“Discovering Jesus: As Fire”
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
February 14, 2016
There is a reason the writer Annie Dillard thinks we should walk into church differently. She writes, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke here?…It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” There is a reason Dillard says we should arrive differently here and it is, at least in part, because God is like fire. Probably we first think of the burning bush in Exodus or the day of Pentecost in Acts but God’s fiery ways are not just found there. The description of God as fire is found throughout the Bible: from fire that comes forth from Mount Sinai when God is present to God swooping down like a fiery chariot in Ezekiel. And it is not just God the Father or God the Spirit who are like fire. Jesus himself is also fire. He says to his disciples in Luke 12 “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Then he says, “and how I wish that fire were already kindled.”
The Father is fire, the Spirit is fire, the Son Jesus is fire. I think of KC and his family today when I think of fire, and of others of you in this congregation who have had your homes burn. If we have learned anything from those fires, we know that they can destroy. Fire can become a blaze in seconds. It can consume everything and can burn. It can take everything we have and it can change everything. And the Father is fire; the Spirit is fire; the Son is fire. No wonder Annie Dillard thinks we should be wearing crash helmets.
Since the divine persons are shown as fire throughout scripture, what kind of fire is our God? Is divine fire for punishment? Is it for torment? Did we place ash on our foreheads just last week to show that God is punishing us? What we find so often in the Bible is that God’s fire is not enflamed to punish. God’s fire is enflamed to reveal. In our Hebrews text, it is after the shaking and after the fire that we will see what is truly unshakeable. In our 1 Corinthians scripture, Paul tells us that the work each of us builds onto Christ’s foundation will be revealed in fire. When we swipe ash on our heads, what we truly are at our core is revealed—we are dust that is nothing without God’s work in us. That is what we are and any false self has to crumble and fall. It is what Jesus was doing to folks all throughout his ministry. When healing a blind man he would reveal who the blind ones really were. When refusing to stone a sinful woman, he revealed who also had sinned. God’s fire reveals what is true and real.
Even in our age of modern technology we experience this. Chemists know that they can tell what elements are present in a solution by the color the flame produces when they are set on fire. Sodium produces a yellow flame, potassium produces a light purple flame, lithium a red, and barium a green. The fire reveals what is really there. And that is what it is like with our fiery God who can sift and sort through our properties, our true elements, the things we keep hidden even from ourselves. God’s flame reveals everything. And this begs the question: What color flame do I produce when lit on fire? What color flame do you produce? Can we even bear to know? What chemists have known Paul also realized. He describes it that our only foundation is Jesus Christ and all the building we add to it must be Christ-shaped. Everything that does not build upon him will burn away. What will be revealed in you if God’s flame gets close?
Not only does God’s fire reveal what we might have kept hidden, not only does God’s fire burn away everything that would get in the way, but God’s fire can start something. God’s fire can begin a new creation. We all know that forests need fires to come through them periodically so they can flourish and gain new growth. But did you know that many trees will not begin at all unless a fire catches them? Many fir trees’ pine cones will not open unless they are in a fire. But, within the flames, they will burst open releasing the seeds that are necessary for planting a new tree. So God’s fire reveals but let’s be honest and clear about the power of our God’s fire: within its heat we can become a new creation. God wants, more than anything else, for us to live out his image he has placed in us. Jesus came into the world to show us what that true life could look like. But this process is not simple. This salvation is rarely easy. What was closed up and dead in us sometimes can only be cracked open once we have been burned.
“Our God is a consuming fire.” That is what Hebrews tells us. But that fire’s purpose is not to punish or torment. That fire’s purpose is to reveal what we would hide. That fire’s purpose is to create new life where we thought all was dead. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, is a fire for us. In him, he takes what is dust and he refines it into gold. He strips what is false and makes it possible for us to be born again, and again, and again. Even in our worst failings, even if the work we have built over a lifetime crumbles and goes up in flame because we did not build in the shape of Christ’s foundation, even then, Paul tells us, we will suffer a loss but we will be saved. And how will we be saved? We will be saved, as Paul puts it, “only through fire.” Yes, Jesus is our friend and our shepherd and our brother and our savior but do not dismiss him lightly, forgetting that his friendship and his guidance and his saving—they come out of fire.
What strips us away and what may even blister us is not to torment or to punish. That has never been God’s plan. What strips away and even blisters, it is to save us. It is to reveal God’s image in us. It is to form a new creation out of us. It is to make ash out of everything false that would keep us from true life. No wonder Jesus said he came to bring fire to the earth. May we join him in his wish that already, even here and even now, it would already be kindled.