That is not news. But I looked up some numbers last week. According to a website that combines information from over 80 pollsters (http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/us-right-direction-wrong-track), roughly 65% of the American people believe our country is headed in the wrong direction.
That is a discouraging number. Two-thirds of the American people foresee a bleak future, or at least a future that they think is likely to be worse than the present. And, of course, those sixty-five percent do not agree on what would make things better.
As I look ahead, I see reasons for fear and also reasons for hope. My guess is that the future will be better in some ways and for some people and worse in other ways and for other people. That is how it normally goes.
But what none of us can know is whether the future will be better or worse in the ways that matter to us and to the people who are most important to us. So we live in anxious times and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
And fear about the future can be a self-fulfilling prophecy since anxiety tends to bring out the worst in all of us.
But challenging times can also bring out the best in people as long as we can manage our anxiety, as long as we refuse to be controlled by our anxiety.
There is nothing new about any of this. God’s people have always faced challenges. And God’s people have always had a choice about how to respond to those challenges.
Can they work for the common good, be the best that they can be, trust that God will get them through? Or will they rely on their own strength, fight for their individual interests rather than the common good, assume that anyone different is necessarily a threat?
In our Old Testament reading, the people of ancient Judah are at that crossroads. The Babylonian Empire has conquered the kingdom, destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem, overthrown the Davidic monarchy, and taken the leading citizens into exile. If any people ever had reason to despair, it was this people.
Enter the prophet with a message from God.
“Do not fear,” says God. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” says God. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” says God. Again, “Do not fear, for I am with you,” says God.
Think what that must have meant to a people in exile, a people who have lost everything, a people who have no earthly reason for hope and every earthly reason for despair.
And it worked. The people got the message. Secure in the knowledge of God’s love, those poor refugees held onto their faith. They held onto each other. And, eventually, God brought them home.
Fast forward five hundred years. Romans control the land of Israel and enforce their control with whatever brutality is necessary. How will God’s people respond to foreign domination? Should they fight back? Should they give up in despair? Should they align themselves with the Romans?
In that moment, Jesus of Nazareth presents himself for baptism by his cousin John. And “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,” repeating a version of the message of Isaiah so many centuries before. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And with that, secure in the knowledge of God’s love, Jesus embarks on his ministry, proclaiming the good news of God’s love to all people, calling all people to trust in God’s grace, inviting all people to experience unity in God’s name.
And people gather around Christ because from him they can hear the words of eternal life, word of God’s love, words that give them hope, words that enable them to live as God’s people even when it is hard.
Fast forward another decade or so. Jesus has been crucified. Jesus’ followers are being persecuted. Most flee from their homes in Jerusalem.
It is the same thing all over again. Must they give up on Christ because the road is too hard? Or should they remain loyal to Christ himself but give up on a hostile world? Should they turn inward, play it safe, avoid the strangers all around them?
Amazingly, it is at that moment of persecution and loss that the gospel takes a dramatic leap forward. Secure in the knowledge of God’s love, that first generation of Christians stepped out in faith. When they find themselves in Samaria among the hated Samaritans, they share the gospel with them. They reach out in love to a group that they have historically hated.
And, as Acts reports, the Samaritans respond with faith. Peter and John lay hands on them. And the Holy Spirit descends, as the Holy Spirit did with Jesus. The Bible does not say anything about a voice from heaven this time. But the Samaritans learn that they too are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased.
Now fast forward all the way to the present and our options in our anxious time. How will we live?
The Holy Spirit is not descending upon us in bodily form like a dove.
But God is here. We worship Immanuel, God with us. We have Christ’s promise that whenever we gather in his name, He is with us. We have Paul’s assurance that the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us.
We are not likely to hear a voice from heaven.
But God speaks to us through Scripture.
We can hear the words of Isaiah as addressed to us. God calls us by name. We are precious in God’s sight. We are honored in God’s sight. God loves us.
We can hear the words in Luke as addressed to us. We are God’s children. We are beloved. With us, God is well-pleased.
Our challenges are certainly real. Our anxiety can still sometimes paralyze us. Most of us feel keenly—perhaps too keenly—that we are not the people God calls us to be.
But the good news of our readings for this morning is that we have a secure foundation. Christ is our foundation. God calls us beloved. God promises to be with us.
We are, at our deepest level, beloved children of God.
It is the task of a lifetime to live fully into our identity as beloved children of God.
But if ever we are inclined to despair, if ever fear threatens to bring out the worst in us as individuals or as a people, if ever guilt and shame threaten to paralyze us, then we can come back to our readings for this morning. We can hear once again the words of Isaiah about God’s love and God’s promise.
And then, a bit more secure in God’s love, we can let go at least a little of our fear or our guilt or our shame. We can know and we can show a little bit more of God’s love. We can rest a little more easily in faith and hope. We can know ourselves to be the people we are in God’s eyes—beloved, forgiven, and redeemed.
And so, on this feast of the baptism of our Lord, I give thanks to God for the gift of baptism and for all that it represents—God’s love and God’s Spirit at work in our lives, reminding us that we are, and helping us to be, beloved children of God. Amen.
Passage: Isaiah 43:1-7