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Through Water And Fire

Isaiah 43:1-7
"When you pass through the waters I will be with you...When you walk through fire...the flames will not consume you." The strong images of water and fire are suggestive, of course, but they are compelling only if they reflect some experience you have had with water and fire. I was talking about the image of water used by the prophet here to a student of mine. He reacted immediately because of the vivid memory he had of being thrown into a lake as a youngster unable to swim and the sheer terror of being overwhelmed by the waters. As for fire, my wife has experienced three fires in her lifetime. As a result she has an abiding horror of the terror of fire. And I can recall years ago seeing for the first time a farmhouse, barn and outbuildings burned to the ground on a pleasant summer afternoon. Up to that time I had thought fires were exciting. Never again. That fire was a frightful tragedy for that New Hampshire farmer and his family. All gone-leveled-wiped out-in little more than an hour.
For the Jewish exiles to whom this prophecy was addressed, water and fire were symbols of chaos and terror and death. Deep in their corporate consciousness the image of water meant chaos. For a landlocked people with no experience of the sea, the waters suggested the terror of the unknown. In the Genesis account of creation, the "waters covered the earth"-chaos covered the earth. Only as the land was separated from the waters did order come into the world. And early in their history it was the waters of the Red Sea which stood in their way to the Promised Land. And, as they saw it, it was God's miracle that the waters opened up for them to pass through and then closed in again to bring death to the hosts of Pharaoh pursuing them. "When you pass through the waters I will be with you...they shall not overwhelm you. "
And the fire. The image of fire suggested the fires, the burnings of war. You and I here in America are just plain lucky. Our grandparents or their parents knew something of the fires of war burning in this country. You and I see it only on TV at night. It's horrifying enough - the napalm, the bombings, the snipers, the booby-traps searing flesh, tearing through the bodies of men and women and even children, their ravaged bodies lying in a ditch by the side of the road. But it's not our flesh that is seared, our children maimed, our villages burned to the ground. To be sure I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those families whose husbands or brothers may still be facing the burning in Southeast Asia in a senseless war. But for the most part, the bodies burned beyond recognition are the bodies of strangers-strange Asians-and our hearts are not torn the way they should be.
But for the exiles, like the Vietnamese, the fires of war were part of their immediate experience. They knew what the prophet was talking about: "When you walk through fire..." They had taken that desperate walk more than once. Even now their beloved Jerusalem lay in ruins.
So-the waters and the fire speak with different accents. Both speak of chaos and death and destruction. But they speak with different accents.
"When you pass through the waters..." You and I are passing through the waters of chaos and meaninglessness and know something of what it is like. The loneliness of the adolescent whom nobody understands except his peers. The loneliness of the elderly, friends dying off or gone, a life-long love now forever ended, possibly facing the "twilight years, " as we say trying to pretty them up, in a dreary nursing home just pain or in boredom. But you don't have to be very young or very young to experience the lonely boredom of existence day by day. George Sanders, the actor, commits suicide and leaves a farewell note: "Dear World: I am leaving because I am bored. I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cess pool. Good luck."1
For a lot of people today, life is a matter of passing through the waters of boredom, of chaos, of meaninglessness, of hopelessness. Some try alcohol, or drugs, or skin flicks to forget or to cope or to cop out. It's like being submerged in the waters. Life is dark...cold.
And even for those whose personal lives are not all that desperate, life out there, in the world around us, seems chaotic: The chaos of pollution, it meets you everywhere. Not long ago we were driving along a lovely little stream in Southern Pennsylvania, miles and miles away from big cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. And my daughter said casually, "It's polluted. OK for boating but not for water sking." The chaos of pollution which permeates country streams, creeps through the air we breathe. But it would interfere with somebody's profits if we were to really try and lick it, wouldn't it?
It is so often a senseless, a chaotic world. We know what life should be like for us and for everyone else. But it doesn't seem to work out. Our farmers are paid not to raise food while people starve in Asia. Put Kansas alongside Bangladesh. But we can't, can we? I know it's far more complicated than that! But the sheer complexity of our problems-pollution, population, food distribution-are surely like the chaotic waters which threaten to overwhelm us.
The waters...and the fire! Someone has called our time "A Time of Burning."2 "The burning burns." Viet Nam has been called a "Lotus in a sea of fire. " But not only in Southeast Asia, though let us not for one minute forget the burning we have inflicted on that little country...And I don't care whether you happen to think we were justified or not. "The burning burns." And it smolders in the Middle East. And in Belfast where Christians are Demon-possessed to burn each other out.
But not only out there somewhere. Right here too. There's a constant burning in the ghettoes. Not much in the way of riots recently, I suppose, and so we think it can't be too bad. But a month or so ago in Brooklyn 150 people were evicted, mostly Puerto Ricans-and who cares about Puerto Ricans?-but a kindly Catholic priest opened up his church to them. Better than being in the streets no doubt. But 150 people lived for six weeks in the basement of a church with no proper cooking facilities and only two bathrooms for 150 people jammed together, sleeping on mattresses on the floor. And this is only one small instance where the desperate housing problem in the ghettoes of our cities surfaced so we got a fast clear look at it. The burning burns.
It burns in the bones of the young in our country. They, too, have been quieter of late but the anger still burns because of the injustices in our country, the poverty and the racism, the cities rotting at the core with affluent people, white for the most part, ringing the ugly cities with their lovely, tree-lined, roomy suburbs. Something is wrong. You know it and I know it. And when the cities, desperate for money to try to do something about the problems suggest more taxes, when does the howling? I often wonder why churches and church people do not see the direct and immediate relevance of Christian stewardship in terms of a willingness to pay more taxes. If we don't want-or can't-get our hands dirty trying to do something about the misery in the ghettoes-and there are rural ghettoes too-why aren't we at least willing to get our money dirty?
So what about God in all this? In the waters and the fire? Most of us, I suspect, think of God as one whose job it is to extricate us from the waters and the fire. For what are God and the church for if not to provide an avenue of escape from the misery and destruction of water and fire? And what is prayer for if not to get God to save us from the waters and the fire? And if we have "faith enough, " as we say, will he not come to our rescue and get us out of the mess we're in? And the waters and the fire will disappear?
But listen again to the words of the prophet: "When you pass through the waters...When you walk through fire...I will be with you." God is in the waters and the fire, not apart from them.
It is important to note that the images of water and fire are also used as symbols of God's presence as well as symbols of his apparent absence. The first and primary sacrament of the church uses water. And I sometimes envy my Baptist brethren for their custom of total immersion in the waters of Baptism. For as the chaotic waters threaten to submerge and overwhelm us, when we are immersed in the waters of Baptism we are submerged, overwhelmed by the very waters which symbolize God's presence. So Paul writes: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death…" If we are threatened by the waters of chaos, God takes those waters of chaos and submerges us-overwhelms us-with his love and grace in baptism in Christ.
So too with the fire. God spoke to Moses through the fire, in a bush burning but not consumed. So Jeremiah knew that the burning in his bones was the burning presence of God seeking to speak and to be heard. So on the day of Pentecost tongues like as of fire came upon all who were present as evidence of God's immediate presence.
God provides no escape from the waters and the fire; he is present in them. So our Lord was tempted with the offer of "all the kingdoms of the world," the kingdoms, the principalities and powers that could conceivably spare him from the waters and the fire of death. But he chose to be present in the water and the fire with love and patience and sympathy so that not only would we not be alone in the water and the fire, but with the assurance that they would be overcome-through Christ our Lord.
So-is it conceivable that God would be present in the pleasant little church on Main Street on a summer Sunday and not be present in a handful of villagers fleeing the fire and the tanks and the bombs and the burning in Southeast Asia? Is it conceivable that God would be present at the time of your quiet prayers at night and not be present in the burning outrage of a bearded youth with the injustice evident in the wealth of suburbs and the poverty and misery of the ghetto? Is it conceivable that God would be present in a prayer group and not present in the tangled mass of pollution and the economics of world hunger? Is it conceivable that he is present with the preacher and not be present with politicians wrestling with the problems of the city? "When you pass through the waters...When you walk through fire ... I am with you. "
And if that is so, then the waters and the fire are a calling to us to be with him there. For God is where the action is. Where the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm us or anybody else, where the fire threatens to burn and destroy us or anybody else, that is where God is present and at work and where God calls us to be at work with him. We may not like it-but, then, that's not the question, is it?
Edmund Steimle Protestant Hour
1. Saturday Review, May 27, 1972 p.6. 2. B. Davie Napier, Time of Burning (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1970).
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