March 6, 2016

Rev. 3:15-21

imagesIn my grandparents’ house over their bed in the living room (yes, their bed was in the living room) hung the Helms’ family crest.

As I remember it, the crest had a helmet like a soldier would have worn in medieval times. On either side of the helmet were a couple of medieval soldiers standing like they were guarding something, each with a spear in his hand.   Maybe the helmet and the guards meant, “We are a hardheaded bunch; don’t cross us.”

Whatever the crest meant, it hung there for decades making some unknown announcement to all who came that this was the home of the Helms family.   This is where we eat, sleep and live.

If Christianity had a family crest, what emblem would best represent us? The cross? The empty tomb? Broken bread? A chalice? Water? All of these arUnknowne great answers.

The Methodist Church offers a fine choice: a flickering flame. This symbol of their denomination has been used to represent the Spirit of God through the millenniums because the book of Acts says that on the day of Pentecost “…a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” Acts 2:2-4 (NIV).

When our sons were small and I was left in charge of them for a day or two, we would think of manly things to do, like camping, fishing, or eating Vienna sausage out of the can.   There was one thing I could always suggest that was a smashing hit whether it was February or July. “Let’s build a fire.”

Now if fire weren’t such a dangerous thing I could have just built them a fire and left them for a few hours. They would have been content poking it; watching sparks rise and disappear among the trees; mesmerized by the hot flickering coals; feeling the heat emit from the logs like a furnace; hearing the crackling and the popping as the wet tender limbs dried in the hot scalding fire; amazed as the leaves were consumed by the hot, hungry beast.

Unknown-1If you’ve ever watched a flame, it dances. It moves with the currents of the wind. It is unpredictable.   Fire cannot be tamed like you can a tame dog. You cannot control fire like you can a horse. There is no harness or lasso you can put on it and make it do what you want it to do.   You can behold the presence of fire but fire cannot be held. It takes no single shape or form.

Fire is consuming but at the same time it is refining. The same fire that helps shape metal also can destroy a home.  The same heat that wipes out an entire forest can also open up the pinecones and release the seeds that replenish the forest.

It’s little wonder that fire mesmerized my children.   They are still mesmerized by it today and enjoy sitting by an open fire late into the night.

One of the lasting images of the beginning of 2016 was the 63-story hotel fire of “The Address” in Dubai. This luxury hotel caught fire three hours before midnight and by the time the New Year was ushered in it was completely engulfed in flames.

At the same time this hotel was being consumed the city of Dubai continued with its huge display of fireworks.   As television cameras showed the hotel being engulfed in flames, in the same frame it showed the city moving on with its New Year Eve’s celebration as fireworks filled the sky.Unknown-3

It’s a fitting metaphor for the way many people live. While their lives are being consumed with problems and grief, they live in denial and try to show the world that everything is normal.

Moses fled the region of the Nile but then he lived in denial for 40 years. The Old Testament tells us a story of a man who lived a life as a shepherd in the desert. He lived there trying to deny his past life in Egypt.

He had left his people behind in Egypt who were being consumed under the oppressive régime of Pharaoh. The book of Numbers places the total number men from the twelve tribes of Israel living there at 603,550. With women and children this places the number of slaves in Egypt in the millions.

Moses used to be one of them, but he was placed in a tar-pitched basket by his mother in the Nile River after Pharaoh gave the order for the male babies under age two to be killed in order to keep down the population. Pharaoh’s daughter found him and she raised him as her own child in Pharaoh’s court.

However, Moses fled to the desert at age 40 after he killed an Egyptian when he came to the defense of a Hebrew that was being abused by the Egyptian.

That’s where he was when he encountered God within a bush that was on fire but it was not burning up. When Moses went over to investigate this strange sight, God called his name from within the bush.

images-4Moses experienced God as a flaming fire.   After his encounter with God, Moses was never the same again. God gave him instructions to go and free the slaves. After many excuses and reasons why he couldn’t go, God convinced Moses that He would give him everything he needed to get the job done.

Moses left his life as a shepherd and along with brother Aaron, he left to win the freedom of a people that had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. All of this started with a burning bush.

Fire changes everything it touches. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged. It is consumed, converted or purified, warmed or mollified or steeled.  But nothing goes way from fire unchanged.

So it should not surprise us that God came to Moses through fire, or that on the day of Pentecost Luke says, “they saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”

God refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).

When we confess our sins to God they are taken away as if they were cast into a consuming fire. The Spirit refines us, enlightens us, and stirs the flame of God’s love within us.

This isn’t something God does just one time. We are a work in progress.  God is constantly working us like clay and then firing the kiln to make us into vessels that are useful and usable.

We need the refining fire of God in our lives to burn away our selfish ways.

Like a pinecone that has been through the fire, we need to be opened up by God so seeds of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control can find root and grow.images-5

Many times this happens after we have been through a painful experience. That doesn’t mean God is the one who sends the pain. It does mean that God can use the pain for His benefit. God can make all things work together for His good as Paul says in Romans 8:28.

God is looking for us to trust Him as we see evidence of His presence, and even in those times when we don’t.

After Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, God provided a pillar of cloud to lead them by day and a pillar of fire to lead them by night.

Like those people, we will have wilderness experiences in this life before we reach heaven, which is our Promised Land.

Today if you are walking through a wilderness, God stands ready to shine a light on your path.   Trust that God will supply your needs.

Just as God took care of the needs of the refugees that fled from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, God stands ready to lead us each day.

When the Holy Spirit comes and moves within us, we can be reoriented and repositioned for what lies ahead.

We have to learn to trust God and be comfortable following a God that does not conform to conventional ways.

The Scripture says that while the bush was on fire it was not being consumed. How do you explain something like this? You don’t explain it. You simply report it, which is what Moses did. When you experience God you give witness to what has happened to you, even when you and others do not understand it.

We are long past the Age of Enlightenment, which burst onto the scene in the 18th Century and centered on reason as the primary source of our authority. It was closely followed by the scientific revolution.   These new ways of processing information run crosscurrent with a story that says a bush can be on fire without being consumed.

The tendency for many was to doubt that God can be experienced in such mysterious ways.

This new way of thinking said that if something could not be proven scientifically, then it should not be embraced.

Science has an important job to do, which we should all appreciate. It is the job of science to answer definitively all the questions we can possibly pose and to reduce all the mysteries possible. “Science makes sense of the world by showing how things conform to its hypotheses.” for Faith Through Mystery

However, think once again about the symbol of our faith for today –fire. It does not confirm to anyone’s shape.

While science still acknowledges that mystery exists, science will never be comfortable with mystery, nor should it be.

Religion is different. Reimages-7ligion, and Christianity specifically, is comfortable embracing mystery because if we could define God or explain all aspects of God, God would no longer be God.

Like science, our faith is part of the way we attempt to make sense of the world, but so is science. Our faith should embrace science. When men and women confirm their hypotheses, God has simply allowed us understand how the laws of His universe work. When we do not understand how the universe works, we should be comfortable allowing science to continue to work to find answers, but unafraid to acknowledge that we will never have them all.

There will always be elements within our world that lie outside verification.   Science will never be able to verify whether a person has had a direct encounter with God. First of all, science would not acknowledge the existence of God.   However, what cannot be denied is that people have a great need to connect with something beyond ourselves. Otherwise, there would not be so many religions in the world.

One thing that has made Christianity continue to live is that when we encounter the living God and the Holy Spirit descends upon us, we are changed.  That change becomes noticeable to the people around us. The change is manifested in our love for others.

Fire does not go unnoticed. It gives off light, heat, warmth, smoke, sparks, noise, and smells. And if the Spirit of God is dancing around in our lives, someone ought to notice that Jesus is producing some fruit in our lives because there is a fire burning within us.

In the book of Acts Luke wrote that when the people saw “the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” Acts 4:13 (NIV).

While our encounters with the Spirit of God may be mysterious, the evidence that we have been with the Spirit of God usually is not.

It is manifested by our love, which is the way others know that we are Christians.Unknown-2

When the love of Jesus is within us, there ought to be a burning desire to share that love with others.

If you keep a coal connected to the fire, it continues to burn hot. But if you separate it from the fire, it doesn’t take long before it cools down and it no longer gives off heat, unlike the other coals in the fire.

If you don’t have a burning desire to share the love of Jesus with others, it’s likely that you have removed yourself from Jesus, the disciplines of the faith, and other Christians.

Jesus chastised the church in Laodicea because they were just lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.

Do you remember Jesus’ words to the church of Laodicea about the dangers of being lukewarm? Jesus wants us to have a burning desire to follow him. He wants us to run after him.

images-10If we are not doing that, then His invitation to us is the same as it was to the church of Laodicea.

20-21 “Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you. Conquerors will sit alongside me at the head table, just as I, having conquered, took the place of honor at the side of my Father. That’s my gift to the conquerors! 22 “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches” (Revelation 3:20-21

This morning, allow the Holy Spirit to touch your heart again.

Allow the Spirit to blow your ember into a flame.

Don’t be in denial if you are in the wilderness.

Have the courage Moses had and allow God to guide you. He has work for you to do.

Accept his love and his grace for you. God will guide you and use you to bless others.

During this invitation, listen to the voice of God’s Spirit and respond to His call.