Monday, June 1, 2015

Fires of Change

Last week we celebrated Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit with wind and fire. We explored how wind, breath and spirit are all connected all through the Bible and how living a Godly life includes both inhaling (gathering in) and exhaling (going out).  The OT reading was the famous valley of the dry bones story in which the prophet Ezekiel was commanded by God to prophesy to the breath, to call the wind to give life to the dry bones. Ezekiel's prophesy transformed the bones to living bodies. 

This week we hear from another Old Testament prophet—Isaiah—and the predominent images are of smoke and fire. The familiar words of Holy, Holy, Holy call up memories of music and communion. 

Too often we read this as a ho-hum story from the Bible—the hem of God’s big robe as comforting as a cosmic security blanket, flying angels singing Holy, Holy, Holy and inspiring us to do the same. But, I suspect that Isaiah’s experience was a little different.

Imagine coming to church and suddenly the roof disappears, you look up and get dizzy because you can see so far. Then some huge thing descends from the sky and blankets the entire sanctuary, covering you, too. You push it away from your eyes and notice the seraphs are flying around. Except they are not chubby angels with pink cheeks.

The flying things look more like dragons than toddlers. Seraph means serpent. And a fiery serpent at that. And so these flying things are giant fiery serpents with six wings. 

This creates a slightly different image.  Fiery serpents flying and crying Holy, Holy, Holy so loudly that the whole building shakes while smoke fills the room. It hurts your ears and reverberates in your chest like a bass drum during a parade.

When this happens to Isaiah, he says, "Woe is me." 

That is an understatement.

To make matters worse, a fiery serpent picks up a live coal from the alter and starts coming toward Isaiah with it. There is a plan for those unclean lips. And it doesn't look like a good one. 

Personally, I think by this point I would have passed out in fear. My knees would have given way and I would have collapsed into a puddle in that smoke-filled room. But, this most likely a vision, something like a dream. Or nightmare. In which case I would have wakened myself and gotten a drink of water to try to forget all of the scary images.

But Isaiah stays in it. After the coal touches his lips, he has been purified, his sin blotted out. He senses something has changed.

The the voice of God comes booming in asking "Whom shall I send?" Isaiah says, "Here I Am. Send me." Maybe he's excited that his lips still work.

After all of that terror, Isaiah volunteers to go work for God. And he doesn’t even know what he is volunteering for! God doesn’t reveal what needs to be done. Isaiah is like that annoying kid in college who sits in the front row waving his had to answer the question before the professor finishes asking the question.

In his dramatic vision, Isaiah learns that encountering God changes a person, just as fire changes whatever it comes in contact with. A candle wick, wood and food are all changed by fire. Sometimes they’re consumed as in a forest fire. Sometimes they are made better, like a steak.

In Isaiah’s vision, fiery serpents, smoke and hot coal transform Isaiah from a man of unclean lips to and enthusiastic prophet ready to use his purified lips to speak God’s words to the people of Israel.

Fire plays a big role in the Bible. Most of us think of fire as punishment. In many of our minds 

fire = hell  

In Leviticus, God burns up two priests who didn’t get the recipe right for incense and fire (10:1-2). God responds to their unholy fire by burning them. It also says if a man marries a woman AND her daughter they are all to be burned as punishment (20:14).  Leviticus is all about how to keep and maintain the fire and conduct sacrifices of burnt offerings

In the New Testament, John the Baptist tells us that we must produce good fruit or risk being cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus himself talks about eternal fire and the fire of Hell.  Fire can represent punishment in the Bible.

But, Isaiah is surrounded by fire and smoke and serpent-y things and he is in the presence of God, not in hell. 

That terrifying vision doesn’t seem to be a form of punishment, but rather a way of expressing God’s power. In the Bible, fire isn’t just about hell. Fire also symbolizes that which is Holy.

Deuteronomy describes God as a consuming fire (4:24). 

When the Israelites encounter God in Moses time, the people see smoke and fire on the mountain. All they can feel is the earth trembling. They are terrified and tell Moses he can be the one to go talk to this fiery, smoky, shaky God, while they hang back a safe distance away. 

"Oh no," they demure. "You go, Moses. We will stay back well away from all that fire and smoke. You go on ahead. Then come back tell us what God says." And so Moses was a the sent one.

One of the rules that God gives Moses is that a continuous fire is to be kept on the alter for the burnt offering to God, a holy fire in a holy place.

So fire can represent punishment or the holiness of God.  But, fire can also be a symbol for change or transformation. God uses a burning bush to call Moses to ministry—but it was Moses who changed, not the bush. God blots out Isaiah’s sin with a coal from the alter fire. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit rests on Jesus’ disciples with tongues as of fire. 

Fire brings change.

Fire brought change to the disciples at Pentecost. Fire brought change for Isaiah. Fire brought change for Moses. But before all of that, says Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham, fire changed humanity.

When humans started applying fire to food, something surprising happened—their brains got bigger. In other words, cooking our food made us smarter. Fire transforms whatever it encounters. Putting our meat over a fire charred the meat and transformed humanity.

Eat a raw steak and your body will expend most of its energy trying to digest it and turn it into energy. Cook the steak first, and you start to unlock the energy before it gets to your stomach. Wrangham says that in our history, all of this extra energy is what allowed the human brain development to explode—giving way to language, religion, and civilization. 

This makes me wonder if that continuous fire on the alter and all of those burnt offerings changed the culture of the Israelites for the better. Remember, they actually ate parts of the offerings. Could it be that following God’s laws and sharing cooked food helped the Israelites transform from a rag tag group of wandering, complaining slaves to a formidable nation?

In many ways, we are still like those Israelites. We still gather around fires. Every week we have candles on the communion table as part of our worship. We light an Advent wreath and put out candles for a Tenebrae service. We dress the sanctuary in the colors of fire for Pentecost. 

We don't have burnt offerings anymore (unless something goes terribly wrong with at the roast beef dinner), but we still eat fired food together regularly. We don’t turn people away from the refreshments at fellowship time provide. We eat lunches and dinners together and hold strawberry and peach festivals. We donate food to those who cannot afford it for themselves.

The bread we break for communion has been transformed by fire, both literally in an oven and symbolically fire of the Holy Spirit. We believe that taking in that bread changes something in us.

Fire has had a transformative effect on this church as well. As many of you will know, the sanctuary was destroyed by fire in the 1980s. Those who were here remember the devastation and pain of watching the church burn or seeing the damage that was done as you drove by afterwards.

The story of the fire is one of the first things that people wanted to share with me when I came here as a pastor. I’ve heard stories of firefighters carrying Bibles and hymnals out of the flames. I’ve heard about how the congregation worshipped in the local synagogue. I’ve seen photos of the Rabbi and the pastor together as you exchanged gifts.

Just as Moses and Isaiah were changed by their encounters with fire, this church has, too. There is no doubt in my mind that the fire transformed the way you think about church.

This congregation is resilient. You know that you can face adversity—lose your building—and still find ways to be God’s church. You know that you can count on each other in difficulty and tragedy. You have an intuitive understanding of a resurrection life—not just from scripture, but from experience.

Like Isaiah, you have faced the terror and devastation of fire. And when it was over and God came calling, you said here we are. Send us. And you continued to be the church, worshipping God, delivering Meals-on-Wheels, working with the Good Samaritan Center, studying and learning together.

 You know that what makes you a church is not the size of the congregation, the programs that you have, or the money in your endowment. What makes you a church is your devotion to Jesus Christ. What makes you a church is the love you have for God and the love you have for your neighbor.

When we came here for the work day a few weeks ago, the fire alarm was beeping. It was telling us that something needed attention.  And do you know that darn thing was beeping for about a week before Martha, the phone company and the alarm company could figure out what was going on. It turns out some wires were crossed.

I think it was appropriate that the alarm was beeping. That alarm was alerting us to something more important than crossed wires. The alarm was reminding us that the Holy Spirit that is at work here.

A change is happening. God is empowering and equipping us to love and serve a changing world in new ways. The wind and the fire of the Holy Spirit are moving in Reunion Church and I hope in your own life.  

And while I’d like to promise that it will be easy and uplifting, Isaiah’s vision – and your own experience—show that God's call upon your life doesn't always come with cherubs and angels.  It may feel more like earthquakes and fiery serpents. Or a cross and crucifixion. 

But the promise is that presence of the Spirit's fire leads us closer to God. It may unsettle us, terrify us or inspire us. However it works, it will change us. We cannot encounter the God of the universe and just walk away the same as we were before. 

I pray that as each of us encounter God we respond with the enthusiasm of Isaiah.

I pray that when the God of fire and wind and love and glory says, "Whom shall I send?" We have an entire roomful of people who put up their hands and say, "Here I am. Send me!"

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