“The Inescapable Victory”
“The Inescapable Victory”
First Presbyterian Church, Georgetown, Texas
Dr. Thomas W. Currie
January 9, 2022
Let us pray: Keep us ever in your care, O Lord, especially as we read and hear your word. May it be to us our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. We pray this in the name of him who did not live an untroubled life but chose to love us even to the end, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Is. 43:2
I guess what bothers me about the Bible is its realism. I know that is not always the way we think of either scripture or the faith. Rather, we are tempted to think of the “sweet bye and bye,” of kind words that produce nice people, a sort of useful shelter that protects us from the harsher realities of life. And in truth, words of scripture do offer comfort, comfort to which we rightly turn again and again. And yet, but… well, there are these troubling aspects, bothersome questions, if you will.
For example, look again with me at this great passage from Isaiah 43. What could be more comforting than to hear “When you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you…” Or, ‘when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned.. the flame shall not consume you.” Good news, indeed! Sort of like Psalm 23: “In the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” So, what’s the problem?
Well, if you will excuse a perhaps irreverent question, let me ask, “What the heck are we doing in the valley of the shadow of death anyway? How did we get into these deep waters in the first place?” How did we contrive to get thrown so close to the flame at all?” Just a suggestion, but might it not have been better to avoid such calamities in the first place?
Perhaps only an American could ask such a question, in any case, a comfortable, healthy, HVAC’d, double inoculated and boosted survivor of an epidemic, with some money in the bank and a place to go for lunch, only someone like that would dare to raise such an impertinent question. Other folks might not be so troubled by these questions. If, for example, you were waiting at the border hoping to be let in, if you were living in Syria in a refugee camp, if you had just handed your baby over a wall to a Marine at the Kabul airport, if you were in prison in Cuba or North Korea or just trying to eke out a living in Malawi, then the comfort of being rescued from deep waters or protected from burning flames might not seem such a silly thing at all but rather an unspeakable gift.
That’s the thing about scripture: it has a way of rubbing our noses in reality. Its story has barely begun when our first parents seek to escape from the confining graces of God’s love, only to seek some self-contrived freedom apart from God. It doesn’t work out so well for them or for their children, and the story has hardly advanced at all before those children are killing each other. Scripture is no Hallmark card.
This is just Genesis 3 and 4. There is so much yet to come.
Isaiah is writing to a people who have been on the receiving end of a long story of losing. They have lost everything they thought important: their land, their king, their home. They are tired, tired of losing, tired of not having, tired of being pushed around. Their questions are a bit more desperate than ours. Is the story over? Are we done, now? Is there any future to be had?
Well, we, for all our complaints, are not in that situation. We are, for the most part, pretty well-insulated from such harsh realities, or at least we think we are. Which is why we sometimes have such a hard time hearing the gospel, or cannot really hear it until we have lost something we thought important.
“Every real conversion,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “begins with a great defeat.” The people we meet in the Bible are people who know what it is to have lost: a Paradise lost in the case of Adam and Eve, a home in the case of Abraham, and almost a son, a brother, a home, almost two sons, in the case of Jacob, an innocence in the case of the Moses who took another’s life, a kingdom and a son in the case of Saul, his own integrity in the case of David, and the list goes on, including perhaps most of all, Israel’s own life, which fails, again and again, to keep faith with the God who refuses to forsake her. Not a pretty story, in some ways, but one that does not blanch or flinch in the face of real defeat and utter failure. And also a story that is not afraid to speak of real comfort and real joy.
The source of that comfort and joy can be found in the simple words Isaiah repeats again and again: “I will be with you.” “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you…Do not fear, for I am with you…”
What a strange source of comfort? No nationalistic victory, no vengeful triumph over our tormentors, no celebration of our own resources? No. Just, “I am with you.” Can that be enough?
Ever passed through the deep waters? Walked uncomfortably close to the flame? Spent some time in the valley of the shadow?
I am sure you have, no doubt much more than I and you could tell me stories of what that was like. When our youngest daughter was 5 years old, she had open heart surgery in Houston. I don’t know that she was old enough to be that scared, but her parents were, and I can remember having some serious talks with God about the road I did not want to walk down, the river I did not want to cross, the flame I did not want to feel. The night before her surgery, the surgeon’s young assistant, a cardiologist who later became well-known in his own right, came into the hospital room to explain the surgery and map it out on a diagram for us to see. I was so scared that I didn’t know what to ask. After he finished mapping out the surgery, he looked at us and could see that we were frightened. And then this young man, a man of science and a skilled medical practitioner, asked if we would like for him to offer a prayer. We were stunned but overwhelmingly grateful. And his prayer, not a long one or florid, but a simple asking for guidance, grace, and presence, was enough. The deep waters were still there but they didn’t scare us so much and the flame seemed, for a while, farther away.
Not all stories of God’s presence end that way, I know. Scripture knows that too, and the story it tells does not shrink from the darkness that the valley of the shadow regularly spreads about. Its story leads up a hill on which there are three crosses, and in the center, there is One whose hanging there embodies what it means when God says, “I will be with you.” That is what the cross tells us. “I will be with you. You are mine. I have called you by name.”
I will admit that that scene does not look much like a victory. There are no guns or missiles, and the crowds, at least the ones that have not stayed to mock, have mostly fled. But that is the victory. It is not the one we wanted or even have desired. It is not the way we would have planned it. But for a world that lost its way east of Eden a long time ago, it is the only way God could keep his promise that he would never leave us or forsake us, that he would not even let death itself – as terrifying and lonely-making as it puffs itself up to be – not even death can separate us from the love of Christ. That is the victory we cannot escape, try as we might.
And it is not just a victory of silent presence. In the valley of the shadow, in the deep waters, walking by the flame, God’s presence has ever taught his people to sing. Read the Psalms. They are full of trouble, just as they are full of music. The hymn we sung – Isaac Watts’ rendition of the 23rd Psalm – does not blanch to speak of the valley of the shadow:
“When I walk through the shades of death, your presence is my stay; one word of your supporting breath, drives all my fears away.” How many hymns in our book were written by people who only had big trouble. Thomas Dorsey, the African American musician, who lost his wife as she was laboring to give birth to their son, wrote “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the night, lead me on to the light; take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” How many have found in those words the sustaining presence and heard and felt in them the gift of “I will be with you? I have called you by name. You are mine.”
And time would fail us to tell of Martin Rinkart, who during the 30 years war pastored refugees in Germany and presided over 4000 funerals, including his wife, only to write, “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Now thank we all our God! Or Horatio Spafford who wrote “It Is Well With My Soul,” having lost four daughters as their ship foundered in the North Atlantic. What right do these people have to sing?
What right indeed? I suspect they would be embarrassed to be called heroes or heroines. They were simply people of faith who knew in the midst of deep waters and fiery flames, what it meant that there was One whose promise to be with them had given them a victory hard to understand apart from that hill that had three crosses on it, and the One whose love would not let them or you or me go.
That is the reality that scripture insists on rubbing our noses in each Sunday. I think that is actually why we come to church, namely to get a shot of reality, the reality of God’s sustaining presence in the midst of an all too unreal world.
No, it is not a Hallmark card this gospel, and it is not exempt from the heavy burdens of trouble and sorrow, but it gives us to each day One who bears our burdens and carries our sorrows, and whose love will never let us go. The gift is to be in his company. Amen.