The Danger and Gift of Fire

The text for this sermon is the Pentecost story in the book of Acts.

On Sunday nights at 7:00, at the Hanf home when I was a kid, we watched the Wonderful World of Disney. Much of what they showed were reruns of older series and movies from the fifties and sixties, like The Legend of Davy Crockett with Fess Parker. What I loved most were the nature shows. I thought is was hilarious when they would show two squirrels eating and running in the woods, with a commentator’s voice telling us what they were saying and thinking. “Mom just wants to gather nuts, but is it obvious Junior has something else on his mind.”

One of these nature shows that I still remember forty years after I saw it was on the forest service out west. It followed rangers as they lived for months at a time in observation towers deep in the woods. Their job day and night was to watch the forest below for signs of fire. In the show, a fire began as smoke puffing out of the trees almost unnoticeable, but soon it became a blaze that changed everything. I remember being terrified at the ferocity of the fire as it chewed up the forest with licking orange flames. They showed animals escaping from this inferno as brave men came to battle it. The devastation after the fire was horrible. The vibrant woods bursting with color were all black and gray, with smoke belching from the smoldering ground.
The hour long show didn’t end there. It went on to show how the forest started to quickly come back to life. It talked about some pine cones that only released their seeds under extreme heat, as if God had planned for fires like this. It taught me that these ferocious fires, actually helped clear the ground of brush and allowed for the forest to grow and thrive for thousands of years. The destructive fire fit into God’s plan for the woods. God was at work resurrecting what to us appeared dead, lost, and gone.
The Pentecost story told in the book of Acts includes fire, although it is the violent wind that seems to get top billing. The fire is described as flames that look like tongues, that dance over the heads of the people gathered for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Artists that have drawn this scene for generations have made the fire seem almost comical, stray flames tamely burning above the people gathered, looking like…well tongues. As a commentator on Working said, it would make someone say…that’s weird.
When Peter preaches afterward, he seems far more impressed with the fire. Quoting the prophet Joel the fire is part of God’s cleansing of the world that will leave a mist blowing afterward that reminds me of those scenes from Disney of the burned out forest belching smoke. The fire he is talking about are not dancing flames that look like tongues. They are apocalyptic. The fire is raging and the violent wind that is blowing is making the entire situation, catastrophic, destructive and terrifying.
Scripture has some pretty tame reactions recorded for the onlookers. They are amazed and perplexed. “Oh look Suzie, those people talking in foreign languages with windblown hair have dancing flames on their head. Hmmm…that is…amazing and just a little perplexing. Yawn, well let’s go on with our afternoon walk.” A scholar I read this week suggested that the Greek could be translated beyond themselves, completely undone, blown away. This seems to better describe the reaction of the crowd that caused Peter’s passionate sermon that led thousands to say I believe.
These flames were out of control and they burned within the hearts of each of those speaking in foreign tongues that could be understood. Burning off what was keeping people from God in order to make a new way for the Spirit to speak to us. These flames were out of control and it destroyed the religious establishment as they knew it, making room for a new way to worship God, a new community that would be shaped like a cross, a way to experience the risen Jesus here on Earth. The church would grow up from the ashes the flames left behind that day. So when the fire died down, new life, resurrection happened. There is nothing safe or tame about this. God’s presence is awesome, full and manifest.
About thirteen or so years ago, the Sudimacks had a nightmare begin that involved fire. While their middle school kids, Lauren and Nick, were home, their house burned to the ground. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Treva and Jack Sudimack have been members at Messiah for years, Treva grew up in this church, so many of you remember this tragedy. To hear them tell the story of sifting through a lifetime of stuff that was both meaningful and meaningless, is heartbreaking. Imagine losing every possession, your grandmother’s pearl handled brush you remember her using, hand tools given to you by your father when you purchased your house, pictures of your children’s first day of school.
Life changes so fast, but fire is never the end of the story with God. The death that fire leaves behind is always an indication that new life is about to happen. Death and resurrection, this is the story of God, of our world. Friends, family, strangers and a lot of members from this church, gathered clothes for them to wear in the immediate days after and offered support in the months that followed as they rebuilt their house, their life. To this day, they appreciate everything that people did for them in that tough year, from watching their kids in order to get them out of the hotel for a day, praying for them as they recovered, or going out to lunch with them to hear how they were doing. Insurance helped them rebuild a beautiful new house, but the love of a community helped them reclaim a home.
For unknown and unexpected reasons, fire happens, things that we knew and loved are destroyed in the flames. Fire is dangerously destructive. The charred remains, belch smoke as the embers die and we begin to evaluate what has been taken from us indiscriminately. The future is hard to see and this understandably makes us uneasy. Death is hard like this sometimes. We are blown away, beside ourselves, completely undone. I don’t believe God brings this destruction upon us, but I do believe God is present within the awesome fearful nature of it.
But if we trust God and wait, something new will begin to grow in the midst of our loss. The awesome, fearful fire creates chaos and disorder at first, but eventually resurrection happens, love envelopes us and peace can be found. This is the Pentecost Story. It happened not just on that day 2000 years ago, it happens every day, somewhere. And not once in our lives, but thousands of times until we ourselves are consumed by the flames.
The promise of the Spirit is to stand beside us in the midst of the flames. The promise of the Spirit is to bring new life when the embers cool and it seems as though death has surely had the last word. The promise of the Spirit is to lead us to peace, whether that be the very presence of God, what we call heaven or something new right here on earth. Our creative God is always clearing a path for something, wonderful and exciting to spring up where all looks lost right now. Amen

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