The Fire Ban – Pentecost

Now the Glory of Jehovah rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days.  … The sight of the Glory of Jehovah was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel.  So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain.    [Exodus 24:16-18]

The May 15, 2012 morning newspaper’s headline declared that a fairly extensive territory in Alberta was put under a fire ban.  Apparently there was a serious problem with wildfires, with three major ones around Edmonton and some 15 more elsewhere, and it was because of such dry conditions in these areas that the ban was enacted.

Perhaps there is a certain irony in that less than two weeks later, we remember the occasion of another major wildfire outbreak.  It had been a fire that could not be contained, no matter how much effort was applied to extinguish it.  It also caused a fire ban to be put into effect.  Over and over again the government had thrown its resources into stopping it, and yet it burned on.  In looking back, some have considered it to be a very destructive fire, while others found it to be the opportunity for a whole new life.

Of course, the wildfire outbreak occurred in Jerusalem on Pentecost, when there appeared tongues as of fire over the heads of the disciples.  Clearly this was a dangerous Wildfire: the Jewish Sanhedrin demanded that it be stopped [Acts 4:18-22; 5:40]; there were persecutions and riots in Antioch [Acts 13:50], Ephesus [Acts 19:29-41], and other places over its spread; hundreds were persecuted and martyred throughout the following centuries while the Fire burned.  It was a Fire that spread around the world, jumping oceans and racing across continents; it threatened the comfortable way of life, it threatened livelihoods, it threatened smug spirituality, it threatened the self-satisfied view of one’s self.

Yet it is troubling as we consider the place that Christianity has, especially in Canada.  It would seem that there is no need for a fire ban any more.  For the last thirty years, the United Nations has indicated that it does not consider Canada to be a Christian country.  The reason? Because less than half of the population attends church at least two times a year.  Even with that pathetic standard, our nation does not measure up.  Rather than trying to extinguish the Fire, it seems the most effective way to put it out is simply to allow it to peter out on its own.  Simply let it die from a lack of fuel.

The results of what has been called the “post-Christian” era seems to be showing up more and more with each passing year, not just in dropping church attendance, but also in subtle persecutions of Christians in schools, in science centers, in moral debates, and in many other arenas.

How is this Wildfire burning in your life and this congregation?  Has the Fire become basically a smoldering ember – perhaps even just a lot of annoying smoke?  St Paul states to Timothy (II,3:2,5) something to which we should give a second thought: “For people will be … having the form of godliness but denying the power of it.”  This prophecy is being fulfilled – many people will call themselves spiritual; some will follow some regime of worship and study; some will hold to a smorgasbord of beliefs, whatever suits their fancy; others will pride themselves in good deeds.

But what is the power that they deny?  Paul is not talking about a power to make one feel good or comfortable with his life. He is not even talking about a power to have a healing, or some other good fortune in one’s life.  Nor is he talking about the power to become a nicer person.  What Paul is concerned about is the power to become right with God.  All the other solutions may be nice and even effective for this temporary world, but if the truly eternal dimension is neglected or rejected, then the rest will be merely a smoke screen hiding a most serious condition.

As an example, it is intriguing how frequently the idea of “destiny” or “Karma” seems to be showing up from various sources.  Here is an example of something that sounds very spiritual, and yet has no real power to save.  What attracts people is that it is a subtle work-righteousness: if things do well in our lives, it is because we have done enough good things to merit this outcome, and therefore we can feel self-pride in how our life may be going.

However, “Karma” is really a system of guiltiness.  Anything bad that happens to us is the result of bad that we have done previously, whether in this life or in some past life, even if we do not know what it was or how bad it was.  There is no answer to help us understand.  We have to run scared because if we do bad, even when we do not realize it, we will pay the penalty.  In fact, as Jesus once pointed out [Luke 17:7-10], since whatever good we do, we are required to do anyway, how then do you go above and beyond to make up for the bad?  There is nothing in “Karma” that can provide forgiveness, and therefore since we know of no person who never does bad at all, it is a system of hopelessness.  “Karma” is a system of endless debt.

Of course, even those who try to rack up good points by going to church and the like also can fall victim of Paul’s prophecy.  How often people will speak of hoping that “the good they have done will outweigh the bad” – and what happens is that they end up in the same place as “Karma” does, in a system where there is no real forgiveness.  In contrast, repentance and forgiveness removes sin and therefore removes the issue and the terror as to whether or not our good outweighs our bad.

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But consider that whenever we have a mechanical something, such as Karma, or the stars, or whatever it may be, control our lives, this something does not love and does not care about us.  Not only can we not turn to it for forgiveness, we cannot come to it for help.  Yet we profess that one of the strongest forces in our world is love, and “the good” is to be found in loving acts, yet the supposed judge of our deeds has no love for us at all – if it had, then it would provide a vehicle for repentance and forgiveness!  Without love and forgiveness, yes, there is a form of spirituality, but there is no power, and there is no fire.

St John is called “the Apostle of Love” since that is a central theme throughout his Gospel and his letters.  And he, for one, strongly emphasizes that love is a real power that affects life.  In I John 4, starting with verse 19, we begin to glimpse this dramatic power as he writes, “We love because He first loved us.”  This has nothing to do with “Karma” or the like; rather, it is the experience of tremendous and extraordinary love from God, a love that Paul identifies in Romans 5[:6-11] as one which would die “for the ungodly,” die “for sinners,” and would reconcile “enemies.”  It is a love which creates love within us, and so we have the source of love and its power now within us.

But it is not just merely a love which simply returns love to God, John goes on to say:

If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?  This commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.      [vv 20-21]

A love that can love us while we were enemies with God, create love for Him in return, and then make us look around in love for our fellow humans – that is indeed a great power, a power that comes wrapped in forgiveness.  So many of the current attempts of godliness try hard to ignore the first part of that love which Paul describes and of which John declares is essential, therefore there is no foundation, no source, no substance – no power – to their attempts at godliness.

As we have come here today, we face a choice of either standing in Paul’s prophecy, that is, of having an empty godliness; or stepping outside of the prophecy and entering into a godliness with power.  But how do we get that power?  Well, prior to Paul’s statements about the love of God which would die for His enemy, He made the comment,

hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us.   [Romans 5:5]

And look at that!  We are back to Pentecost and the Wildfire of the Holy Spirit!  How can this Fire be relit here among us; how can the Fire even become “wild” again in this corner of our world?  As we read in Acts 1:14, a distinctive mark of the disciples after Jesus’ ascension was that “all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication.”  “Prayer and supplication” – one cannot get a more explosive tinderbox than that!  Being able to approach a God Who loves, Who cares, Who listens and Who acts – what an environment in which the power of the Lord would be unleashed! – and is unleashed on that first Pentecost!

If it is within this spiritual tinder that the promised Fire of the Holy Spirit was first lit, imagine what would happen if our congregations, our families and we ourselves, as our first impulse, would pray with commitment, earnestly seeking “the power from on high.”

A Wildfire, however, is a very scary thing.  Who knows what just might happen if the Fire again gets “out of control” and what damage it might do to our way of life, our priorities, and our values.  However, although it will be out of our control, the Fire will be the action of the Holy Spirit.

That certainly isn’t with what our human nature is comfortable, and yet we have just finished watching the drama of Him Who has so loved us and saved us, in Bethlehem, on the Cross, in the Resurrection, and in the Ascension.  We know the heart of Him Who has sent the Holy Spirit to be among us; we know his earnest desire for us, made visible on the Cross and in the Resurrection.  We even know the closeness with God that is available as the Holy Spirit makes His home in us through Baptism and as Jesus Himself enters us in Holy Communion.

Perhaps it is worth it to pray for the Fire to flare up again in our lives.  So where have we put the matches?

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