Consuming Fire

This upcoming week I get to do something that I’ve been invited to do several times over the past few years. I get to be a guest speaker for a class at WCU called Women and Religion. I have been invited to speak this year, and previous years, for obvious reasons and I get to talk about what it is like to be a woman in leadership in a religious organization. Additionally, I get to speak about what I believe and why this religion, and not any other, is the right place for me. Whenever I am asked these kinds of things, it always brings me back to fundamental questions of faith. Not just ‘what do Lutherans believe’ but who is this God in which we believe? Who is God? What is God like?

We have a vivid description of God in our second lesson for today. Our God is a consuming fire, Paul writes. There is something about this phrase that can really spark our fireimaginations. I’m sure it has something to do with the natural human reaction to fire which can range from fear to love or even to a feeling of peace and being in a safe home. Fire, along with water, is one of the most destructive forces on earth. And also, like water, one of the most needed and helpful. We prepare food with it and it can burn us. A warm and welcoming camp fire one moment and a blazing inferno destroying acres of forest the next. We need it, are drawn to it, try to tame it and use it as our tool but are also in awe of its power and force and, occasionally, we are at its mercy. Strange how this one thing can really be so many things. But it is.

Our God is a consuming fire.

Actually, there’s quite a lot going on in all our texts today that grabs us with vivid images and ideas. In Isaiah, we hear of gloom being like noonday, darkness being filled with rising light. We hear God making great promises for the future, promises that include making the people of God ride upon the heights of the earth and that God will feed his people with the heritage of Jacob.

In Hebrews there is a whole lot happening. The very voice of God shakes the earth “so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Luke tells of Jesus’ healing a woman who has been bent in half for eighteen years. Just imagine that! Then, with quick words, he puts his would be detractors to shame. The rest of the crowd, gathered around witnessing the healing, rejoices at all that Jesus does.

Our God is a consuming fire, not just a little flicker of light, and when coming into our lives, God definitely can set things aflame. Perhaps there is a little bit of a wakeup call in these texts and perhaps we all need it. We can also see fuller vision of the character of God when we see all these texts together.

You have come to the city of the living God, Paul writes, the heavenly Jerusalem and to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Paul is not writing a tour guide for the Holy Land or for Jerusalem. Instead, he is speaking to followers of Jesus and he writes of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God. A little earlier in this same letter, Paul also uses that interesting phrase “living God.” He writes: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. This, too, is a striking and maybe even a little confusing phrase.

It might be tempting for us to think of God in only two dimensional terms. Sometimes, without even realizing we are doing it, we can think of God an intellectual exercise, as a “good idea”, as though God were only what we imagine. We might not even realize how much we think of God as Santa Claus or some kind of good fairy that gives us what we want so we can be happy.

In C S Lewis books The Chronicles of Narnia, well known allegories of the Christian faith, the character of Aslan is symbolic of Jesus. Aslan is a lion, the rightful king of that fictional land Narnia, and while he is noble, kind and gentle, he can be quite fearsome at times. After all, Aslan is a LION! In one scene, a character asks if Aslan is a tame lion. No! Another character insists, he is not tame. But he is good.

Our God is not tame. Paul’s phrase “the living God” implies something not at all placid or under our control but, instead, very much alive and quite independent of us. Our God is not a statue, an easily moved and dusted off golden calf that mutely sits by as we go about our business day to day just waiting for us to pay attention to it as though it were more pet than divine. Our God is a living God who moves into our lives, fills us up and changes everything. When Paul writes about the power of God’s voice shaking heaven and earth, he reminds us that while so much of what we know is shakable, temporary, impermanent and not lasting, the kingdom of God, all that God is and all that God gives us that truly matters, is utterly unshakeable.

However, if we stop there and only speak of God in terms like that, mighty and powerful and perhaps sometimes a little frightening, when we speak of God with reverence and awe and do not speak also of God’s tenderness, mercy and love, we miss out on some important things about God. Yes, God is indeed mighty and powerful and very definitely not tame, but also the one who calls us to act in this world on behalf of those who are weak. God is also the one who reaches out to still those who shake with fear, illness and brokenness.

In our first reading God reminds the people that, as a part of what it means to be faithful, to worship God (which is what is meant by honoring the Sabbath) is to offer food to the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted and heal broken relationships. God promises that God will guide us, satisfy our needs and make us like a watered garden. In the darkness that fills this world, a darkness that was felt by the people then and a darkness we, too, feel today amid all sorts of uncertainties we encounter, God will make our light rise in spite of the darkness. Even the gloomy times will be like noonday.

Notably, God does NOT promise that there isn’t darkness and gloom in the world…at least for now. But even more importantly, God does promise that God is always with us. The God who is a consuming fire, the God who is so powerful as to shake heaven and earth, is the God who will never leave us.

In the verses of our psalm for today we heard of God’s grace and mercy and love. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. It is God 23who forgives all our sins, who heals all our diseases, 4who redeems us, who crowns us with steadfast love and mercy. It is our God who vindicates those who have been wronged, who destroys evil and is about the business of creating justice in this world. For God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

In our Gospel lesson we see, again, another piece of who God is. Here is God, the maker of all things, standing in a synagogue with ordinary people like you and me. With people who want to learn and be healed, with people who want so badly to be faithful and do the right thing, though they seem to miss the mark. There our God is, coming to them as he comes to us. There God is, calling to a woman who has been so possessed by a spirit, so broken in spirit and body that she has been bent over for eighteen years. Come here, he calls out to her. “Woman,” he tells her, “you are set free.” Such simple words from the one whose voice could shake down the stars. And a gentle hand he places on her. A healing hand. The hand of an untame God of consuming fire touches her and she is immediately healed, stands up fully straight, looking face to face with Jesus. And she begins to praise God.

In some ways, I think this is why the bible is as big as it is and covers so much territory from so many different perspectives. All four of the pieces of scripture we heard today speak about the same God and it takes them all to even begin to get a multi dimensional picture of who our God is. Our God who is, indeed, a consuming fire. Our God who never leaves us and keeps promises, our God who reaches out to heal, and who is gentle enough to touch those who are fragile and broken, our God who can shake heaven and earth, and who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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