Witness Protection Program
Witness Protection Program
Adapted from the baccalaureate sermon preached on May 18 at Columbia Presbyterian Church
But now thus says the Lord,
the One who created you,
O Jacob, the One who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Did you notice them? The small, magic signal words, “But now…”? Like the beginning of a good detective movie, those two words almost demand a swirly flashback cutaway shot so that we have an idea of the value of the story being told in this passage. It is like “Amazing Grace . . . I once was lost, But now am found.” The past modifies and emphasizes the present. It doesn’t matter that you are found if you haven’t been lost. You have no choice but to look at the “before” so that you can fully appreciate the “now.” So what was going on with the people of God in this story, before the “but now”?
What are the people of God always doing that causes God such aggravation? What is the primary narrative that is repeated over and over again in the Old Testament? Yes, they were being blind and deaf to God, disobedient and chasing after golden calves of one form or another. So here in the preview section, the place of before, God lets loose with furious, righteous anger.
But now! “But now thus says the Lord . . . ” God is telling us that, in this present, God chooses to claim us as handmade works of art, each one signed by the creator. God calls each of us by name and reminds us that it is God who does the saving, past, present, and future.
While all of us here can testify to the saving God has done in our past, we might be a bit sketchy on the saving God will do in the future. So just to be sure we know what types of situations God is promising to redeem us from, they are spelled out for us.
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.
Did you notice the little words again? It did not say
“if you pass through….” It said “When.” What all of us have signed up for, whether in our baptism or pastoral vocation, is a ministry, a life, which summons us into the deep water and calls us to be fire walkers.
You don’t notice at first. The waters start small, just ankle deep, just the small trickle of hardship and sadness from a few members of the community, but you can handle it. You’ve got good boots. You are theologically trained after all. You can put on the waders of biblical interpretation and the raincoat of pastoral care. But before you know it, you come near to drowning in the suffering and misery you see in the congregation, and then in the world, and sometimes even inside yourself. You are waterlogged with sorrow. You might even begin to feel adrift on the waves of minutiae, and Lord help you if you have to paddle your way through another meeting of any kind. As the tide seems to swallow you, remember the promise God offers us in this word:
Fear not, I have called you by name, you are mine. I will be with you.
Climb into God’s lifeboat and remember it’s not all up to you. You have a Savior who knows your name, stills the storm, and grants you safe passage.
If the floods don’t come for you the fires will. The fires are real, burning so hot in you and at you that at times you begin to radiate the heat yourself. You will have fury at the injustice, the apathy, the ignorance both of the people of God and those who reject the one we call Messiah. You will blister with the pain of being hated for being female, gay, intellectual, young, Yankee, Southern, white male, liberal, evangelical, old, divorced, emotional, stoic, mystic or missionary . . . .
When you feel the fire and are tempted to take up that weapon, remember the voice of the one who calls us by name and recall the promise that is for each of us. Beneath clamoring of voices in the heat of battle is the voice of the prince of peace speaking to each one of us saying
You are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you AND
They are precious in my sight, and honored,
and I love THEM too.
While there are many excellent causes and even more worthy opportunities and tasks at which to set our hands, there is actually only One Voice worth listening to and one job description for every single one of us here no matter where you go and what you do from here on. You can pastor a tall steeple, or teach youth at Mo Ranch. You can sell real estate, or run a Cokesbury Bookstore. You can get a Ph.D. in Ugaritic, write books, run vacation Bible school, chaplain an ER, open a soup kitchen, start a band, go to Haiti, or retire in Montreat. But no matter what you do God has given us all one common task and one task only:
You are my witnesses, says the Lord.
And this is the part that is harder than floods and fires. We’ve got to testify to what we’ve seen, and heard, and believe of God. The world, while starving for this good news, is also broken and bitter and rejecting of the hope that is offered because the cost is high. Share the good news with the world anyway, for God has called us to be witnesses.
It will seem like foolishness, this witnessing to the power and grace of God. It makes us seem odd and sets us apart from many folks in the world, but we’re in this deep now, we have left our old lives behind. This is the next page of our new identity as witnesses to the kingdom, and Isaiah has clearly outlined the witness protection program.
Fear not, I have called you by name, you are mine.
You are precious in my sight and honored,
and I love you.
We are called out from this place with a new name and a fresh purpose. At times we will feel like fools for holding fast to this truth we know and for testifying to the Light as though it were real and gives our lives meaning. When that season of unease comes, do not be afraid to witness to what you have seen and heard and known of God. Instead, listen deeply and hear the voice of the One who has anointed each of us with the Holy Spirit and calls us the beloved. Hear the whispers from the prophet; empowering us to be God’s witness, afraid of nothing because we are hidden in Christ. On this threshold, no matter where you go from here, take this love letter and identity marker with you wherever you travel:
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
and my servants whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am God.
I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior.
Liz Forney served as associate director of the Certificate in Spiritual Formation program from 2001 until 2005 when she was called to be parish associate for evangelism and nurture at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta. This summer, she and her family moved to Clarksville, TN, where her husband, David, formerly associate dean of faculty,
is now pastor of First Presbyterian Church.