What does scripture mean by crossing waters and rivers? Or travelling through fire?

After centuries of Christian interpretation such metaphors have come to only mean cleansing and purification. Just as water cleanses the body and fire prifies the meatl so they can be used to describe the cleansing, purifying act of God on the soul an of the community and nation.

But this is only part of the story. Crossing rivers and travelling through fire are also a geophysical expressions.

The people were in captivity and in order to return to the Promised Land from the east they have to cross rivers. Just as Moses and those that followed him had to cross the river to freedom from captivity and the people of the Hebrews had to cross the river into the Promised Land so those in exile at the time of Isaiah had to cross the Tigris and the Euphrates and eventually the Jordan. If they were coming from the south they would have to cross the fiery heat of the desert. So waters and fire are philosophical realities as well as metaphorical allegories.

What Isaiah also seeks to address, as did many of those writings of prophets that were recorded and passed on to future generations are the reasons why the people were in captivity in the first place and why they now not only needed to be physically redeemed or liberated but spiritually cleansed too.

When we read what we refer to as the Old Testament and especially the prophets and the chequered history of the kings and peoples we may be led to believe that the Hebrews the Israelites the Jews whatever you want to call them were a pretty bad bunch of people. The reason for this is quite simple. The fact is that much of their scriptures, or at least the scriptures that have come down to us, were often composed and compiled at a time of exile and captivity. Such was the deep heartache of the people that they needed to make sense of their predicament. As a consequence far reaching reviews were held into their most recent past. How did we get here? What could we have done wrong? And in the ancient world and indeed not far back into our own past the question would be why did God do this to us? Or why does God allow this to happen to us. So the texts that spoke of such anguish came to be recorded and recited in later times of distress.

At a time of division in society or a time of great threat from beyond the rivers, the people needed some explanation and they found it in the actions of the rulers or morality of the people. So it is that we end up thinking ill of the ancient Jews, Israelites or Hebrews. The truth is that they were no worse nor indeed probably no better than any of the other peoples in the ancient world. They were vulnerable because they were a small community of nomads and eventually small nations living in a difficult place. Often caught between two empires to the north or East and to the south and eventually from the west across the great sea. Yes they had their moral code, the Ten Commandments which eventually evolved to the Law and we might think that this probably set them apart. But again evidence is such that even these were a distillation from in Egyptian moral code which they would have experiences during captivity. No. what probably set them apart more than anything else was the fact that they came to believe that there was only one God. All the other manifestations were mere attempt to express what God is. It was this that set the people apart. And it is this that comes down through the centuries, through victory and defeat, times of success and failure, of glory and shame. It is that come to us today. There is no other God but God. Sport is not god. Politics is not God. Dictators are not god. Even religion is not god. This is the message that transfers down through the ages. Cross cultures, races and languages. This is what has helped keep the people together in whatever circumstance, through Exile and Exodus, through destruction and diaspora, through persecution and pogrom: there is only one God.

Of course Isaiah, despite the circumstances, presents us with hope. He suggests that salvation comes not from outside the earthly realm but from deeply embedded within it. It comes from Cyrus, the leader of the new super power, the new kid on the block. It doesn’t matter that freeing the exiled Jews was all part of his political strategies, his actions came to be seen as the activity of God, the salvation bestowed upon the people. Salvation, then, comes from all sorts of quarters. And in Isaiah’s mind this is how God works. It is also, how God works today.

If you are looking for a supernatural miracle to get us out of this mess, think again. We can only get out of the division and hostility that is infecting our community, nation and world, the hatred and contempt, the hostility and the fears that case them because someone is willing to stand up and say enough is enough.

Of course Christians over the centuries have seen this passage and countless other passages in what we refer to as the Old Testament as simply pointing to Jesus. The truth of the matter is there were 800 years between this passage and the arrival of Jesus on the scene. In order to get that into perspective just think: it’s the same gap of time between the Magna Carta and today. No one in their right mind would suggest that we return to the days of the Magna Carta and other laws that were set down at that time in order to bring our nation back to some kind of order. Life has moved on. Life had moved on by the time that Jesus came on the scene. But the history, the tradition, the story was kept alive generation after generation. So that when eventually the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of the event they drew on their story, they drew on their tradition, they drew on their history and they were able to see that within the writings of Isaiah and many other prophets Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes and dreams.

So it is that John the Baptist came on the scene at the physical presence of the river Jordan to yes cleanse but also to re-enact the return of the people to the land which God had promised. This was a metaphorical crossing, it was the way in which we, the people, are encouraged to leave behind the past and enter into a bright new future. A future that was adhering to the laws of God, after all Jesus cam to fulfil not abolish the law. This is a future that clearly states that morality is supreme to the injustices that are imposed on people.

And what of today? Well what of today? Just as the early followers of Jesus sought to make sense of the Jesus event by delving into their history, traditions and story so we might do the same today. We might conclude that these are as desperate times as those of Isaiah. So we have much to do.

Isaiah would not be too surprised about the socio-political quagmire of today: the division and the hostility the hatred and the contempt that infects our society. He might ask why it is that there is little trust in society and ponder whether this is the root cause of the situation. Why is it that we have lost our belief in our leaders? My guess is that future historians will write books with a whole chapter dedicated to Watergate. They will have another chapter on the Iraq war and the so-called weapons of mass destruction. A footnote would be on the expenses scandal.

Isaiah would be urging leaders to be truthful, to not act out of their own interests nor their parties’ interests but out of the interests of the people and ultimately God’s will.Jesus would remind us of the need to build bridges and not walls. He would expect us to encounter and engage with the stranger in our midst. He would expect us to love our enemies not just love our neighbours but our enemies. Enemies are significantly different do bad people for they are the ones who wish to bring us down in a very real way rather than just be morally questionable.

So it is that I was disheartened recently by a theologian who said that when he meets with an American these days his question is whether they voted for Trump or not. If they did he walks away. This is not the kind of hero that I look for in modern life or indeed at any point in my life.

My heroes are the ones who listened to the differences of opinion and formulated a strong coherent message that didn’t leave any issue unaddressed but engaged and proclaimed by word and action that there is only one God and in order to give ourselves wholly to that God we give of ourselves to the known neighbour and unknown stranger, be they like us or not, be they fellow citizen or migrant from elsewhere, our whole and undivided heart in their time of need.