In the Name...
I learned this week why insurance agents don't usually attend Pentecostal churches. They get too nervous when the pastor prays, "Lord, set this place on fire."
Fire. The Old Testament is full of references to the God whose "wrath goes forth like fire", and whose “anger burns like fire". And there are some preachers and denominations which have gotten a reputation as being all about "fire and brimstone" because to them the idea of God being wrathful, God being judgmental, is a good thing. Indeed, some make fortunes on TV and radio preaching about the wrath to come which they then say you can avoid by sending them donations.
And so it is that people who listen to these preachers are given an idea of God as someone who is always stern and angry and, so to be like him, always make stern and angry judgments about others.
On the other hand, there are some Christians who cannot square this kind of divine fire with the image of a loving and accepting God and so go to the opposite extreme of denying it exists.
But, God's fire, like the fire we encounter in our day to day life, does exist and can be both good and bad. After all, fire can cook our food or burn it to a crisp. Fire can destroy a home, or renew a forest. Moses first encountered God's voice in a fire which burned without causing damage while it was a pillar of lethal fire that held the pursuing Egyptians at bay. It was fire that touched the lips of Isaiah as he was called to prophesy and it was fire that destroyed the altar and priests of Baal. And, of course, tongues of fire descended upon the apostles on Pentecost empowering them to mission and ministry. Yes, God's fire can mean many things and it can do many things. But, good or bad, it cannot be ignored.
How, then, are we to understand what we heard in our lessons this morning?
In the case of what we heard from Jeremiah, we might look to how the people of Jesus' own time understood it. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Well, according to the Talmud, the authoritative Jewish commentary of the period, this verse was interpreted, “As the hammer strikes the rock and makes sparks, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.”
In a time when people both inside and outside the church are showing great interest in what God's words to the world might be, perhaps it is worth looking at just what is the “Word of the Lord” to which we dutifully reply each Sunday, "Thanks be to God."
The very first time that phrase is used in the Bible is in Genesis 15 when we read, “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” After that introduction, the phrase pops up all over the Old Testament. The word of the Lord comes to all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. The phrase even occurs at the beginning of the Gospels when, after listing all the political and religious rulers of the Middle East, it is said that the word of the Lord did not come to any of them, but, instead, to a man named John. Actually, John very much fits the image of the fire and brimstone preacher. He attacks the religious leaders, calling them a brood of vipers, and eventually gets himself killed for attacking the political leaders. But, as John himself discovers in prison, the word of the Lord has more than one meaning.
There's that famous scene when he's having doubts about Jesus because Jesus isn't playing the Messiah role the way John understood it. He sends messengers to ask him flat out: Are you or aren't you? And Jesus replies by showing John that the Word is, indeed, like a hammer on rock and it is to be re-examined, re-thought, and re-presented all the time. In other words, John had only gotten part of the word right and, to his credit; once he realized this he accepted the new reality.
I saw a great phrase once. "Some people's minds are like concrete. Thoroughly mixed up and permanently set."
Is it any wonder, then, that God’s word needs to be a hammer to break rocks, the rocks of our rigid understandings and misunderstandings? Is it any wonder that Jesus spoke of his mission as bringing fire to earth, of burning away that which had grown old and dead and allowing this fire to make way for a new planting of the word in our hearts?
You see, the fire of which Jesus spoke was one that had long gone out in the hearts of those who should have had it. The religious leaders of the time had lost a real sense of faithfulness. They had stopped reading their scriptures with fire in their hearts. Remember, that old King Herod's Bible scholars told the Wise Men where to find the Messiah, but, not one of those scholars shifted himself to go with them.
The reading from Hebrews continued from last week the list of people who had the fire of God alive in their hearts and lives - Rahab and Gideon and Barak, and more besides. They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, won strength out of weakness, and put foreign armies to flight. Women were praised for their faithfulness. Martyrs were praised for their courage. Pretty impressive, really, and yet all they were, were God’s people full of the fire of God’s spirit.
Are we ready to be set on fire in that same way? Are we ready to let the comfort of our opinions be smashed to pieces? Are we, indeed, ready to receive the word of the Lord? When we say, “Thanks be to God,” are we also saying, “Give me your fire, Lord, that I may do your word.”?
May God, indeed, set this place on fire.
In the Name...