Sermon: “Our God is a Consuming Fire” (August 21, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Our God is a Consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29)
August 21, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today I am going to begin by juxtaposing the experiences of a renowned Anglican priest of the eighteenth century with the experiences of a brilliant singer-songwriter of the late twentieth century.

Late at night on February 9, 1709 there was a fire at the rectory in Epworth, Lincolnshire, in England.  Everyone in the house managed to escape except a five year old little boy, the fifteenth child in this family.  The stairs had already burned down and the roof was about to collapse, but one parishioner managed to stand on the shoulders of another and lift the boy out of a second story window.  That little boy was John Wesley.

After studying at Oxford, John Wesley was ordained in 1725, and eleven years later was invited by James Oglethorpe to serve as the primary Anglican priest in the colony of Georgia.  On Friday, February 6, 1736 he landed on a small island near Savannah.  Last year I visited that spot where the marker includes the following quote from Wesley’s journal:

About eight in the morning I first set my foot on American Ground.  It was a small uninhabited island…over against Tybee, called by the English Peeper Island.  Mr. Oglethorpe led us though the Moorish land on the shore to a rising ground…we chose an open place surrounded with myrtles, bays, and cedars, which sheltered us both from the sun and wind, and called our little flock together to prayers.

In Savannah John Wesley experienced another fire, this time in his heart, which burned for a young lady named Sophia.  Unfortunately Sophia married someone else and John Wesley later denied her communion and was in the process of being sued when he returned to England in December 1737, depressed and disillusioned.

Five months later Wesley attended a Moravian Bible Study on May 24, 1738 and had yet another burning experience, as he famously recorded in his journal:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

That burning experience in his heart proved to be the turning point of John Wesley’s life and ministry.

In February 1970 James Taylor released his second album, Sweet Baby James, which includes one of the most famous songs of the early 70’s, the moving classic “Fire and Rain.”  Each of the three verses articulates a different struggle in his life.  The first verse is about the death of his friend Suzanne, who had taken her life:

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to

The second verse is a prayer for help in the midst of his addictions:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

The third verse was written in the wake of the failure of his original band called The Flying Machine:

Been walking my mind to an easy time my back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line
To talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

All of this converges in the chorus you probably know by heart:

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

Like James Taylor, each of you has seen fire and rain in your life.  Each of you has probably had burning experiences in your life—maybe you have literally lost something or someone in a fire.  Maybe you have found your heart on fire for someone, so in love you lose your appetite, your ability sleep, your ability to think clearly.  Or perhaps you have found yourself burning with anger, “fired up” about something, “fired up” at someone.

Or on a different note, you may have found yourself at times burning the midnight oil, or burning the candle at both ends, or burning out.

Maybe, like John Wesley, you have felt your heart “strangely warmed” by the Lord.  I felt that at my confirmation and at my ordination.  Another time I felt that was when I had a group of pastors and their spouses taking turns praying over me and other ministers.  When one of the pastor’s wives prayed over me the warmth was so powerful I immediately fell down.  I used to be skeptical of the validity of that kind of experience, but I cannot deny that it happened to me.

Scripture is replete with examples of the Lord manifesting himself through fire—from Moses’ encounter at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12), to the pillar of fire leading the children of Israel through the wilderness at night (Exodus 13:21-22), to the anointing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3).  John the Baptist spoke of Jesus as the one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

In the Old Testament the prophet Zechariah speaks of God as refining his people as gold or silver is refined in fire (Zechariah 13:9), and in the New Testament Peter puts it this way: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7).

Along these lines, in today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews we read: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).

The question is: if God is a consuming fire, what does the fire of God consume?

Scripture gives us the answer in a familiar story from the Old Testament.  When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the idol built by King Nebuchadnezzar they were bound up and thrown into a fiery furnace.  Rather than their being immediately consumed by the fire, they were preserved in the midst of it.  What happened next?

(King Nebuchadnezzar) was astonished and rose up quickly.  He said to his counsellors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?”  They answered the king, “True, O king.”  He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god” (Daniel 3:24-25).

When King Nebuchadnezzar called out to them to come out, they did so.  Scripture tells us that “the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them” (Daniel 3:27).

And lest you think that story only applied to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, remember the words God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name…when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:1-2).

This means when you are in the fire, the same One who was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is with you…and you know Who that is.

And the flame will not consume you.  Instead, just like with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the only things that will be consumed are the things that bind you.  The only things that will be consumed are the things that are consuming you.

So what is consuming you today?

Are you consumed with love (sunny days that you think will never end) or loneliness (lonely times when you cannot find a friend) or anger (you are just “fired up”)?  As you know, the consuming fires in your life can take many forms.  Yet, in the incarnation our God who is a consuming fire took on form in Jesus, whose death on the cross is enough to atone for all things that are consuming you.

James Taylor is right.  Jesus looks down on you.  Jesus will help you stand.  Jesus will help you make it through another day—you won’t make it any other way.  And John Wesley is right—you can trust in Christ alone for your salvation.  He has taken away your sins, even yours.

One more illustration…the nineteenth century English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), who like all of us saw lots of “fire and rain” in her life, wrote a moving sonnet that reveals what is at the heart of our God who is a consuming fire:

Lifelong our stumbles, lifelong our regret,
Lifelong our efforts failing and renewed,
While lifelong is our witness, “God is good:”
Who bore with us till now, bears with us yet,
Who still remembers and will not forget,
Who gives us light and warmth and daily food;
And gracious promises half understood,
And glories half unveiled, whereon to set
Our heart of hearts and eyes of our desire;
Uplifting us to longing and to love,
Luring us upward from this world of mire,
Urging us to press on and mount above
Ourselves and all we have had experience of,
Mounting to Him in love’s perpetual fire (Rossetti: Poems, 179).

At the heart of our God who is a consuming fire is his consuming love for you.

Today may the Holy Spirit turn touch the cold places in your heart into places that are “strangely warmed” and consume the things that are consuming you with “love’s perpetual fire.”

Amen.