A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
May 19, 2013
Even with all our modern conveniences, fire is still fascinating.
Many scientists believe that human beings were using fire to cook food one million years ago. Imagine how amazed and grateful prehistoric people were with fire that made fresh game fit to eat, gave them light at night, and provided warmth during the winter.
Today we don’t view or use fire the same way. But there is still something mysterious about fire, even to the modern mind. A burning fire still has a hypnotic effect on us, and a burning candle creates an ambience that electric light will never match. And despite all our sophistication about theology and language, there’s still no word that describes the divine quite like “fire”.
Of course, no one word, or set of words completely captures the essence of God. But ever since God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, we have associated the presence of God with fire. That association is later reinforced when God guides the Israelites through the wilderness at night with a pillar of fire.
Then, when God gives the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai during the Feast of the Harvest, also known as Pentecost, God shows up again in a fiery blast of heat—Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire (Exodus 19:18).
In time the Israelites would establish a place to meet and worship God. Regardless of the place – whether the “tent of meeting” or the synagogue or the Temple in Jerusalem – the priests were obligated to keep the lamp fires burning continually. To let the fire go out would be flirting with disaster. And soon it became apparent that the real challenge where fire was concerned was not starting it, but maintaining it.
Obviously it was one thing to keep the fire burning in the Temple lamps, another thing to keep the fire of God’s Spirit burning in the hearts of the Israelites. In fact the Israelites immediately quenched the fire of God’s Spirit afterMoses received the Law atMt. Sinai, constructing a golden calf to worship in place of God. Not even prophets like Jeremiah, who spoke of God’s fire burning in his bones, was able to keep the flame alive in the face of Israel’s chronic rebellion.
Still, another prophet named Joel lamented that the flame of God’s Spirit was barely flickering in Israel. But the day would come, Joel said, when God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh, and once again God would visit his people in an earthshaking
display of fire and smoke.
Eight long centuries after Joel prophesied Jesus was born, and the Gospel of John would describe Jesus’ birth this way: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
did not overcome it (John 1:5). For the first time in a long time, the lamp of God’s Spirit was burning brightly.
After Jesus’ three remarkable years of ministry, it seemed as if the fire of God’s presence was cruelly extinguished again, this time on a cross. But on the first Easter that flame came back brighter than ever when God raised Jesus from the dead.
Fifty days came and went. Forty of those days the resurrected Christ spent with his apostles, teaching them still more about the kingdom of God. Then, writes Luke in Acts 1, Jesus ascended into heaven, but not before commanding his followers to remain in
Jerusalem until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now (v. 9).
It just so happened that ten days later, the annual Festival of Pentecost was being celebrated again among the Jews, and people from all over the known Jewish world were in Jerusalem to offer praise to God for the harvest of crops and the giving of the Law onMount Sinai. And just as he did on a Pentecost centuries earlier, God made a dramatic entrance.
When the day of Pentecost had come, (the disciples) were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven 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 and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Today we celebrate the anniversary of this day of Pentecost.We have red cloth and fire all about to symbolize the fire that fell from heaven to infuse a fearful band of disciples with the very passion and boldness of God so that they might begin the church of Jesus Christ whose mission was to bring the kingdom of God on earth, even as it was in heaven.
German painter Emil Nolde produced a painting called “The Pentecost” several decades ago that offers a startling perspective of that day. He shows a group of people, presumably the disciples, huddled together, with tongues of fire above their individual heads. Obviously these disciples are infused by the Holy Spirit of God. Their eyes are dancing, their faces are animated, their hands arranged in a prayerful pose.
Clearly the fire of God is burning in their bones and energizing their souls.
What is striking about the portrait is the contrast between the disciples facing the viewer and those figures in the foreground. Both foreground figures look anything but animated and energized. The figure to the left appears forlorn, even dejected. The figure to the right looks bored by it all. Judging by the faces and body language of these men, the fire of God’s Spirit has gone out in their souls… or maybe it was never ignited in the first place.
And I can’t help but wonder today if those two lifeless, lethargic men in the foreground of the painting represent a good many Christian churches. Maybe once upon a time these churches were on fire for God, pulsating with God’s energy and alive with God’s power. But somewhere along the way the fire went out, and God seems nowhere to be found.
Years ago I read something written by a fiery evangelist named Vance Havner that grabbed me by the throat. “There ought to be enough electricity in every church to give
everybody in the congregation either a charge or a shock!” But instead, Havner observes, the spark is absent in many congregations. “I’m embarrassed when pagans walk by our empty churches, look in on our feeble ceremonies, see us swapping members from church to church, moving corpses from one mortician to another, preaching a dynamite gospel and living firecracker lives.”
When a dynamite gospel gets reduced to a firecracker life, you can be sure that the fire of God is barely flickering…in that soul, or in that church.
St. John of Damascus, a Syrian monk who lived in the seventh century A.D., once compared a spiritually dead soul to a black cold lump of charcoal. With that image in mind he penned the following prayer:
“To me who am but a black cold charcoal
grant, O Lord,
that by the fire of Pentecost,
I may be set ablaze.”
John of Damascus understood something all Christ-followers need to know— Pentecost is not a once-in-history, non-repeatable event. The Holy Spirit flames up all over the place in the early church, and it continues to burn brightly to this day in the souls of spiritually transformed Christ-followers.
If we find ourselves to be black, cold lumps of charcoal, how can we be set ablaze for God?
Recognize that the longing to be set ablaze is proof that the Spirit of God is already burning in your soul. Experienced Christ-followers who know God intimately will speak of spirituality as the fire or the desire that burns within us for something more. That longing for more of God, more of God’s Spirit is proof that the sparks of God are already burning inside us.
Another way to allow God’s Spirit to baptize you is to be intensely engaged with his word. It’s no coincidence that the disciples spent forty days immersed in the teachings of Jesus before they were immersed by Jesus’ Spirit. The two go hand in hand.
Nor is it a coincidence that the disciples were on fire for God, having spent time together in fellowship and prayer. Charcoal lumps always burn better when they are in close quarters rather than spread out. So do disciples. And if you want to fan the flame of God’s spirit into a bonfire, just add consistent prayer to the mix!
Let me tell you what I believe about our church right now. I believe we were once here in the foreground of Emil Nolde’s painting. But I sense something shifting here, and slowly but surely we are taking on the appearance of a people invaded by the fire of Pentecost.
And on this Pentecost Sunday I invite us to pray this prayer:
“To we who are but black cold charcoal
grant, O Lord,
that by the fire of Pentecost,
We may be set ablaze.”