Friday Scripture Scripture - Isaiah 43:2
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah the prophet is called to reveal sin and injustice, to lead the people in lamenting, which is both experiencing and voicing pain and regret, then to imagining something new. But the new is not immediate. Eugene Peterson once wrote a book about the Christian life entitled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. This is what Isaiah is calling Israel too. God's promise of renewal is not immediate. It is a long obedience. And this is challenging to us as we are accustomed to rapid turn-over and immediate satisfaction and grow easily dissuaded if renewal does not happen quickly. So another part of the prophet's message is to encourage persistence.
Another word for persistence in our faith tradition is faith or trust. After God had freed the Hebrews from Egypt and Moses led them out, came the hard lessons of faith and persistence. The Hebrews wanted immediate relief and struggled when food was scarce and water a luxury. When we go back to those stories we see God teaching the Hebrews about the importance of persistent faith. God always provided, but the Hebrews grew restless. Another of the prophets, Elijah comes to mind. His struggle with persistence was personal. The immediate effect of his obeying the call of God to speak to Ahab was not a clear victory, but the continued resistance of the King. And this resistance was directed at Elijah. The King wanted him dead. Elijah goes, despondently, into hiding. Jeremiah is rejected by his family, arrested, his life, too threatened. He cries out for God to release him from the call. Each of these stories of obedience to God, of accepting the risk of discipleship, reveal that faith in God is not always an easy road, nor will it always be one of personal blessing. Jesus adds to this theme when he urges his disciples to take up their own cross. Which is why the prophet Isaiah's voice often encourages persistence for Israel.
Isaiah's encouragement comes by way, once again, of poetry. When you pass through the waters, is most certainly meant to remind Israel of the stories of their past, when, standing between Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea, God made a way. Isaiah reminds Israel of their liberation in the admittedly distance past to encourage them to persist in dreaming of a liberation for their future. Elijah is given the gift of a still small voice to encourage him. Jeremiah does not receive God's sympathy, but a challenge. God basically tells Jeremiah to stop whining and get tough. Jesus, well, Jesus would apparently sit down to dinner with his disciples and many many others. All of which give us hints as to how it is that we maintain a persistent faith. We gather together in community. We serve one another and share with one another and encourage one another. This is the foundation of faith, community. We cannot persist as a justice-seeking people in solitary. We need one another. When we gather we share the stories from our past in which our faithful persistence was rewarded. We recall both our own experiences of doubt, fear and God's intervention and empowerment and share those recollections to encourage one another. Like Elijah, we pause, in solitary, to listen to God's voice. We pray and listen to God in scripture. And then we act, as Jeremiah was urged. It may be is simple actions of love and kindness. It may be hesitating first steps of reconciliation and generosity, but we act. And then the process starts again. We reflect, we encourage, we pray and we act. Always with the faith that these simple steps of fidelity are magnified by the God who loves us. Always with the faith that God takes these small kingdom seeds and can make them grow.
So we allow Isaiah's words to shape us by teaching us patience with defeat, resistance and failure. Flood and fire, symbols of the challenges of faith, so not simply no longer exist for the faithful. They are a part of our experience, a part of the journey. But they hold no power over us. God's work will not be thwarted. So we learn to be patient. Isaiah's words and the stories of the other prophets give us a process which empowers us to be faithful while we wait. Serve, Share, Reflect, Pray, Act and start all over again. This is how we persist in faith.