27 March 05 Easter
Texts: Luke 12:49-53; Acts 2:1-4 & Exodus 3:1-10
Fire power is my theme. In a military setting fire power is what you want to have in terms of fighting ships, missiles and artillery if you have any hope of succeeding in modern warfare—which your fire power is supported by air cover, bombers and fighters, then your shock troops and infantry can succeed on the ground. There are other things that go into a successful campaign, stratagems and a battle plan, but if you don’t have the fire power, you will not, even if your supply lines are secure and your support is in place, to dislodge and defeat the enemy. In terms of the church and in terms of the spiritual conflict in which all Christians are engaged, fire power is very important. Fire power is the powerful intrusion of God’s influence in human history--notably in the lives of the patriarchs, Moses, the judges and prophets and kings. But supremely, we are talking about the supreme weapon in divine ordnance: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This event registers off the scale in comparison to all the prior interventions of God--indeed, if all the prior interventions were summed together, the fire power of Easter would outweigh them all!
Two weeks ago I received notice that a former college professor of mine, a man who began his career at Bates College in 1965, the same year that I began my college years, is retiring. Carl was a bright, young professor of religion, philosophy and cultural studies back then and I was an impressionable younger man. I am sure that I am indebted to Carl for many things—not the least of which was the challenge to think, to think for myself. If I remember correctly reading original sources and using a fountain pen were two scholarly habits that I can trace to his influence. Carl was a mentor and scholar. He was also a disciple of Paul Tillich, an American theologian who stood in the tradition of Rudolf Bultmann, a German higher critic whose influence in American seminaries and theologian has been immense. According to Bultmann, because we live in an scientific world, the mythological language of the bible and the Christian religion needs to be reworked, translated as it were, into terms acceptable to the modern mind. What he meant was that naturalism was supreme and that the super-natural had to be demystified—explained rationally—or be dismissed as irrelevant. Tillich believed that the religious symbols of Christianity were void of meaning. Tillich came up with philosophical language to replace the language of the scriptures. For example, God becomes “the ground of our being,” the ultimate. And both being and becoming were stock in trade of the “new” religious discourse so we find titles of books like The Courage to Be being published which were existentialist in their outlook and foundations. You have probably hung in there just about as long as human interest can sustain you, and I appreciate that, so I want to try and simplify the matter and bring it to the point of Easter.
When you talk about God impersonally, as the One, the ultimate, absolute being, or the ground of your being, not only do you have a lot of explaining to do (because you have lost most of your listeners!), you lose something essential: the personhood of God. When you speak of God as Father, the personal is much, much nearer in mind, in understanding. Oh, Father, I know one of those. I am related to a father. It is easy to bridge from this Name of God to His nature. God the Father is a personal idea. So, I was confronted with a choice: either God was personal as the Bible reveals, or God was impersonal, abstract, only an idea as some very bright men and women seemed to think. And I believe that this choice is a question of authority—a matter of whom to believe, of whom to follow. If I had gone with Carl, I fear that I would have become a deist—or worse an agnostic, one who claims not to know whether or not God is real, or exists. A deist is someone who sees God impersonally and, typically, philosophically. So what? Well, this is what: for the deist the whole plan of redemption is pointless because if there was no Father God to be offended, there would be no Son to be sent, no crucifixion, no resurrection. You and I would left alone in an impersonal universe with no hope, no purpose and no sense of God-given direction. Still, the whole anti-Christian bias of academia was on his side--it still is. The philosophical momentum on many campuses was against faith, against belief and conviction and it still is! I do not claim to have been particularly courageous in this matter and I stood up to the culture of disbelief. I can explain what turned the tide: fire A personal encounter with the biblical God--so often symbolized by fire--turned the tide and I came to saving faith right smack dab in the middle of intellectual atheism. It was not a popular thing to do, but God isn’t particularly concerned about such things as popularity when it comes to loving us!
In the fall semester of my sophomore year I had a God encounter on the third floor of Parker Hall. It was a Friday night and I was preparing for a Saturday morning exam in economics shortly after 8:15 p.m. My room was suddenly aflame with the presence of the Father. He spoke to me assuring me of His presence and of His love for me—we do indeed love because He first loved us. Not only was my life saved, my faith perspective was instantly transformed: it simply was no longer possible to deny the existence of God, no longer possible to put God in some neat philosophical box—neat, safe, impersonal and remote. God trained His fire power on me and I surrendered. Then I knew what troubled me so much about Bultmann, Tillich, Carl and a bunch of others whom I shall, mercifully, not name: their God was dead! My God was personal, real and present and suddenly the Bible began to make sense to me. Suddenly, miracles were no longer the mental difficulty they were before!
Hebrews 11 contains the marvelous hall of fame for faith. I want to allude to some of those mentioned there, and some others besides—those who much more significant than I who have lived since the cannon was closed. Some of them learned to think for themselves, too because of their encounter with the fire. I will begin with John Wesley whose journal records that he went, very reluctantly, to a society meeting where someone read Luther’s preface to Romans. John records that he felt his heart strangely warmed—the divine fire!—as he became convinced that he could rely on Christ, and Christ alone for the forgiveness of his sins, for his entire salvation! One century before that Blase Pascal had such an encounter with the divine fire that he carried the record of it sewn inside his jacket. It read in part, “Fire, fire, fire!” In Scripture, the record of fire power begins with Abraham’s covenant (Gen. 15:4-6, 12 and 17) when the Lord God seals His covenant with Abraham by passing through the halved portions of the sacrifice as a flaming torch. The whole history of humanity is shaped by this event, a divinely initiated seismic event. The next significant fire exchange is in the life of Moses at the burning bush. It is the event of Moses’ commissioning and call to deliver the Hebrews from slavery. Just as we expect the prospect of ambition to have died in this prince turned sheepherder, (he was eighty years old, you see) God’s fire is manifested and the course of history is altered once again. I note here that all history is altered by this divine fire because we are not merely talking about the history of the Jews, but of the whole earth, all mankind. Divine fire also breaks out among the rebels of Korah, (Numbers 18: 35 “And a fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty who were offering incense.”) as a judgment against them. Among the judges, we pause to note the falling of divine fire through Gideon’s visitor in the wine press. The sacrifice that Gideon offers to confirm his divine encounter is consumed in an instant by fire like that which appeared to Abraham, his father and ours in the faith. (Judges 6:21) This fire changes Gideon’s life and the course of history for the Israelites he served. On the basis of that fire, Gideon became a contender for God, an opponent of the paganism in the land, specifically the religion of Baal. The falling of divine fire recurs in Elijah’s contest against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38) where it consumes the supersaturated sacrifice that the prophet had prepared for the one true God. God’s fire power at the time inspired the execution of all the priests gathered in that place. When Elijah exits this life, he does so in a chariot of fire with horses of fire. (2 Kings 2: 11) because fire is a symbol of divine presence, power and approval! The next incident of divine fire comes in the year that King Uzziah dies. (Isaiah 6:6) Like the fire we’ve described before, these outbreaks are primarily associated with altars and sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah is ministered to by the seraphim who brings a live coal from the altar of sacrifice. Thus Isaiah is purged of his sins and prepared for ministering unto the people as the Lord appointed. And with this we must leave the Old Testament.
Divine fire figures in the imagery of John the Baptist. (Matt. 3:10-11:”And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” I draw attention to the baptism John alludes to because Jesus says in Luke 12: 49-53: I came to send fire on the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I cam to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. My understanding of this difficult text is that the fire Christ alludes to in the fire of Pentecost, following the baptism of His death and resurrection which is His baptism. In other words, the fire of God which was occasionally, as in infrequently experienced in the past will become more prevalent in the age of the church. Part of the kingdom coming with power will be this experience of divine fire by many, many believers. Therefore, we read about the 120 who were waiting and praying as the Lord had instructed them in Acts 2:1-4, especially 3 & 4: Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire—the divine fire freely poured out—and one sate upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. In Luke 24:32 we find recorded another heart warming by the two disciples on the Emmaus Road: And they said to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road, while He opened the Scriptures to us?” I suspect that John Wesley found this verse very confirming. The next incident of divine fire I want to draw our attention to is the Damascus Road experience of St. Paul. I am referring to the light from heaven found in Acts 9: 3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. It was a blinding light which served to open his eyes! And my final reference is found in Revelation 1: 14: His eyes like a flame of fire and v. 16 His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. The glory of God is to be likened to divine fire. While I am sure that there is more, I believe that this is enough. This is a satisfactory review of the fire power God holds in reserve to bless and direct, inspire and empower His saints to this very day.
Listen: For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but power. (1 Corinthians 4:20) What I have learned is that for far too many Christians their faith is merely a matter of talking ‘’a good game.” As far as games go, there are any number to choose from. On this level Christianity is indistinguishable from any other world religion---if it’s all talk, you might as well be Bai’ Hai,, or Mormon, or Buddhist, or Taoist, or pagan, or Wiccan, even—why not go to fortune tellers and read palms and summon the dead at spooky seances. If it sounds good, feels spiritual, works for you, it must be okay. Well, not really. If it’s simply talk, any game will do. But every one of these pseudo religions—for the is only one true religion—every one is a snare and a deception and every single one will be taken out by the divine fire power we have described today. I mean power as seen in answered prayers, in witnessing, in healing, in the ability to resist temptation and to overcome evil. I mean s in the power to move men to God and God toward men—power to prevail in heaven and bring things to pass on earth. The power to disciple one another, to foster holiness and godly desire and the power to love one’s enemies, to pray for them, to do good for them and to even love them into a relationship with Jesus.
The same God who blew the lid off the grave of Jesus, who tossed aside the stone, the One who raised Jesus from the dead, conquering death—both sting and victory-- wants to activate your faith, energize your life. He wants you to live as the forgiven child that you are, as the one whose guilt has been entirely removed, fearless because death has no dominion, victorious because Satan has no right, or claim to any part of your life! He wants you free, exultant and joyful because of who He is, because of what He has done!