When I was in college, I struggled a lot with depression. It impacted my studies; I just felt really overwhelmed sometimes, and then I felt guilty because I wasn’t getting all the things done that I was supposed to be doing, including my coursework. I would know things had gotten really bad when I started actively avoiding my advisor. She was a lovely woman whom I admired very much – but when I was falling behind, I just couldn’t bear to bring myself to go talk to her, especially because I was usually doing particularly badly in her classes. I knew I should be doing better and I knew that she expected more from me – and I was just so afraid that she would think less of me.
But then something would happen: I would run into her unexpectedly or I would be required to schedule a meeting with my advisor for some reason, so I would see her. She’d call me into her office and every time, I braced myself, expecting to get a well-deserved chewing out or, worse, that she would just look at me with profound disappointment. But instead, each time, she was unfailingly kind and understanding. She listened to me and heard my feelings of anxiety and worthlessness and guilt and she helped me make a workable plan to get through the rest of the semester. She reminded me that I was more than the work I did or didn’t get done. I always left those meetings with her feeling better and freer, feeling like I’d gotten another chance to try again.
I was thinking about my advisor and about all these feelings as I was reading our first reading for this week. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah is writing to the people of Israel who have been exiled in Babylon. Isaiah’s people understood their situation as a punishment for their faithless behavior. Ancient Israel had kind of a rocky, on-again-off-again relationship with God, and they knew that they had blown it on numerous occasions. In fact, just before the passage we read today, Isaiah does take them to task a little bit for their lack of faith and their eagerness to chase after other gods. So I can easily imagine that they’re probably bracing themselves for some dire pronouncement of judgement – expecting to hear from Isaiah about God’s profound disappointment in them. But instead of harsh judgement, these words of grace come pouring forth:
Thus says the Lord who created you: 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 am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.
This is the grace that is at the heart of everything we believe: God responds to our failings and our faithlessness with unfailing love and mercy. Israel was a beaten down, conquered people who had repeatedly wandered away from their covenant with God, but God spoke reassurance to them and promised them a future full of hope. And likewise, when we stumble and sin and make mistakes, God forgives us and reminds us that we, too, are precious in God’s sight. But this text from Isaiah makes clear that grace isn’t something that humans have somehow earned from God. Grace is not about us – grace is about God and who God is. We receive grace and love from God because God is gracious and loving. We deserve saving because God decided we deserved creating in the first place – God’s love for us gives us value that no one can take away – we belong to God forever and always.
This is what we are promised in baptism. Baptism is a sign of what was true of us from the moment we were born: we are all God’s children, each of us part of God’s beloved creation. God has claimed us and made us God’s own. And in baptism we are further made God’s own by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ – God’s grace made flesh.
Grace is a gift that has been freely given to us. But at the same time, that does not mean that this grace is without cost. Grace can be a painful gift to accept, because accepting it means coming to terms with just how much we need it. Accepting grace means that we have to look at our own failings square in the face and admit that we are not capable of fixing things on our own. We are not able to fix ourselves on our own. It’s not really a coincidence that accepting God’s gift of grace is a lot like the first few steps of a 12-step program. We acknowledge our limits. We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. And we beg God to let us start over again, fresh and new.
And grace can be painful to accept because it means letting go of those things that keep us wandering away from God. This is also what happens in our baptism. In baptism, we are bound to Christ’s death, marked with the sign of his cross, and we are called to die to ourselves in order to live in him. In the waters of baptism, God drowns our sin and brokenness – or to use the language of our gospel reading, God winnows us and burns our chaff away – and raises us to new life in Christ. And baptism is a river that flows throughout our whole lives. We are cleansed from sin not just once, but daily, hourly. Through those waters, we are given a new chance again and again to die and to rise, to live more and more into being the people God created us to be.
So today, this week, if you feel yourself passing through waters that threaten to overwhelm you, do not be afraid. If you feel worn out or anxious or hopeless or worthless, remember that the promise God made to you in baptism is as fresh today as it was the day water was first sprinkled over you: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”