January 13, 2019

THROUGH WATER AND FIRE
1st Sunday after the Epiphany

BIBLE READINGS
Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-22

REFLECTION

Crocodile attack is a regular thing in Zimbabwe during the rainy season when the rivers are swollen Two years ago, a pastor was attacked and killed by three large crocodiles there. But what happened leading up to the attack is what interests me the most.

The Pastor would like to demonstrate what he taught about faith to the people in his congregation. He was inspired by the story of Jesus walking on water and would like to do something similar to show his faith. So, he fasted and prayed for the whole week before he went to a river known as the “Crocodile River”. There, he waded 30 meters into the river while the people from his congregation watching him. But, instead of rising up above the water like he said he would, he was attacked by three large crocodiles. It all happened so fast while his congregation watched in horror, but could not do anything to save him. His death was quick and brutal and the crocodiles devoured him within minutes. All that was left of him was a pair of his sandals.[1]

If you think that was tragic, what about this one. A Pastor in Kentucky, USA, had to fight for his life after he was bitten by a deadly snake in a church service. The snake was a part of the church’s ritual, which was inspired by the passage at the end of the Gospel of Mark. The passage says, “They will pick up serpents and if they drink deadly poison, they will not be hurt.”[2] The Pastor took the part literally and used deadly, poisonous snake to show his devotion in the service.

After he was bitten, he initially refused to be treated, believing that God would heal him. But once the snake’s poison took hold, he collapsed and had to be taken to the hospital. 

Years ago, his father, who was the pastor before him, was also bitten by a rattlesnake in similar circumstances. His father didn’t make it however. He died within minutes after being bitten by the deadly snake.

These people misunderstood the intention of those parts of the Bible. Today, we hear a similar kind of writing in our reading today from Isaiah. Here, the prophet promised that Israel would walk through river and not be drowned, fire and not get burned.

But the writing is a poem and should be read as such. We should not take it literally. Of course, the people of Israel would be drowned if they walked on water and burnt if they walked on fire. As such, we have to read the writing within its context. The reading today from Isaiah was written for the Jewish people contemplating a return to their homeland. They were nervous. They had built a comfortable life in Babylon, even though they lived there as exiles. They didn’t know what would happen to them if they answered the call to return to their homeland.

So, the prophet in Isaiah had to convince them by reminding them about the experience of their ancestors. They too were scared when Moses asked them to leave Egypt to go to the land the God had promised them. Yet, despite the uncertainty, their ancestors answered the call and followed God with Moses as their leader.

For the prophet, the journey back home from Babylon to their homeland thus would be the second Exodus. And just like God travelled with their ancestors through the desert, God would travel with them now. 

So, the water and fire, mentioned in our reading in Isaiah, have two layers of meaning. On one hand, the water and fire reminded the exiles about what happened to their ancestors during the Exodus. They passed through the water of the Red Sea unharmed. Moses himself first met God in a bush that was on fire, yet was not burnt.

On the other hand, water and fire were metaphors for the dangers and obstacles that they would face. The prophet was not trying to deceive his people. He was honest. Returning to the land of their ancestors and rebuilding their life would not be an easy task. They would face many dangers and obstacles. So, yes, metaphorically, they would have to go through water and fire.

But, there was a promise: they would not be dealing with their situations alone. Yes, there would be obstacles, but God would be with them. And as long as God was with them and they were with God, their problems would not overcome them.

And the promise was not an empty promise. The prophet reminded his people in exile about who they were. God was the one who created and formed them, just like God created the world and formed humans at the beginning of time. As such, Israel was precious in God’s eyes. They belonged to God and God would never abandon His own creation. 

One of my favorite movies as a child was the Disney version of the classic story, Pinocchio. I used to watch that movie again and again and again. Most of you know that Pinocchio tells the story about a man who made a wooden puppet. He loved his creation so much that he wished that his puppet would become a real boy and be his son.

Likewise, God loved God’s own creation, Israel, and called them as His sons and daughters. And no parent, in his/her right mind, would ever abandon his/her offspring.

I recently watched another movie titled, Fences. It was played by the brilliant actor, Denzel Washington, and won a number of awards, including the Oscar. It tells the story of Troy Maxson, an African-American man who worked as a sanitation worker in 1950s. He had three children from three different women. He went to jail for robbery after his first son was born. His daughter was born from an extra-marital affair that he had while being married to his second wife.

Troy demanded total obedience from his children. As such, he often strained his relationship with his family and was feared, even hated, by his own children. He admitted himself that he never liked his children.

But, he lived with a strong sense of responsibility. Yes, he never liked his children, but he never abandoned them either. He raised all of them and always helped them out when they were in trouble. He was not a perfect father, but he did the best that he could to raise his children in his own way.

If this imperfect father never abandoned his children, how much more then God will never abandon His children. God would be there for Israel and for us to navigate the complexity of our life. 

But the promise proclaimed in Isaiah was not that Israel would be free from all harms. The promise was that God would always be there for Israel, just like a parent would be there for his/her beloved child.

Friends, when our children are very young, we can try to protect them 24/7. No, we cannot offer 100% security to them, but we can try, as best as we can, to protect them from danger.

But my son, Abia, can now run so quickly that I too have to run to catch him Whenever I accompany him on his scooter, I have to run to stay apace with him. And, there will come a time when I won’t be able to physically chase him any longer. 

When the time come, however, I still can ‘walk’ with him, metaphorically, I suppose. I still can give him emotional support (and, perhaps, financial support every now and then, but not too often I hope). I can give him advice and be a good role model to him. It’s up to him whether to listen to my advice or not. It’s up to him whether to follow my guidance of not. But, at least, I can tell him that I love him and will always be there for him when he needs me.

It is the same in our relationship with God. Our relationship with God is like a relationship between a parent and his/her adult child. To have God as our parent, to be God’s beloved, does not mean that we are protected from all harms. We will still face dangers and obstacle in life. But God will always be there for us. Nothing can change our status as God’s beloved. God will offer us guidance and wisdom if only we ask and search for them. 

Jesus is our role model. In his own baptism, God called him as His son, His beloved.

Now, the account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel is slightly different to the one we have in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew, other people could hear the voice coming down from heaven. It was a public event. The voice said, “THIS IS my son, my beloved. 

But, in Luke’s Gospel, as well as in Mark’s, it was only Jesus who could hear the voice from heaven. It says, “YOU ARE my son, my beloved”.

So, in Luke, it was a private event. It happened for Jesus alone. It was a reminder of God’s commitment to Jesus. It is like a father who tells his son how much he loves him. It is an assurance that his son can always rely on him in times of trouble. 

Indeed, Jesus baptism was the assurance of God’s love for him as he embarked on his ministry. Like us, Jesus was not insulated from harms. He suffered like we do. He faced oppositions like we do. He cried like we do. And he died like we do. Yet, in the midst of harms and dangers, God was always there for him. 

Friends, we too are God’s beloved. We are precious in God’s eyes. God rejoices in our presence. God loves us beyond anything. Our baptism, just like Jesus’, is the sign of that love. But, it doesn’t mean that we are sheltered from challenges and obstacles in life after we are baptised.

I heard a story about the son of a Baptist Pastor who was so excited with his coming baptism.[3] He hoped that his baptism would become the turning point of his life. But, immediately after he was baptised, he felt nothing different. Nothing seemed to have changed in his life. He was disappointed.

Later that night, however when he was alone in his room, he felt the presence of God. Even more, he felt God’s approval. He could almost hear God whispering in his ears, saying, “I’m proud of you son.” There and then, he felt loved and embraced by God.

 Friends, our faith and commitment to God will not protect us from dangers. Being loved by God will not protect us from harms either. But, we can walk with courage, knowing that, whatever will happen, God will be there for us and love us always. Amen.

 Toby Keva

 [1] Joey Millar, Pastor attempting to walk on water like Jesus is eaten by crocodiles, on www.express.co.uk (Published 00:00 Tuesday, May 16, 2017; Updated 01:51 Tuesday, May 16, 2017).

[2] Mark 16:18.

[3] From a sermon by Jim Somerville for January 13, 2019 in www.asermonforeverysunday.com (C07: The Baptism of the Lord, Year C [2019]).