The Fire Of God
Given on Sunday 27th May 2012 at The Abbey by Canon Jim Richardson, Canon Pastor
The use of fire to represent the presence of God is a powerful image. We use it at the altar when candles are lit before the start of a service. There is the fire of the Easter Candle symbolising the Risen Christ in our midst. The newly baptised are handed a lighted candle with the words, Receive the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life. If a church has an ambry containing the reserved sacrament for the sick (as we do here), a light burns in front of it. It. We may light a candle for a loved one, or for ourselves, or to mark a special occasion, the flame reminding us that sincere prayer is always heard, even when we are unsure of what to say, or our feelings are just too heavy for words alone. I vividly recall what happened in Bournemouth when Princess Diana died: dozens of people came into the parish church to light a candle. Many of them had probably never been inside the building before, but had come instinctively to a place ‘where prayer has been valid’, as T.S.Eliot put it, and lighting a candle could symbolise their distress, confusion, and even anger at what had happened. No doubt it was the same all over the country.
The Bible is full of examples of sacred fire. Escaping from Egypt, the Hebrew slaves were led by it. During the day, the Book of Exodus tells us (Exodus 13.21), the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud to show them the way, and during the night he went in front of them in a pillar of fire… The scene at Mount Sinai, when Moses climbed the mountain to meet with God, is equally dramatic: On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, a thick cloud appeared on the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast was heard. All the people in the camp trembled with fear…The whole of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord had come down on it in fire (Exodus 19. 16-18).
This morning we heard the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at the first Pentecost. It is another dynamic picture: there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit… (Acts 2. 1-4). Pentecost, or Whitsun, this Festival of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the Church, exudes the spiritual power of God’s presence! You can almost feel the force and energy, the vitality and strength, the amazement and excitement, in what was happening. The picture St Luke paints in Acts is electrifying, and is further enhanced by what he tells us about the change in the disciples. From nervous men, lacking in confidence, and waiting for possible arrest by the authorities for being followers of Jesus, they are transformed into bold, fearless advocates of the Gospel, proclaiming before a bewildered international Jewish crowd the wonderful things God has done. This new courage and conviction was well expressed in tonight’s second reading from Acts.
Fire is one of the great images of God’s presence, and of his creative activity, not least in the lives of men and women. But what is it about fire that so powerfully captured the spiritual imagination of Luke, and of the biblical writers before him? What does fire do?
First, used rightly, it draws people to itself. In winter a living room comes alive when the fire is lit. It becomes the focal point, people gather round it, and are better for it being there. A pub with a log fire feels more welcoming. A home with a cat or dog stretched out on the hearth (or perhaps by a radiator these days!), and family and friends enjoying the warm atmosphere, highlights love, unity, and security. Even if we live alone, a fire is a comfort, often stimulating happy memories, reflection, and gratitude as we sit and enjoy it.
So the fire of the Holy Spirit draws us to God. He brings us together in fellowship as his family the Church. There we meet with Jesus in worship and service. And this meeting together is important, for a congregation is not complete when members are missing without good reason. It has always been regarded as essential for Christians to meet and pray together, especially around the Communion table. And the Christian family is not exclusive: there is always room for new members. A warm, Spirit-filled congregation is one that draws others to itself, and to Christ. The fire of God warms and comforts the hearts and minds of his people.
Fire also provides light. That is an important symbol at Christmas (The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not – could not overcome it. John 1.5), and again at Easter (The Light of the Risen Christ). There is, too, the light of Pentecost. When the Spirit of truth comes, said Jesus in St John’s Gospel (16.13), he will guide you into all the truth. The Holy Spirit of God is a beacon. He guides, prods, and deepens understanding; he leads the way, he points to the path we should follow, the kind of person we should strive to be. This is why we need to take time with our prayers – to allow God to speak to us, and for us to listen. I remember years ago seeing a wayside pulpit poster outside a church that read: ‘If God seems a long way away, which one of you has moved?’ If our prayers are sloppy, if our reading of the bible is casual, if we give no quality time to God, if during services our minds are always elsewhere, if we are just going through the motions of religion, then we miss our way. It may then take a personal crisis to enable the Spirit to meet us again, and to help us face ourselves. The fire of God is a lantern.
Then fire purifies. Disease is eliminated by fire. The Great Fire of London of 1666 wiped out the terrible plague of the year before. We burn our rubbish. We clear areas of decay by fire. So, too, the fire of the Holy Spirit cleanses and purifies. Our conscience is often a sign of his activity. He pushes, agitates, disturbs and worries, and we know no inner peace until we answer his call: that matter, or person, we have been avoiding; something we should put right, or something we have to do. His fire sweeps over us, and we are led to take action, seek forgiveness, and make a fresh start. The fire of God confronts mistakes, and clears the ground for a new beginning.
Fire changes and transforms. It can melt or harden; its heat can make different substances work together to create something new. A spark in the engine of a car ignites air and petrol to enable the vehicle to move. So the fire of God changes and transforms lives and communities, and they are remade. A diverse group of people is moulded into a living, serving church. I know of a congregation that had completely lost its way: it was stale, disheartened, and its membership in serious decline; its church buildings were too big, and looked shabby; it was unsure of its future. Then out of the blue the local Family Church approached the vicar, wardens, and eventually the diocese, to suggest a church share. There couldn’t have been a greater contrast between the two communities. The Family Church was bursting at the seams, and desperately needed larger premises. After much hassle, not least with church lawyers, a formula was agreed. With the influx of young families, new ideas, fresh leadership, and a lot of energy, the original congregation was transformed, and most successfully. After a couple of years almost no one wanted to go back to the old days. The fire of God is a creative fire. A church that is Spirit-filled is strong. Its congregation uses gifts it may never have thought it had. In his second letter to the young Timothy, St Paul tells him to: …stir into flame the gift of God which is within you… (2 Timothy 1.6 (NEB)). That message applies to us, too. Stir into flame the gifts God has bestowed on you. Each of us, no matter how inadequate we may feel, has something to contribute to God’s work; a gift we have been given. On this Pentecost Sunday, may the fire of God rest on us all, to his glory, and the building up of his kingdom.