national crisis.  It was a spiritual crisis.

And into that spiritual crisis, the prophet Isaiah speaks.  The same prophet who earlier had warned the people of what was coming.  39 chapters worth of warnings.  And then, beginning at the 40th chapter, a notable shift.   A shift from condemnation to compassion.  From judgment to mercy.  Isaiah spoke right into their disconnect, right into that sense of not belonging, right into that uncertainty of not being able to make it and offered a new word – a radically different word – that gave the people something they desperately needed: hope.

Now the prophet does this, as prophets do, through evocative language that lifts up images familiar to God’s people – images of creation and forming, the actual Hebrew words lifted straight from the stories of Genesis.  “Passing through the waters” – harking back to that initial seminal moment when the parted waters of the Red Sea led the people to their freedom from Egyptian tyranny.  Isaiah 43 is poetry, beautiful poetry; and both prophets and poetry rely on images and symbols to convey meaning that touches some deep part of the human soul that otherwise is hard to reach.

But for all of the symbolism and imagery the prophet employs, for all the evocative language that reaches deep within, the thing that strikes us most about our passage today is the “straight talk” from God to God’s people, from Creator to creature.  The prophet’s job is always as an intermediary, nothing more than passing on words from God to the people.  But here, the prophet’s presence is paper thin.  God speaks with a directness and a level of intimacy that cannot go unnoticed.  This is a personal God we find in Isaiah 43; a God who cuts to the chase and makes four essential promises to the people in exile; four promises that will carry God’s people through it all:

Do not fear.
I am with you.
I will lead you through this.
I love you.

The first of those four – do not fear.  Words spoken some sixty times in the entire Bible. To the Hebrews as the waters of the Red Sea prepared to part.  To Mary as an angel shared shocking news.  To the disciples in the boat as the storm raged.  To the faithful gathered in one place when the Holy Spirit made her debut.  Throughout the entire story of God and God’s people, in every instance when their well-being and future was called into question, the message – the very first message – is crystal clear: Do. Not. Fear.  Like a loving parent who senses unease in their child and wants to reassure in uncertain circumstances: do not fear.

And why should they not be afraid?  We find that answer in the second promise: I am with you.  I have called you by name, God tells the people.  You are mine.  I am with you.

Noted preacher Fred Craddock tells the lovely story I’ve shared before of a man who grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains outside Gatlinburg Tennessee; how he grew up as a young boy without a father and how he always wore the stigma of that everywhere he went; how residents in his small town would look at him with a mix of scorn and pity, and how he never really felt like he belonged anywhere or to anyone.  He attended a tiny church around the corner from his home, and while he was fascinated by the strong presence of the preacher on Sunday mornings, he felt shame creep in, a shame that told him he didn’t belong there because he didn’t know who he was.  So he would go for the sermon and slip out before the service ended.

Except for one Sunday morning when the aisle was blocked by worshippers enthusiastically praising the Lord; and as he was trying to press his way through he felt a hand on his shoulder.  He looked out of the corner of his eye and saw that the hand belonged to none other than the preacher himself.  The boy was scared to death.  The preacher said to him, “Son, I’ve been meaning to ask, whose child are you?  Whose child are you?”  It was the most terrifying thing he could’ve asked.  The boy couldn’t bring himself to say anything, he was so scared.

And that’s when a look of recognition washed over the preacher’s face.  “Oh, I know!  I know whose child you are!  You, my friend, are a child or God.  Yes indeed, I see a striking resemblance!”  The preacher patted him on his head.  Years later, that boy, now a man, would remark how he left church that day a different person because he knew whose he was and who was with him.[1]

Do not fear.  I am with you.  And the third promise: I will lead you through this.  To know that the one who tells us we have nothing to be afraid of, the one who is with us through it all, is also the one who will see us through it – that is the reassurance we need in exile.

You recall that man from exile sitting in the pastor’s study and the question he asked when he first arrived – where was the steeple.  The pastor asked him why that steeple was so important to him.  And the man told him that every morning for over ten years, as he sequestered himself in that tiny house on the hill, looking at the city off in the distance; as he was reminded of all he was trying to get away from, there was one thing in the city that captivated his attention, one thing he looked for day after day after day.  Every morning for a solid decade, after sleepless, often nightmare-filled nights, this man would wake before dawn and gaze out his window to a darkened city skyline, and his tortured soul would feel its pain and suffering.

And then, in the light of early dawn, his eyes would find in that skyline a church steeple on top of which rested a cross.  The first morning sunlight would hit that cross and the glare would cut across the city skyline right to him, right into his soul.  The cross was always there – winter, spring, summer, fall; on his bad days and his really bad days, it was there.  Day after day, that cross reminded him that there was someone else who knew exactly how he felt, someone who understood the depth of his pain, someone who could see him through.  And knowing all of that gave him enough to head into his day.

Do not fear.  I am with you.  I will lead you through this.  And the fourth promise – I love you.  A few years ago a nationwide poll asked participants what word or phrase they most wanted to hear someone say to them, sincerely.  The third most popular answer: Supper is ready.  The second: You are forgiven.  And the first, the phrase people most wanted to hear someone say  to them, sincerely, is “I love you.”[2]

Now it goes without saying that the foundation of our entire faith is God’s love for us.  God’s love is what led God to bring order to the chaos and orchestrate creation in the first place. God’s love is what compelled God to claim a people as God’s own.  God’s love is what led God time and time again to walk alongside those people, finicky and imperfect as they were.  And God’s love is what we find at the very heart of Jesus himself.

But of the 750,000 words in our Bible, only here in this passage do we find God quoted as saying the three we most long to hear spoken to us, sincerely: I love you.  It is as intimate and emotional as it is plain as day: the God of the universe coming to God’s people in their time of exile and telling them, above everything else, that God loves them.

Beloved, there is a reason this passage from Isaiah’s 43rd chapter is our passage today.  There is a reason this word is our word on this fourth Sunday of Lent, on this 372nd day of a pandemic, on this seventh day after yet another racially-motivated shooting in our nation.  And that reason is that God’s word to God’s people in exile some 2500 years ago is still God’s word for you and me in this moment.  For all that we’ve been through and are still going through, for all the uncertainties and frustrations of life in a pandemic, for the loss of normal life and the staggering loss of life, for how tired this is making us and how old this is getting, God says to us:

Do not fear.
I am with you.
I will lead you through this.
I love you.

For our Asian American Pacific Islander sisters and brothers who are grappling with the terror of AAPI hate.  For all people of color living in the exile of white supremacy culture.  For our LGBTQIA siblings who know that same exile far too well.  And for the rest of us trying to figure out what in the world we do with all of this and how we muster the courage to do better and be better – we hear the God of the universe saying to us:

Do not fear.
I am with you.
I will lead you through this.
I love you.

Hold on to those words God is saying to you.  And pray with me the prayer that noted author and Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber lifted up this past week:

Dear God who made us all,
A year ago we did not know that we were about to learn:
what we could lose and somehow live anyway;
And now, God, it feels like the world is about to open back up.
And I’m both thrilled and kind of scared.
Because I’m not who I was a year ago.
I am so afraid that I will never be who I once was.
And I am also afraid that I will be.
And yet, when I quiet my anxious thoughts,
I start to suspect that I am now
Closer to the me you have always known and have always loved.[3]

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

[1] Craddock Stories by Fred. B. Craddock (Chalice Press: St. Louis, 2001), pg. 156-157.

[2] James A. Harnish, “Walking With Jesus: Forgiveness,” Tampa, Fla., March 22, 1998.