TEXT:  1 Cor. 3:10-15; Luke 3:15-17



            I lived for a while in San Antonio, Texas.  There was a little boy in my apartment complex who used to come and visit me almost every day because he loved my dog.  The little boy…maybe five or six year old…had no hair and his face was disfigured.  He always wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts, no matter how hot it was. 

One day a knock came on my door.  I opened it up and a little person stood there completely wrapped in bandages—head to toe like a mummy with just little slits for eyes, nose, and mouth.  “Bet you don’t know who I am!” came the little voice I knew so well.  I pretended I didn’t and we had a good laugh.  He was there in San Antonio because of the excellent burn unit in their hospital, and every so often he had new skin grafts and treatment and came out looking like the mummy on my doorstep.  I asked him one day what had happened.  He was playing with matches on his bed.  Fire is a dangerous thing.

Yet the discovery of fire is the measure by which all other discoveries are judged.  With fire we keep warm, cook, maintain industry, set a mood, purify metal.  Forest fires can be horribly destructive, but they are also necessary to the ecology of an area, clearing out underbrush and fertilizing soil with the ashes.  The giant redwoods in California will not open up and drop their seeds without the blazing heat of fire.

Just as fire is a complicated symbol in life, so it is in Christian faith.  The flame is part of the official symbol of the United Methodist Church.  The fire that wraps around the cross in our insignia is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which the Bible tells us filled the disciples on Pentecost in the form of tongues of flame.  God takes the form of a burning bush to talk with Moses and is described in passages of Scripture as a “consuming fire.”

Fire is also a purifying agent in the Bible, and that is what is meant in the passage I read from Luke.  John the Baptist baptizes with water.  He starts people out on the Christian journey.  But Jesus baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit…a fire that purifies us across the rest of our lives, making us each day more fit for the Kingdom of God.

By the time of Jesus, fire was also a symbol for the domain of Satan and his demons.  That image of a fiery hell comes from a place of actual fire, a valley just below Jerusalem called the Valley of Himmon, or Gehenna in Hebrew.  It was in this valley that the ancient Canaanites once sacrificed their children by throwing them into the fire.  Once Jerusalem came under Israelite control, they felt the valley had been so tainted by the evil of child sacrifice that it should not be used for anything good.  It became the trash heap for Jerusalem, where the fires of trash burning in Gehenna became the usual state of affairs…a suitable symbol for the home of ultimate evil.

We have talked about the four elements of earth, air, water, and now fire.  Of the four, fire is the only one that you really shouldn’t play with, as the little boy in San Antonio found out.  Fire is an incredible gift…one that our lives today could not be sustained without.  But it is not for play, as a squirt gun plays with water, a boy digs in the dirt to find treasure, or a girl sticks her hand out the car window to feel the wind pushing against it.  Fire demands respect whether it is the flame on a candle in your living room or a raging wildfire on a mountainside.

I think that is why fire is the element most directly linked to God.  God is not to be toyed with, not because God is mean and will bite you, but because the nature of God is like a fire.  When I was in Scotland last summer I visited a place that had a resident Highland Cow named Hamish.  Maybe you’ve seen a Highland Cow…they are covered in long, golden hair and have massive horns, like a Texas Longhorn.  The sign by his pasture read, “Hamish is friendly and gentle.  He is also a bull.  You should respect that.”  I think that same philosophy fits our relationship with God.  “God is friendly and gentle.  He is also God.  You should respect that.”

Those of you who are former Catholics probably don’t have an issue with that.  The Catholic Church has always been good about lifting up the need to reverence and respect God and the things of God.  Catholics more often need to be reminded that “God is friendly and gentle,” and to experience curling up by the warm fire of God’s love. Protestants, on the other hand, have sometimes been so steeped in “What a Friend We Have In Jesus” that we can forget who we’re dealing with and sometimes get burned in the fire.  It’s not either/or; it is both/and.

Note that whether a fire is burning down your house or boiling the potatoes, the nature of the fire is the same.  It is not the fire that changes.  The different effects of fire are caused by the differences in whatever the fire touches.  Fire touches straw and it burns.  Fire touches gold and it is purified.  Fire touches water and it eventually turns to steam.  Fire touches wood and it becomes ash.  Fire touches wax and it melts, fire touches clay and it hardens.  Same fire, different effects.

I think that is what Paul is talking about in 1Corinthians 3.  In verse 9 he has just described the people of God as God’s building.  He continues on with the metaphor of construction by saying in v. 12, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.”  It’s the same truth as the story of the Three Little Pigs.  The wolf blows the same on all the houses.  Straw and sticks fall down.  Bricks stay standing.

The fire of God comes to us all and what it does when it comes depends not on the fire, but on us…on what we’re made of.  A few weeks ago I did the Bible Study for a Conference event called Seeking Spiritual Transformation.  I began that study by saying that if anyone had come to the conference actually seeking to be spiritually transformed, they were about to be hit with some of the most difficult times of their lives.  To volunteer for spiritual transformation is to ask the fire of the Holy Spirit to come and make us into useful vessels for God’s work.  And if we want to be transformed, we can’t stay the same.  The garbage has to be burned up in the fire so that only the pure gold is left.

We have talked in the Tuesday night Bible Study about how praying for patience or any of the other virtues is tantamount to signing up for boot camp.  God does not drop the Christian virtues into our souls like candy into a Christmas stocking.  They don’t just suddenly show up as an answer to prayer.  If I pray for patience, I have signed up for a divinely led class where I will learn patience.  And the way you learn patience is by a steady stream of frustrating circumstances that require us to exercise our patience muscles.  It is a difficult, but effective course.

Christian life is not for sissies, and if you truly want to be a better person…if you truly want God to be at work in your life, then look out.  God is a fire.  That fire will eventually turn you into pure gold, but it’s darned hot in the furnace in the meantime.  You can’t be transformed and stay the same.  If we want to really become God’s people, we have to submit to the fire.  We have to be willing to give up control and to open up the hidden places of our lives to the searing heat of God’s love.  If you just play with spiritual transformation, you’ll get burned.  If you offer yourself up to the Holy Spirit, the soft clay of your life will become a ready vessel for God’s work.  It is all done in the fire.

Sometimes I think we have completely misunderstood the nature of hell.  Maybe it’s not a fiery place where bad people get sent.  Maybe the fire sweeps over all of us, as Paul implies.  Those who are completely evil, like straw, are completely burned up.  But those with even a tiny kernel of goodness survive the fire.  All that is not of God within us gets consumed and, for some of us, there may not be a whole lot left; but whatever remains is pure and with God’s help can grow into the likeness of Christ.

Remember that even Jesus was not spared the fire.  He was tempted in the desert, was persecuted, tortured, and eventually executed as a common criminal.  But he came through those fires so completely purified that those who saw him after the resurrection didn’t even recognize him anymore, and he was glorified and exalted.

In my experience, God is all the things that fire is.  The discovery that there is a God changes our lives like the discovery of fire changed the course of civilization.  Things become possible that never were before.  With God in our lives there is warmth even on the sub-zero nights.  The flame of God’s love makes a light in even the darkest places and turns things that we never could have eaten otherwise into good food.

But at the same time, that warming fire is to be respected and not taken for granted.  It is a living flame.  It will do the most good inside our hearts, but when it dwells there, none of the straw of this world can survive.  The flame of the Holy Spirit will refine our lives so that we can fulfill our purpose to be the Body of Christ for the world.  That last part isn’t a comfortable experience…it requires us to change.  If you want to be transformed, you can’t stay the same.  But when it is complete…oh, the glory.  You will shine like the sun in the sky and have a purity that resembles the Son of God.

What do you seek?  Why are you here?  There is fire on the altar that would enter your heart.  Will you open your heart and let it in?  Amen.


Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson

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