God of Fire
When I was a child we learned some physics principles through music. One song, that I remember hearing on a record at another family’s house, taught about the sun. “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a great big fiery furnace!” (Of course, I had to do a You Tube search and I found a version—dated 1993 – that is slightly different from the one I remember. Instead of a fiery furnace it declares that the sun is a gigantic nuclear furnace. However, the version, from my childhood, that speaks of the fiery furnace, connects with today’s image for God.)
Lauren Winner begins her chapter titled “Flame” using the passage from Luke’s Gospel. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” One of her friends suggested that the image of fire referred to Jesus’ crucifixion, that Jesus was wishing that the crucifixion with its suffering had already taken place so that redemption could come. This interpretation is not new. Some early church theologians understood the saying in this way. Winner said that she hears it quite differently. She muses that Jesus was saying, “I have come to set alight your ardor for Me and for all things good and lovely, and I wish that fire were already lit.” She remembers the disciples on the road to Emmaus who said, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” We could remember the story of Pentecost when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire. We might remember the words in the Revelation to John where God judges Laodicea because it is neither hot nor cold – but lukewarm. The judgment is close to Jesus’ words in Luke: How I wish the fire were kindled in you!
The You Tube version of “The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas” went on to speak of the necessity of the sun’s fire – that fire makes life possible. It also says that it would not be possible for any human being to exist close to its nuclear furnace. Winner says the two different interpretations of the words in Luke’s gospel are a reminder of “fire’s paradox.” “Fire is essential for life and civilization, and fire is a threat to both. Fire warms but can blister; fire heats but can consume.”
Fire has been in the news this summer. Just a few weeks ago a family died in a house fire in Tampa. We’ve seen fire’s destructive power as we read about and see the pictures of the wildfires in the western regions of this country. We hear stories of those who barely escaped – and stories of those who didn’t. We see the pictures of devastation –houses reduced to piles of ash, forests reduced to blackened tree stumps.
Years ago, a church member and his wife went to Yellowstone. They went just after devastating wildfires had blackened many parts of the park. The man was angry. “They should have done something to stop those fires,” he said to me. “The park was ugly!”
We see the destructive power; the aftermath, to our eyes, is ugly. Yet, biologists tell us that such fires are a necessary part of the cycle of life. One list said fire:
1. Reduces excessive amounts of dead vegetation. Without natural fire, such materials build up to levels high enough that eventually a fire would burn through with unnaturally high intensity that would seriously harm the forest ecosystem.
2. Exposes mineral soil, which many plants (including giant sequoias) need for reproductive success.
3. Opens up the forest so that sunlight can reach the ground, which many small plants need for reproductive success.
4. Recycles nutrients into the soil.
5. Helps control diseases and insects in both soil and plants.
Winner looked to Hazel Rossotti, a chemistry professor at Oxford, for a definition of fire. “We can define fire as a self-sustaining, high-temperature oxidation reaction which releases heat and light; and which usually needs a small input of heat to get it going.” Winner notes the idea of fire as “self-sustaining.” “God is,” she said. “And I am not…[we] cannot always summon a sense of God’s presence, even when we do the things we were taught in Sunday school…in other seasons, God roars into our lives in ways we wish we could avoid, tamp down, and put out entirely.”
National Public Radio had an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, an unorthodox Lutheran Pastor. I had to laugh at her response to someone who asked how to get closer to God. She responded that she didn’t work at trying to get closer to God. God came after her. Her faith was not her own doing. Faith, in fact, was a gift of God. I think she has experienced God as the “fire” that swept into her life and took her in directions she could never imagine. Winner speaks of practices that can “help keep the flame of God’s presence near:” prayer, attending church, practicing patience, practicing penance, practicing generosity. But, maybe we’re most comfortable with the fire that is lovely and contained – the flame of a candle – something small, something we can control.
Years ago, I helped plan worship for the annual meeting of the Synod of the Northeast. Each year, the Synod gathered for several days on a college campus. This particular year we were meeting at one of NY State’s colleges. There was no chapel, so worship was going to be in the theater. We met, in advance, with the college employee responsible for the theater and talked about what we would need – especially on the stage – chairs for participants, a table for communion, a lectern of some sort, and microphones. I don’t remember what the theme for the annual gathering was that year, but one of the Biblical stories we used was that of the pillar of fire leading the Israelites out of Egypt. When the service was over, the campus employee almost ran up to us. “I wish you had told me about the pillar of fire!” he said. “I could have given you a pillar of fire!” I’ve always thought we missed a wonderful opportunity. How awesome it would have been to have a pillar of fire erupt on that stage. Of course, it might also have frightened everyone! In worship, we would have been confronted by the potential for destruction.
I was thinking about that pillar of fire image this week. We just read the story. But I wonder – was it a scary image for the Israelites? Did they see in that pillar the possibility of destruction as well as a promise of new life? Maybe the pillar of fire “cleared” the way for the Israelites – burning a path for them.
What we perceive as destruction may be part of God’s redemptive presence. Fire can rage out of our control. But God refuses to be controlled by our expectations, by our traditions, by our hopes, by our fears, by our sense of decorum or theological correctness. God is, sometimes, the fierce fire that appears to destroy – in order that new life may emerge. Handel’s Messiah has a wonderful aria that picks up imagery of fire found in the book of Malachi. “For he is like a refiner’s fire!” the song powerfully declares. “A refiner’s fire.” Fire is used to purify metals. The unwanted, poorer, elements are burned off or melted away so that the expensive, rarer elements can emerge. The fire is necessary. The fire is part of the purifying process.
Back to the wildfires – some trees need fire to survive. Certain firs open their pinecones only when exposed to the intense heat of a fire. The seeds then germinate in the ashes.
Winner asks, “Could the Bible’s fiery imagery suggest that God’s destruction is regenerative? That God destroys not me but my sin, my hardness of heart, my fear, precisely so that I might be renewed?” She quotes English mystic Walter Hilton. “God is love and charity. Fir as fire wasteth all bodily things, that can be wasted, even so the love of God burneth and wasteth all sin out of the soul and maketh it clean, as fire cleanseth all manner of metals.”
The story of the Exodus has the story of the pillar of fire. In the book of Acts we have the story of the Spirit descending on the disciples at Pentecost like “tongues of fire.” There was a tradition in Italy of throwing rose petals from the church ceilings on Pentecost to commemorate the flames of the Spirit. That story of Pentecost reminds us that the church needed to be set “aflame” with God’s Spirit to find the courage to take the good news of the resurrection into the world. Winner says that “God’s flame also wants to focus our attention on the world.” We see that in the story of Moses and the burning bush. God spoke to Moses saying, “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have seen their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.”
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” Jesus said. We know the need for the fire that purifies, the fire that redeems, the fire that raises up voices of courage who speak out against injustice, who do mercy, who proclaim God’s love and God’s goodness and God’s intent. It is God’s invitation to us to draw near to that fire – that we might be caught up in its purifying blaze and set alight to be bearers of its light and ardor.