Thus says the Lord,
He who created you, O Jacob,
He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, 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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Speaking to His very own people as they suffered as exiles in Babylon, Yahweh offered words of comfort and assurance through the Prophet Isaiah. (40:1ff)
Why are they suffering in a foreign and pagan land? Because of their own transgressions. Simply put, they broke their covenant with Yahweh, though they had unmistakably known the consequences: expulsion from His land and suffering by His hand.
A prayer of confession our congregation uses in our liturgy for Holy Communion comes to mind:
Almighty and ever-merciful Father: We have gone wrong and have strayed from Your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the ways and wants of our own hearts, and we have broken Your covenant. We have failed to do what we ought to have done, and we have done things we ought not to have done. O Lord, have mercy on us.
Has COVID-19 been sent to us by the hand of God as judgment for our sins? Who knows really? My suspicion: No; such suffering is simply part of living in a fallen world.
What we do know, though, is what Yahweh said to His people as they endured suffering, even when it was the result of His judgment. (By the way, I don’t doubt for a minute that there were plenty of Judeans living in Babylon because of the foolish actions of their brothers and sisters. Our lives, even our sins, are unmistakably interwoven, so our actions and choices always have a way of affecting others, even others who themselves have nothing to do with what we have done or decided. Just think of the fact that many of us have been ordered to not leave our homes or spend any time with our friends because of what others have done or decided.)
Over and over again, Yahweh tells His people through the Prophet Isaiah, “Fear not.” Why? Because there is indeed much to fear! There’s water to pass through; there are rivers to cross! Fire and flames abound! Yet He calls them to trust Him in the midst of all that can reasonably bring fear, and He bases that opportunity to trust Him on three claims:
“I have redeemed You.” The God who formed us and created us is the God who redeems us. He rescues. He goes to the greatest of possible lengths to bring us back to Himself. He always does; it’s in His nature (N.B. “For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”). I trust that this Sunday— Palm Sunday— the lengths to which our God will go might become abundantly clearer to us. Though we feel alone and are isolated, know this: you are not alone, for our God comes to us to rescue us. He does not stay away.
“I have called you by name.” He who formed, created, and redeems us knows who we are. He knows everything about us, and He calls out to us by our very names. Rest assured— you might feel alone, and you might even feel like no one else understands, but He knows, and He cares. He calls you by name because He knows you— intimately and personally.
“You are Mine.” You belong to Him— by right and by redemption. You are His, and as His, you are His responsibility. Your problems are His problems, and He willingly takes them onto Himself, even into Himself. Every year, the Palms that adorn our worship on Palm Sunday are dried and then burned to become the soot of Ash Wednesday. If that Wednesday is a poignant reminder of our frailty and mortality, this Sunday is a fortunate reminder that our God, in Christ, has not stood aside as we suffer; no, He Himself has stepped into our suffering and has taken it into Himself. Why? Because we’re His.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your King is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is He,
humble and mounted on a donkey—
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Fear not. The King is coming.