September 18, 2011

Exodus 3:1-6
Malachi 3:1-4
Acts 2:1-6

“FIRE is the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products.” I looked that up on Wikipedia, where it also says this about FIRE: “Fire in its most common form can result in conflagration, which has the potential to cause physical damage through burning.” That is, unless we’re talking about Moses’ burning bush where the bush was miraculously burning and burning, but not being consumed.

As you may have guessed by now, FIRE is the topic of my sermon this morning, just as FIRE was the theme of our Saskatchewan Presbyterian Youth event here this weekend. When we titled the weekend “Fire’s Burning, Draw Nearer,” we hoped that youth from across the province would come together this weekend – drawing near to one another (making new friends and renewing old friendships) and that they would draw near to God as well through worship, study, discussion, prayer, and music. With participants from Regina, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon, I think I can speak for the group when I say that we’ve had a wonderful time together.

Now, when I say that we’ve had a wonderful time together, I don’t mean to say that everything about the weekend went smoothly or as planned. For example, I was really excited about the idea that we were going to have a campfire on Friday night to get the theme of the weekend started. I brought a portable fireplace, matches, newspaper, kindling, and some wood, and some of the guys helped me to set it up in the parking lot.

Then we went back inside the church for a few opening activities. And while we were inside, it rained a little. Not too much, mind you. And it stopped raining in time for our fire, so we went out and got it lit. Well, we’d hardly begun to sing “Fire’s burning” when it started to rain again, sprinkling at first, but then harder and harder until we were all soaked. It was a pretty short campfire.

On Saturday we had more issues with fire… Well, not exactly fire, but smoke. I was upstairs doing something else before dinner when the fire alarms started to sound. No, the kitchen crew hadn’t set the church on fire (at least, not literally on fire) but some cheese from Laurie’s delicious lasagne had dripped onto the aluminum tray at the bottom of the oven and caused enough smoke to trigger the smoke detector just outside the kitchen. It took us a few minutes to get it sorted out, to turn off the alarm and make sure that the security company hadn’t already sent us a fire truck.

I guess when it comes to fire, things can be unpredictable. When we try to set fires, they don’t always take off as we would hope. And sometimes, when we just want to avoid a fire, fire seems to have a mind of its own. Perhaps that is why FIRE can be so fascinating. Because as much as we need fire  and we use fire for so many things like heating our homes and running our cars and cooking our dinner, FIRE still remains somewhat beyond our control – an unpredictable power that brings with it danger and risk.

And what we discovered here this weekend as we studied the scriptures together is that God is very much like fire. FIRE is a metaphor that is used over and over again throughout the bible to describe God’s activity in our lives. Let me give you a few examples starting with Moses and the burning bush.

Have you ever wondered about that story? What’s with the bush that’s burning, but not getting burned up? Moses is up on a mountain looking after the sheep, and God appears to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. Moses looks, and the bush is blazing, but not consumed. And Moses says, “Huh? That’s kind of weird! I totally have to stop and have a look at this burning bush! I’ve never seen anything like it!”

And the point is that God has gotten his attention. Moses would probably have been perfectly content to spend the rest of his life looking after sheep and staying out of politics and religion. But God had plans for Moses to lead the Hebrew People out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, and God needed to get Moses’ attention so God could tell him about the plan.

Even without the drama of an ever-burning bush, God is still working on getting our attention so that we too can hear God’s voice and make the decision to co-operate in God’s plan for us and for the world. I invite you to think right now about the ways that God has gotten your attention when God had something to say to you. Was it through a dream or a vision like Moses experienced? Or was it through the beauty of creation, or through the scriptures, or through a negative or a positive experience, or through the voice of a friend or a stranger? I wonder… how might God be trying to get our attention today? And are we ready to turn towards God and listen for what God might be telling us?

Once God had Moses’ attention, God spoke to Moses and Moses listened, and God gave him a rather big and important job. Unfortunately, Moses didn’t feel very worthy of the task. He responded, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Most of the callings that we receive aren’t quite as big or daunting as the one that Moses received from God. Our callings may include things like spending the weekend sleeping in a church with a bunch of Presbyterian youth (like our chaperones did this weekend) or our calling may be to become an elder in the church (like Leslie and Laura and Elizabeth did last Sunday).

Our callings may include caring for people who are in need in our family or in our community – giving significant amounts of time and attention to ensure the safety of a family member, or perhaps even a stranger that comes across our path. Our callings may include taking on leadership roles in our workplaces or community organizations, and speaking up for justice and kindness towards those who are suffering.

When we receive our callings, we may feel very much like Moses did – unsure, hesitant, or even sceptical as to whether we’ll be able to handle it or not. And it’s a logical feeling because none of us are actually worthy of the missions that God sends us out on. We wouldn’t actually be able to accomplish them alone. But God tells us, as God told Moses, “I will be with you.”

Not only is God with us on the missions that we are given, but God is continually working on us. In the text that was read from the prophet Malachi this morning, we heard about God’s fiery activity in our lives. The prophet tells us that the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire… he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”

We include a prayer of confession in our worship every week because we know that as humans we are unable to live up to God’s high standards or to follow God’s commandments perfectly. Even the commandment to love one another that is so simple to say, is not so simple to put into practice in all our relationships.

But God’s fire is not just about getting our attention, it’s also a refiner’s fire that is purifying our lives and helping us to become more and more like Christ. You know how a refiner’s fire works, right? It burns at such a high temperature that the impurities in the gold or silver are removed so that they become more and more purely gold or silver.

We often talk about how God accepts us “just as we are” and I certainly believe that. But that acceptance doesn’t mean that God wants us to stay “just as we are.” When we become followers of Jesus, God takes us as we are. But then, like a refiner’s fire, God works on us – judging us, correcting us, purifying our lives, and shaping us into the image of Christ.

God promised to be with Moses on his mission and on the long journey with the Israelites through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Along the way, God led them with a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire in the night… and eventually, the one who was so unworthy managed to accomplish God’s plan because God was with him.

Our Christian faith invites us to remember that God is still acting like that pillar of fire in our lives – that we can look to God for guidance and direction… for help to make important decisions in our lives, and for assurance to know that we are never alone as we face the difficulties and trials of life.

In our final scripture text this morning, we heard about the fire of God’s Spirit on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Once again, God is acting like fire in this story. But the fire is neither to get our attention, to refine our lives, or to simply lead us through the difficulties of life. In this important account of the birth of the Christian Church, the Spirit of God is poured out on the disciples of Jesus and a tongue of fire rests on each one of them.

And the fire doesn’t just grab their attention or identify them as Christians. The fire in this case, is sending them out into the streets to preach the Gospel and tell the good news about Jesus Christ to all the people of the world in all the languages of the world. Like people rushing out of a burning building, the disciples get themselves out – but not because they are afraid of the flames, but because the Spirit of God has inspired them, and filled them, and equipped them to get out and share their faith.

That same fiery Spirit is flashing through the lives of God’s people today also. Once God has gotten our attention and begun the work of purifying our lives, then before we know it (and often before we feel very ready) the Spirit is sending is out to participate in God’s mission in the world.

Just like Moses was pretty scared to stand too close when God spoke to him from the burning bush, we may feel pretty tentative about drawing near to the fire of God. But hopefully, like him, we can have enough courage to stay close, to take off our shoes, and to recognize that we are standing on holy ground in the very presence of God. And no matter how unworthy we may think ourselves to be, and no matter how big and challenging the mission God has for us may be, God will be with us like FIRE – catching our attention, leading us on our journey, judging us, correcting us, and purifying our lives. God will be with us like FIRE – inspiring us, equipping us, and filling us with a passion for God’s purposes.

The fire of God is burning. Let us draw nearer. Amen.