Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-11
How did you grow up imagining God? Is the image that you held in your childhood the same as the way you imagine God now? The images of God that we carry with us are important, and these images can come from what the Bible tell us about God or the way our church or tradition emphasizes certain characteristics about God. Or, our images might come from our own lived experience of God. Did you know there are over 40 different images of God depicted in the Bible? And there is so much variety in the imagery. Sometimes God is depicted as an animal, such as a dove, or a lion; sometimes as an inanimate force, like the wind. God is frequently described in a role, such as father, mother, teacher, creator, shepherd, judge.
It can be pretty mind boggling for us to conceive that God is at once all of these images and also so awesomely beyond any one image that we can mentally grasp. This is part of the mystery of God’s power and wonder. And yet, each image of God is important, because it reveals something to us about a facet of God’s divinity. Images give us a language for describing God, and images tap into not just our head, but also our heart and our emotions. I mean, how else can we describe our relationship with our unseen, powerful God without using images? Images evoke feelings and understandings that move us beyond abstract, out-there talk about God toward a concrete, personal, expressive, sensory, tangible spirituality.
So today, I have the privilege of reflecting with you all on one specific image of God – and I have chosen God as fire. And no one is more surprised than I am to have made this choice. For most of my life, God as fire was an image that I disliked, that frightened me, that at times even caused me to question my faith. As a child growing up in the rural South, the landscape was dotted with all kinds of evangelical churches, and one very close to my house had a sign out front that identified it as Spring Branch Pentecostal Holiness Fire Baptizing Church. And every time I drove by there I felt a shiver of terror for the folks that attended that church. It was surrounded by woods but I would try to peek through and see what kind of baptismal torture chamber they had set up on the back of their property that used fire. I thought anyone who went to that church was pretty far out there. And in my years as an English teacher, I was always sad that the one piece of American literature I was required to teach that foregrounded our Christian faith was Jonathon Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which contains the image of a wrathful God dangling people over the fiery pit of hell, and so it conjures an image of God aflame with anger. All of these images led me to resist the image of God as fire and cling instead to images of God as comforter, God as refuge or rock, of God as healer.
And we should be aware that the image of God as fire appears several times in scripture, and that we must look at each reference individually to determine what it means. For our purposes today, I am primarily looking at God as fire in the New Testament, and specifically how the Holy Spirit is imagined as fire. As John the Baptist preached, “I baptize with water, but the one coming after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” And at Pentecost, after Jesus ascends to heaven, the Spirit comes down on all the people waiting, and there is a violent wind and tongues of flame land on their heads, and they are filled with power, enabling them to speak in other languages.
The Holy Spirit is perhaps the most mysterious person of the Trinity. We can’t envision the Spirit the way we can envision the person of Jesus. We can’t hear the Spirit the way we can hear the voice of God and see the miracles of God in the Old Testament. We don’t really talk about the Spirit much in the church. And to be honest, I know a lot of Christians who believe in the teachings and the ethics of our faith but who are unsure what they think about the Spirit.
Here’s a way for us to understand the Holy Spirit: It is the mysterious power or presence of God that operates within individuals and communities, inspiring or empowering them with qualities they would not otherwise possess. And while I’m focusing on the New Testament, we also see this in the Old Testament with Moses, who received wisdom, courage, and power as gifts when the Spirit came on him through the burning bush. Fire represents God’s divine action in our lives, and scripture tells that God’s fire is an all-consuming fire. And we know how fire behaves, don’t we? It produces heat and light; it sustains life; it is used to clean, clear and purge; it purifies and sharpens. Fire clears the way so that the old can pass away and the new can emerge.
The fire of God is the fire of redemption and re-creation. It is the fire of life and inspiration. Poet and professor Richard Hauser writes: “The goal of the spiritual life is to allow the Spirit to influence all our activity. Our role in this process is to provide conditions in our lives to enable us to live in tune with the Spirit. Our effort is not a self-conscious striving to fill ourselves with important virtues; it is more getting out of the way and allowing Christ’s Spirit to transform all of our activities. Christ will do the rest. His Spirit has joined ours and will never abandon us.”
Another beautiful definition of our spiritual life comes from Ronald Rolheiser, who writes that the fire of God is that compulsion that we have to keep on going when we don’t even feel like it. He says it’s the “intuitive sense, rooted in something deeper than thought or feeling of what we need to do to find and sustain authentic life within ourselves.” He says spiritual energy works, and it is a mystery. “We need a fire beyond our own,” he writes, “to do what it is impossible for us to do through willpower alone.” How else does one suffering from addiction come into recovery? How else do we forgive the unforgiveable? Love the unloveable? How else are we able to turn the other cheek? To find the courage to change or move forward when every fibre of our being wants to stay right where we are?
The fire of God is what empowers us to become fully committed to both God and each other. Pastor Tracey, if you were here last week, spoke about what it means for us to be fully committed as leaders in the church. It is pretty typical for us to be afraid to fully commit. Think of the rich young ruler in the New Testament, who asked Jesus what more he needed to do to have eternal life. He was already a very good Christian. Jesus said to him, give everything that you have to the poor and follow me. In other words, give me everything. But he wasn’t able to give everything. And scripture tells us that he went away from Jesus, not a bad person, but a sad person.
What Jesus asks all of us is, why not become all flame? A poem by Margarate Halaska captures beautifully what it means to become all flame, using another image – the image of a mansion. Listen to her beautiful poem titled “Covenant.”
knocks at my door
seeking a home for his son.
Rent is cheap, I say.
I don’t want to rent. I want to buy, says God.
I’m not sure I want to sell,
but you might come in and look around.
I think I will, says God.
I might let you have a room or two.
I like it, says God. I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day.
I can wait, says God.
I’d like to give you more,
but it’s a bit difficult. I need some space for me.
I know, says God, but I’ll wait. I like what I see.
Hm, maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.
Thanks, says God, I’ll take it. I like what I see.
I’d like to give you the whole house
but I’m not sure …
Think on it, says God. I wouldn’t put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’d ever had before.
I don’t understand at all.
I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You’ll have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let me have the whole house.
A bit risky, I say.
Yes, says God, but try me.
I’m not sure –
I’ll let you know.
I can wait, says God, I like what I see.
God’s love is an all-consuming flame, but it is not a flame that empowers or consumes us without our desire and our consent. We must be prepared to change our perspective and our behavior. Isn’t that what John the Baptist was trying to say in our scripture today? Wake up, see with fresh eyes, be ready to see and experience God, and God’s world, and God’s ways, in a way you would have never expected before.
And when we allow God’s spirit to fully dwell in us, it changes us. God’s flame gives us an urgency, an enthusiasm, a compassion and a mercifulness and a hopefulness that others see in us. God’s fire empowers and it refines. Over time, we feel differently ourselves. We think differently. We behave differently. We desire differently. Because being in tune with the Spirit, we’ve been changed from the inside out, and our lives are marked by the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Thanks be to God for infinite patience with us, for the flame that continues to burn while we hold on to those few remaining rooms in our soul, for Christ’s total and sacrificial love for us, embodied in his birth, life, death, and resurrection.
Let us pray:
Our God—we, your people, stand ready and open
to receive the flame of your Spirit.
Give us the ability to speak your truth so that others may hear.
May that which was of stone be now transformed into life.
May we who receive your light dwell together in Your love.
Grant your compassion on those who suffer in mind, spirit, and body.
Make us bold to bring light to the dark places,
warmth to the cold places, and love to the empty places.
Spirit of the Living God, fill our hearts, minds, and souls to overflowing.
Our God—we, your people,
celebrate the mystery of your never-ending flame. Amen.
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