Summary: Because we are claimed by God, we can know that we are loved, even when it seems we are lost and alone.
A new student looks out on a sea of strange faces in the high school cafeteria, wondering where he should sit, which group he should join, how he will be received.
A woman walks down the hall in her empty house to look at her daughter’s bedroom. The bedroom contains pictures and souvenirs of childhood and high school, left behind when this youngest daughter set off for her first year of college. Now the mother wonders what lies ahead—not just for her daughter but for herself, suddenly alone, cut adrift.
An older man groans in his sick bed. Retirement from his successful law practice had not been that difficult. But now he has been felled by chronic illness that leaves him lethargic, with nothing to show for his days. He feels worthless.
A younger man drives toward his hometown. He has been away for two years in a minimum-security prison for misappropriating money at work. His time in prison has ended, but he wonders if the true penalty he must bear for his wrongdoing is a lifetime sentence.
Who am I? Where do I belong? What makes me worthy? These questions, which seem to plague us most especially in adolescence and young adulthood, never really go away. Whether voice them explicitly, whether we ponder them daily, or even if they only nag at our subconscious, we often look for the answers in the wrong places: in our roles, our work, our peer groups, or our accomplishments and acquisitions. Ultimately, though, as many of us are keenly aware, none of these can deliver what we need. What we need, according to the prophet Isaiah, is to hear how God gives us identity and value.
By the time Isaiah speaks these words we heard a few moments ago, he is talking to a people who are bloodied, battered, and bruised. Sure, they had been in waters that went over their heads and had been delivered; in fact, they had seen their enemies drown in the very waters that had saved them. They had stories of deliverance from fiery furnaces, and a pillar of fire was part of their redemption, leading them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. But now they were in exile. The Babylonians had conquered the Promised Land and destroyed the Temple. The Israelites had been exiled for hundreds of years; entire generations had grown up having never laid eyes on the Promised Land given to their people thousands of years before. As foretold by prophets before, the continual failure of the Israelites to follow their covenant with God had left them lost and hopeless, strangers in a foreign land. Before this passage, Isaiah, too, had words of judgment. But now, here, he has words of comfort and assurance.
As you can imagine, the years of exile have slowly squelched the hope of the Jewish people. They long ago began to doubt their own worthiness as God's chosen people, and now, it seems, they are beginning to lose faith that God will deliver them yet again. So Isaiah now brings words of encouragement to this community. The tender words of Isaiah 43 remind these exiles who they are and whose they are, despite their failures and sins. The central verse of this passage is also the center of the prophet's message here: "Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you. I give people in your place, and nations in exchange for your life."
Just imagine the hope that these words would renew among this discouraged band! They are feeling like nothing at this point. In fact, if the exiles were to take an honest look at themselves, they would see "a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women" standing on the margins of a hostile empire. But here, the prophet declares that this people have a new and different identity. They are not tiny or miserable or insignificant, and though they are uprooted, they are yet a people valued and honored by God.
"Do no fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." What is Israel's comfort and hope? They can find assurance in the simple fact that the one who made them has not turned away from them. Instead, God still claims Israel and holds on to them. Israel belongs to God as sheep belong to a shepherd. God is creator and birth mother for them. How could a mother forget her children? How could an inventor abandon his invention? Such thoughts are as absurd as thinking God could forget God's people. We are appalled when we learn that a parent has been abusive or neglectful. We balk at the notion. Isaiah now says we ought to also balk at the notion that God would abandon us.