"When you pass through the waters, I am with you; the rivers will never overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you will not be burned; no flame will devour you" (43:2). Isaiah here turns to Israel's sacred history to buoy the sagging spirits of the exiles. All will remember the great moments when the ancestors "passed through waters," both at the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14) and the waters of the Jordan, the boundary of the land of promise (Josh. 3). All will recall the various experiences of fire in the history of the people; Moses' fiery bush (Ex. 3), the blazing Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19), the fire falling on the sacrifice of Elijah (1 Kg. 18). In all these storied moments, YHWH was present for the people; YHWH has never deserted them, no matter the dangers they have faced, and YHWH is present now with them in exile.
"For I am YHWH, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer. I gave Egypt for a ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, honored, and loved by me, I gave people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life" (43:3-4). Again Isaiah offers a history lesson to the despairing exiles. You know that I am YHWH because of what I have done already in your lives. I saved you from Egypt and gave to you the land of promise, subduing peoples and nations before you so that you could live in that land. If I have done it in the past, do you not think that I can do it again?
Again, Isaiah hears God say, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you!" And how does Israel, and how do we, know that God is with us? Because God, as always, is in the business of gathering the peoples together. From the north, south, east, and west YHWH will gather sons and daughters together, "everyone called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made" (43:7). Though it is clear that Isaiah is offering quite specific hope to Babylonian exiles who feel far from this portrait of a great gathering of God's people back into the land of promise, we 21st-century people also hope for a great gathering of God's peoples, a vast sea of people dedicated to justice and righteousness for all, "everyone whom God has formed and made." In short, everyone, period.
Just as my wife heard and felt the comfort of these words in her bed of pain, so the exiles of Babylon heard and felt the hope of the words, too. And why should we not feel a similar hope and comfort in our own time of pain and difficulty and uncertainty? Do we too not need to hear God say to us, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you"? In this time of Epiphany, when the light has come again into our world, may we hear the words of the ancient prophet, "Fear not, all those whom I formed and made," for the future with God remains bathed in light, a light no darkness can ever overcome.