Putting the fire of God in you

Saturday, August 25, 2007

I have a healthy and abiding respect for fire. That's putting it mildly. In fact, fire scares me to death. When the acolytes carry the light of Christ down the main aisle of the sanctuary each Sunday morning, I sometimes think to myself, "I'd better run the matches under water just to be on the safe side."

When it came time to burn the mortgage at my last church, I insisted that we use a shredder instead. So when the city of Cape Girardeau extends its "no-burn order until further notice due to excessively dry conditions," there will be no argument from me. My aversion to fire is based largely on personal experience. In my family of origin, we had a burn barrel. (Those were the days when you could legally have such a thing to dispose of your trash.) As a small child, without my parents' knowledge or permission, I burned some trash in the barrel on a windy day. The flames seemed to be doing their usual good job of destroying our refuse; further attention from me did not seem to be required.

You can guess what transpired next. Embers, fanned by the wind, were carried out of the barrel to a neighbor's field and set it ablaze. The fire department was called. Lights flashing and horns blaring, two engines responded. Nobody was hurt; nothing of any real value was damaged. The field didn't contain any crops; it was just unmowed grass that had been allowed to grow about two feet high. You better believe, however, that a certain 9-year-old boy got a very clear message that night: Never go near that burn barrel again.

The word "fire" appears quite often in Scripture: 437 times in the New International Version. The inflammatory word is on Jesus' lips quite a few times. One of the most memorable is, "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12:49).

Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. He's not confessing pyromaniacal tendencies. As the late Scottish scholar William Barclay put it, "In Jewish thought, fire is almost always the symbol of judgment." Jesus uses the word a little differently in this case. "Fire," in this passage, seems to refer to the division that allegiance to him will cause for families. It will split some households in two. Some will decide to follow Christ; others will decide fealty to family traditions, including the religion of birth, takes precedence.

I understand his use of the word, but my preference is that he'd use another. When someone is described as having a "fiery temper," it's not a compliment. Further, if that same person said to have "quite a mouth," my thoughts generally go to mythical fire-breathing dragons.

As I mull the word "fire," perhaps it would be well to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt. After all, he is Savior, Master and one of the three co-equal members of the Triune God.

Fire is also presented as a positive thing in the Bible. On the day of Pentecost, what appeared to be "tongues of fire" alighted upon the heads of those gathered in a Jerusalem house. Those fiery tongues turned out to be the descent of the promised Holy Spirit.

Receiving this gift of "fire," the disciples went out and did great deeds in the name of Jesus. That very day, Acts 2:41 reveals, three thousand people were converted by Peter's preaching. Not that long before, Peter was denying being an associate of Jesus. With the coming of fire, Peter was now Jesus' ardent advocate.

Fire literally destroys; fire, metaphorically, builds. Fire can be passion. Passion, appropriately channeled, makes the world go round. But hey, I'm still not going near that burn barrel.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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