A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE
A sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
January 20, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
It is one of those strange things in our world that makes no logical sense. It simply defies reason and scientific explanation. Yet there is no denying that the phenomenon is real. It is something that is practiced in many places all over the world—particularly in Asia and in portions of Europe. Its motivation is often—but not always—religious in nature. It is sometimes done in order to honor a deceased religious person or relative. It is sometimes performed as part of a religious festival. It is sometimes done to commemorate a miracle or to fulfill a religious vow. Among some tribes in Afghanistan, I am told it is can be used to prove an accused person’s innocence or guilt in connection with a particular crime. On some of the Polynesian Islands (especially on Fiji), it is done as a performance—as entertainment offered for the tourists. What I am talking about is the practice known as “firewalking.”
The practice of firewalking has a history that dates back to at least 1200 BC. This is how firewalking is done…First, a trench is dug and a fire is kindled using several large logs. Once the fire has burned down sufficiently, then the glowing coals are spread out into a layer of embers whose surface temperature ranges somewhere between 500°-600°. Then the fire is ready for the participants to walk.
Around the globe, there is no uniform method as to how the walkers perform their walk or how long the path of the firewalk is. In some areas, the walk is brisk, but unhurried in its gait. Others slowly saunter across the glowing coals as if they were talking a stroll through the park on a sunny spring morning. The walk is usually no less than 12 feet, but sometimes can be much longer, depending upon the local custom. But regardless of how they walk or for how far, the participants finish their walk with feet that are barely warm to the touch—let alone feet that are scorched or burned. It is an amazing phenomenon that neither scientists nor psychologists have been adequately able to explain.
Though firewalking is an ancient practice, there does not seem to be much mention of it in the Bible. Firewalking came to mind as I read this morning’s text from the second half of Isaiah 43:2. You recall that it reads, “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” As far as I can tell, there is only one other passage in the Bible that might refer to firewalking. In the middle of a section dealing with the pitfalls of adultery, Proverbs 6:28 asks the question, “Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being burned?” I guess that verse in Proverbs suggests that not everyone who does the firewalk always leaves the experience unscathed…
Isaiah 43 is part of a long poem—a song, if you will—that is a lament for the people of Israel. The nation was in chaos. The Babylonians—and then the Persians—had overrun the country, plundered the land of anything of value, and had taken its people into slavery. The nation was filled with despair and without any hope that things would likely get better any time soon. Everything was gone. Everything was broken. They had nothing—not even hope…
But the prophet Isaiah proclaims that God had not forgotten his people. Through the prophet, God offers hope. God promises that there will be a time of trial, sure, but that, after the time of testing is over, then he would store the people and then further protect them from harm.
The focus of our thoughts today is on verse 2. The first part of that verse reads, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” I imagine that those words brought to mind in the hearts of Isaiah’s listeners the story of Noah and the flood. You remember the story of how the righteous man named Noah and his family survived the flood that God brought upon the earth. They were able to do this by being in the ark that God had commanded him to build. Though the storm and floods raged, Noah and his family were kept safe and they passed through the storms and the floods through God’s providential care.
Over the last couple of decades, we have witnessed the destructive power of floodwaters unleashed in images that defy description. Who can forget the vivid pictures of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina on the Gulf Coast in August 2005? Entire areas of the city of New Orleans were totally flooded with waters reaching all the way up to the roofs of homes and businesses. There was no stopping the floodwaters once the levees had been breached. The destruction caused by the storm reached into the hundreds of billions of dollars. As I understand it, there is still much of the city that has yet to be reclaimed from the ravages of the flooding—even though it has been thirteen and one half years since the flood waters receded…
One of the most powerful images of flood destruction that I have ever seen was a product of the tsunami that struck Fukushima, Japan in 2011. It was in a video that I watched on Youtube time and time again. It is a dashcam video from a car that was on the street when the tsunami struck. It is a terrifying video—all the more so because it is real.
At first, the car is stopped behind a van on the street. Within a minute or so, one can see the water from the tsunami enter the picture on the left hand side. It is slow at first, but all of sudden, the volume of water increases dramatically. Then eighteen wheelers are shown being carried along in the floodwaters, crashing into each other and into buildings. Once the water reaches the car with the dashcam, the car is lifted up off the street and is floating, bobbing up and down in the water like a cork. The video is full of images of all kinds of flotsam and jetsam which floats by. Eventually, the car helplessly is carried along in the current, colliding with other vehicles and other debris. At one point in the video, the car is thrown underwater and becomes partially submerged before resurfacing again. It is a miracle that the guy in the car actually made it out alive…
This harrowing video puts on full display of the awesome power of a flood in all of its brutality. And God tells the people through the prophet Isaiah that, though the floodwaters may come, they will not overwhelm them because he would be with them the whole way.
The second half of verse 2 talks about going through the fire. I imagine that those words brought to mind in Isaiah’s listeners the destruction of the Jerusalem and of the Temple during the final battle of the Persian invasion. The temple was utterly destroyed. There was not one stone sitting upon another. The walls—the very same walls which were supposed to protect the city—were torn down and put to the torch. I can imagine that the scene of the sack and destruction of Jerusalem was a scene burned into their memories. None of them ever forgot it. The fire consumed their hope. And the smoke which rose from the flames disappeared into the air like the last vestige of their dreams.
But God tells them that such is not the end of the story. The fire will not harm them nor will the flames consume them. For once again, it is God who declares that he will be with his people through the times of trial by fire because he had redeemed them. He has called them by name—each and every one of them. And he says that they will make it through…
The next part of the sermon is a performance of the traditional spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” Like all spirituals, it was born out of the African-American experience of slavery with all of its dehumanizing, soul-killing effects. Many of the spirituals are laments because the slave was aware that the prospects of this earthly life getting any better were slim indeed. Instead, life was fraught with sorrow and pain. I think that it would be safe to say that the anonymous creators of this spiritual knew what it was like to pass through the waters mentioned in Isaiah 43. They also knew what it was like to walk through the fire. But notice something—this song is not a plea to be delivered from these troubles. NO—instead, it expresses the desire for Jesus to be their companion in the midst of their plight—to be a comfort, to be present for them, and to give them the strength to get through whatever it is that they face…
Here is a question worth considering: Why is it that the words of these centuries’ old spirituals still touch us long after the circumstances under which they were composed have disappeared? I think that it is because we too realize that we are not free.
We are not free from the worldly powers that try to seize us. It is because our battle for freedom continues—only in different ways than the 19th Century slave. It is because we still have different burdens to carry, different yokes to bear, different fears to encounter, different spiritual battles to face. It is because of the uncertainties of life—where we are tempted to meander off of the path because we cannot see the way ahead clearly. It is because the smooth road we travel can suddenly turn into a stony trail strewn with sharp rocks at a moment’s notice. And it is because we too need to keep faith in the God of deliverance all throughout our pilgrim journey. Yes—we are people who need Jesus to walk with us in our trials and in our troubles. It is only the grace of God that can set us free from the bondage of the spiritual forces of evil—both those forces in the world outside of us…and from the things within that would seek to enslave us…
I want Jesus to walk with me.
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me
In my trails, Lord, walk with me.
In my trials, Lord, walk with me.
When my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me.
When my head is bowed in sorrow,
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
Our service today closes with the singing of another anonymous text and another anonymous tune. This hymn is loosely based on portions of today’s scripture text among a number of other scripture allusions. The hymn is “How Firm a Foundation.” You can find it at #275 in the hymn book. I invite you to open your hymn book to that page and briefly look at the hymn with me…
This has been a popular hymn through the centuries since it first was published in 1787…and rightly so. It has been a familiar hymn to every congregation that I have served over the years. American presidents Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were all fans. But there is something about this hymn that I wish to point out to you that you may not have noticed before—even though you may know this hymn and have sung this hymn dozens (or hundreds) of times over the years.
The first stanza serves as a kind of introduction to the hymn, but there is something unusual that happens at the beginning at the second stanza. Notice the quotation marks. The quotation marks are there because the next three stanzas paraphrase the words of God to the struggling soul. They are promises of comfort and encouragement…
Through the words of this hymn, God promises us that, even when we face fiery trials, he will be there with us. The third stanza paraphrases the words of God in 2 Corinthians 12:9, which gives us another great promise. It says “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made complete in weakness.” And look at the last line of the song. God pledges to journey with the soul—to walk with the soul—and to never forsake us. Three times in that last line God says he will never forsake those who lay their cares and burdens on Jesus. What a promise
As we sing this hymn, I pray that you will take these great and precious promises of God to heart. Hear them not only with your physical ears, but also with the ears of your soul. And having heard them, take them to your heart…and then be unafraid as you live them out in your life as Children of the King. Let us stand together as we sing—and to God alone be the glory! Amen.