It’s quite cold, just waiting, when you are clothed in only a surgical shift. You suspect that they are cutting down on the anaesthetics bill by pre-freezing you in this semi-heated pre-op room. You certainly wouldn’t choose to walk outside the hospital, dressed, or rather undressed, the way you are, and be exposed to public gaze. But your faith is also exposed, because in a couple of hours, or perhaps only a couple of minutes, they are going to wheel you off to the operating theatre. The anaesthetist is going to stick a needle in your arm, and ask you to start counting. And you won’t know for certain, at that point, whether you will actually wake up again. Faith is so much a part of us that we can sometimes take it for granted. But when you find yourself on an operating trolley, your faith in the surgical team is going to be tested; but so is your faith in God.
Isaiah proclaims,‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.’
We find ourselves as unseen guests of a young medical missionary and his wife, under a corrugated iron roof in a simple hut, somewhere in West Africa, sometime around 1970. David has recently qualified, and has volunteered to serve in the mission hospital across the square. But we have hardly said, ‘hello’, before there is a crash as the door bursts open. Two armed men explode into the hut, shouting, threatening, pointing their guns. Faith has led us here, but for this? We could die, far from home, simply for trying to help people. There is nowhere to turn. We are paralysed with terror. So is David. He doesn’t know why, but words come to him through his panic, and he says to the bandits, ‘In Jesus’ name I order you to leave this place and to leave us in peace. In the name of Jesus, go now!’ And faltering, they back out of the door, and disappear into the black, tropical night.
‘I will say to the north, “give them up”, and to the south, “do not withhold; bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the ends of the earth”,’ proclaims Isaiah.
A man by the name of Polycarp is bishop of Smyrna, in what we now call Turkey, in the year 155. He has been a Christian since as far back as he can remember, and now he is eighty-six. Which means he was born around the year 70. Early in his life, he was a disciple of the aged apostle, St John; and Polycarp is the link between the apostles and the early church fathers and theologians. He has spent his life defending Christianity, and helping to sort out what it is we believe to be true about God. But he lives in turbulent times. He faces a mob, now, baying for his blood; his life on trial and his faith on test. He could be freed, if he would but renounce his Christian faith. But should he refuse, a martyr’s death awaits him.
Polycarp’s words resound down the centuries: ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my king, who saved me?’ Polycarp is bound and led away to his execution in the Roman circus at Smyrna. ‘When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you, for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.’
Isaiah speaks to God’s people as a whole in the passage we heard. They are exiled, dumped, forgotten; weeping, by the rivers of Babylon, their beloved homeland is no more than a memory. Their faith too is sorely tested. Into their desolation, the prophet speaks God’s words of comfort and presence with them. ‘You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Do not fear, for I am with you.’
Perhaps you’ve read the poem, Footprints? The speaker looks back over his life as though it were a trail of footprints along a sandy beach. He complains that God promised to walk beside him, but at the difficult times in his life there appears to be only one set of footprints, not two. ‘Ah,’ says God, ‘those really tough times? That was when I carried you’. Some love this poem; some loathe it. But it is an attempt to put into words, this truth of our faith that we are accompanied, supported and sustained by God through all the trials that we face. Sometimes, like Polycarp, we feel serene and secure in this love. Sometimes it is less tangible, as the Footprints poem tries to express.
I call it a truth, but I can’t prove to you by logic and argument that Isaiah’s words are true. I heard David and Anne tell their story to a youth group, forty years ago. They were able to tell it because their attackers retreated. But we all know that Christians continue to suffer persecution, and even martyrdom for their faith. We have the words of the martyr, Polycarp to encourage us, and the words of Isaiah here in our Bibles. But we don’t hear from the many thousands of others whose faith is tested. And even if the last time we were wheeled into an operating theatre, all went well (as presumably it must have done or we wouldn’t be here), we don’t know what the next occasion might hold, nor how we will feel. So I can’t stand here and promise, when the tide of trial next floods in to test your faith, that you will hear a voice from heaven above the waters, or sense that God is carrying you through the breakers.
Yet sometimes the words do come, when you need them. They come to David and Anne, terrified in their African hut, and they come to Polycarp as he stands trial. They come to Isaiah, to comfort, not only his people in exile, but also God’s people for all time. They come even to Jesus. Preparing himself for all that lies ahead, he comes to be baptised by John in the Jordan. He hears, ‘You are my Son, my Beloved. With you I am well-pleased.’ An echo, from centuries before, of the words in Isaiah, as Jesus steps again toward the river-bank. ‘I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’.
Listen, then. Listen hard, when the time of testing comes.
© Jon Russell 2019