'The Lord gives strength to his people and the Lord blesses his people with peace. (Psalm 29.11)
John appeared on the banks of the River Jordan calling people back to God. To solemnise the act of repentance, of turning back to 'The Way', he washed them in the waters of the river. When people wondered if John was the man they had all been waiting for, the Messiah, he was quick to point away from himself and towards the true Christ, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. Not only this, but he also foretold another form of baptism, that of the Holy Spirit and of fire.
If we are looking for help in our spiritual journeys through this earthly life then fire and water both seem essential if unlikely comforters. The power of each to be destructive in terms of floods and conflagration is undeniable, and the Psalmist recognises the power and majesty of God expressed in a great thunderstorm with rain and lightning, yet without warmth or drink we cannot survive.
Isaiah speaks of God calling his people back to himself. 'Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine'. The passage continues.' When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.' (43.2)
Our own commitment to God through the Church of England reflects these two elements, that of baptism by water, and confirmation where the laying on of hands symbolises the acceptance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, reminiscent of the day tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples in the upper room. Paul tells Timothy 'For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of hands.' (2 Tim. 1.6)
The Christians of Samaria, that we read about in Acts (8.14), had been baptised, they had accepted Jesus as their saviour, and yet there was something missing for them. It took the prayers and affirmation of other Christians to build on the work which had in this case been begun by Philip, who had introduced them to Christ, in order to 'fan into flame the gift of God.' which was the presence of the Holy Spirit in their faith.
Both fire and water have the ability to sustain life, or destroy it. We have good reason to be afraid of them and yet we cannot avoid them if we are to live. Many other aspects of our life are like this too. Relationships can be frightening, we have the power to hurt or be hurt by the way we treat each other, and yet without relationship we lose our identity, without relationship we are unable to love or be loved. True acceptance of the Holy Spirit, guiding our relationships, enables us to pass through difficult times, gaining strength from each experience. Change, venturing into the unknown, taking risks, all these can fill our minds with dread, and yet if we fail to grasp opportunities that arise we can become stagnant, preferring to live in the past, or content merely to enjoy what pleasure we have without moving on. In doing this our journey of faith cannot progress. We cannot answer the summons that draws us towards God. The presence of the Holy Spirit, approaching living in the Spirit of Holiness, is what we can call upon to see us safely through water, fire, relationships and change.
Returning to Isaiah 43. 'This is what the Lord says- he who created you O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.' At birth Jacob was created for God's purpose, but it was as Israel, the one who wrestled with God, that he was then formed and made into the founder of a nation. Then again in verse 7 God speaks of those he is calling to himself, 'Bring... everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.' As Christians we are called by his name, as Christians we have been created for the purpose of God's greater glory, so as Christians we must embrace the fire of the Holy Spirit, allow ourselves to become fired up for Christ, in order that we can be 'formed and made' on our journey back to God.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is strengthened by the affirmation of our faith by other Christians just as Peter and John kindled the presence of the Spirit in the Samaritan Christians. The presence of the Holy Spirit in others, particularly the young and those new to the faith, will depend on the extent to which we as a church are able to affirm and support them. As Christians together we are comforted by the knowledge that even when life seems full of thunderstorms, floods and fires, we who are God's people, because we allow him to form us, are given strength and peace.