Notes from the sermon by the Revd Dr Angela Birkin 15th September 2019
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
When I first heard that I would be preaching this morning on the theme of ‘fire’ as part of a sermon series following on from sermons on the themes of earth and air or wind, I have to admit that my first thoughts involved the song Boogie Wonderland, one of the great disco songs of the late 70s by the group Earth Wind and Fire. Thankfully my thoughts moved on, but I do defy anyone not to dance when that particular song comes on the radio.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘fire’?
Do you think of beautiful dancing flames, the delicious smells of a barbeque, warmth on a cold evening?
Or do you think of how humans have harnessed fire to cook food, bake pots and bricks, work metal, produce steam power, electricity and the internal combustion engine?
Or do you think of the destruction and terror and pain and loss of life that fire can cause when it is uncontrolled, or used as a weapon?
Maybe all these thoughts pass through your mind because fire can be comforting and useful whilst also being terrifying and hard to control.
Perhaps it is not too surprising that the writers of the books of the Bible use fire as one of the descriptions of, one of the metaphors for, God,
e.g. in the Old Testament:
Exodus 24:17 ‘The appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.’
Deuteronomy 4:24 ‘For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.’
And in the New Testament
Hebrews 12:29 ‘our God is a consuming fire.’
Fire is also written of as a weapon of God’s righteous judgment:
Isaiah 66:15-16 ‘For the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD execute judgment.’
And fire is a common biblical symbol of God’s presence:
Exodus again, 14:24 ‘At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army.’
So far, so terrifying and not very comfortable, but we should take notice and consider how this challenges us and our view of God.
Is our picture of God too comfortable, too tame, too small?
Do we play down the strength of the anger of God at injustice, cruelty, greed, and the desecration of creation?
Do we know that when we try to manipulate God, ‘if you do this for me God then I will do that for you’ we are playing with fire?
What does it mean to someone who has suffered greatly in this life at the hands of others to know that ‘by fire will the Lord execute judgment’?
Bearing all this in mind let’s look at our reading from Exodus. Moses is looking after his father-in-law’s sheep, and at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, he comes upon a burning bush.
This is not an unusual sight in a hot, dry climate, think of the moorland fires which break out during spells of dry weather here, and the wildfires which have occurred in Europe, the Americas and Australia. But something makes Moses turn aside to taka a closer look. The bush was blazing but was not consumed. The energy producing light and heat was not due to combustion using fuel and oxygen, but due to the presence of God.
God has come to talk with Moses because God has heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and has a plan to save them, a plan involving Moses.
In the ever-burning shrub God comes down to Moses’ size, meeting Moses where he is, but at the same time the inextinguishable flame is the sign of God’s awesome and powerful holiness. ‘Take off your sandals Moses’ says God, ‘for this is holy ground. I am going to send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt. I will be with you’.
The fiery holiness of God; attractive ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up’ said Moses, and dangerous ‘Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God’, frightening and yet comforting, untamed but reassuring, ‘I will be with you’ God said to Moses. Fearful and wonderful.
In our passage from Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist says that the one who is coming, Jesus, ‘will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, and at Pentecost when all the believers were together in one place, ‘divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Acts 2.3-4
Fearfully and wonderfully, the Holy Spirit of God came to the believers where they were, frightening no doubt but also comforting, in John’s Gospel chapter 14 the Holy Spirit is called the advocate, the comforter or the helper.
Untamed – the believers started to speak in other languages and were accused of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning- but reassuring for it was just as the risen Jesus had promised before his ascension, and they knew that the risen Christ was with them.
‘I will be with you’ God said to Moses from the fiery bush.
‘I am with you always, to the end of the age,’ said Jesus to his disciples. Matt. 28:20
God had a plan involving Moses, came and met with him and equipped him.
God in Jesus Christ had a plan for his disciples, came and met with them and equipped them.
God in Jesus Christ has a plan for us, comes and meets us where we are, whoever we are, no exceptions, and equips us fearfully and wonderfully. And God’s plan always involves salvation, mercy and justice: freeing those who are enslaved by poverty, war, famine, abuse, and violence.
But we need to be observant like Moses. We need to look for God’s presence in people and all creation, and if we notice beauty and strangeness and holiness we need to be prepared to turn aside to take a closer look. If we don’t we may well miss an encounter with the divine.
Poets say things so well in few words:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning from ‘Aurora Leigh’,
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.’
R.S Thomas, priest and poet: ‘The Bright Field’
‘I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.’
God in Jesus Christ equips us to serve God’s kingdom of love and mercy and justice with Godself, the Holy Spirit so that everywhere we walk is holy ground, is burning with the inextinguishable fire, the unquenchable fire, of God who is love.
Words of Woody Guthrie:
‘That spot is holy holy ground
That place you stand, it’s holy ground
This place you tread, it’s holy ground
God made this place his holy ground.
Take off your shoes and pray
The ground you walk, it’s holy ground
Every spot on earth I traipse around
Every spot I walk, it’s holy ground.’