“Three Stories About Fire”

I delivered this sermon on fire and Hebrews 13:11-14 to LaSalle Street Church on 7/25/21. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video. A responsive hymn was sung between each section.

The first story is about a fire that filled a house.

Scripture tells us that nearly five hundred years after the Exodus of the ancient Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, they built a temple for God in Jerusalem. The project was managed by Solomon, one of Israel’s earliest kings, the son of David. 1 Kings tells us they spent seven years building the temple.

When the temple and all its furnishings were ready, Solomon gathered up all the people, and they made sacrifices of sheep and cattle. They sacrificed so many animals that they lost count. The priests carried their most sacred object—the Ark of the Covenant—into their most sacred place—the Holy of Holies. And as they withdrew from the space, the temple was filled with a cloud. Scripture tells us it was the glory of the Lord, and it was manifest in the temple.

The cloud was an image the Israelites knew well as a manifestation of God’s glory. When the Israelites were liberated from Egypt, they wandered in the desert. A pillar of cloud showed them the way to go. That was during the day. At night, the Israelites were led by a pillar of fire. This was also an image the Israelites would come to know well as a manifestation of God’s glory. While the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, God appeared in a burning bush to call Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom—a bush on fire that didn’t burn up. After the Israelites were free, their wandering in the desert led them to Mount Sinai, where they assembled to meet with God. God descended onto the mountain in fire, and Exodus 19:18 says the smoke “billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace.”

Before these wandering Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they were intimidated by what was ahead of them. Moses spoke to the people on behalf of God, and he told them: “Be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire” (Deut 9:3). Other translations use a phrase that sounds more familiar: a “consuming fire.”

The Israelites had encountered God as a flame: Living, active, dangerous. A holy presence, full of warmth and light, drawing you in—but, if you came too close, also capable of burning you. How do you make a sculpture of a cloud, or of a flame? You can’t, really, and that seems to be the point: God would not be contained by the people. The nation discovered its identity with God in the wilderness, and their religious life took place in the tabernacle, a huge tent structure that served as a mobile precursor to the permanent temple Solomon would eventually build.

Let’s return to Solomon. The temple is built. It’s designed to be a house for the Lord. And the glory of God fills it like a cloud. Solomon gathers the people and offers a long prayer of dedication. You can read it in 1 Kings 8. It’s a prayer that contains all his hopes and desires for the temple and for the nation’s relationship to God: How the temple will serve as a home for the holy Name of God. How the people will pray to ask for forgiveness and provision, because Solomon knows both will be necessary.

And even after all this labor constructing the temple, Solomon acknowledges its limitations. When you think about the context—the monarch giving a dedication speech at the conclusion of a massive construction project—it’s this really striking moment of honesty and ambivalence. In v. 27 he asks, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Solomon knows that God won’t be contained in the temple—or even in Israel’s religious traditions. Solomon knows that God is bigger than that, that Israel’s history is the story of God appearing in the wilderness, in burning bushes and pillars of cloud.

But the temple is finished. So Solomon offers his prayer, and I imagine all these people in the crowd gathered there, holding their breath: God has been with them all this way. God has promised to stay with them. But can it be true? Will God be manifest to them now as God was in the wilderness? Everything about their circumstances has changed. They’ve moved out of tents into permanent homes. When their ancestors wandered in the wilderness, they depended on God for food every single day! God physically, visibly showed them the way to go through the desert! It was scary, sure, but every single day the people were reassured of God’s faithfulness! Now this generation is settled in Jerusalem. They aren’t wandering. What happens next?

2 Chronicles 7 describes what happens next: All at once, flames pour down from heaven, consuming their sacrifices, and once again God’s glory fills the temple. God has moved in. Not contained, but totally present. The people fall to the ground onto their faces and cry out, “God is good; God’s love endures forever” (v. 3).

People of God, hear this: Our God is a consuming fire. When we look back at the work of God in our lives, we can trust what we saw. Maybe your experience was a burst of flame, something supernatural and unexplainable, something you couldn’t possibly unsee or unhear, like a burning bush. Or maybe your experience of God was more like a candle—a small light that was lit in your heart when you were young, kept aflame through the constant and gentle breathing of God’s Spirit through the community around you. Whatever it is that draws you here, here in this space or participating with us elsewhere, you can trust the work of God in your life. Describing our experience of God can sometimes feel as ephemeral and indefinable as the shape of a flickering flame. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

The second story is about a fire that covered the northwest United States.

In 1905, the U.S. Congress established a national Forest Service under President Teddy Roosevelt, initially to help manage the nation’s valuable resources of water and timber. Over time their responsibilities have expanded significantly, but the agency’s first chief summed up their purpose with utilitarian succinctness: “to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.”

Five years later, in 1910, this brand new agency faced a challenge that shaped its future in ways we’re still experiencing today. From the beginning, the Forest Service was keenly committed to fire prevention in order to protect the timber and water it provided to the nation. The summer of 1910 was an especially difficult season of wildfires across the Western U.S. In August there were reports of massive fires emerging in many national forests, so severe that President Taft deployed thousands of troops to help combat the flames. Initially the crisis seemed to be under control, but on August 20, forceful winds intensified the blaze to uncontrollable heights. Towns were evacuated ahead of flames that reached hundreds of feet into the air. One forester later described how the fire was “fanned by a tornadic wind so violent that the flames flattened out ahead, swooping to earth in great darting curves, truly a veritable red demon from hell.”

More than 3 million acres burned. For context, right now the Bootleg Fire in Oregon has burned about 400,000 acres. If you’ve seen the haze outside in Chicago this week, you know how far the effects of these fires can reach. Back in 1910, at least 85 people died, to say nothing of the effects on other creatures. Soot from the fires traveled through the air as far as Greenland. The event is known as the “Big Blowup.” In the aftermath, leaders of the agency argued about what their approach to wildfires would be. Some argued that fire played a crucial ecological role. The Secretary of the Interior made a case for allowing annual burning to prevent too much flammable undergrowth from developing, a practice associated with Indigenous people.

But others looked at the chaos of the “Big Blowup” and doubled down on a policy of total fire suppression. Their approach won out and set the course for the nation’s approach to fire management for decades. Other nations copied our approach. They, like we, are suffering the effects to this day.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Forest Service policies changed to reflect what had become abundantly clear in scientific research in the 1960s, and what had been clear to Indigenous people groups long before that: that fire does play an absolutely crucial role in the ongoing life of forests. Changing our national approach to fire management has been an uphill battle, and the severity of wildfires that we see today is directly related to these historic policies of fire suppression, as well as the growing crisis of global climate change. One Indigenous Canadian firefighter puts it this way: “Polar bears used to be considered the indicator of climate change. Now, the real obvious one to me is forest fires.”

U.S. Forest Service leaders have begun working with Indigenous leaders to implement practices like “cultural burning.” They use carefully managed fires to make the land more suitable for life and to maintain practices and resources central to their cultures. It involves careful attention to the environment—to plants and animals and water. There’s an ecologist who grew up among Indigenous tribes in California, and he’s been centrally involved in these efforts. He describes how historic efforts to suppress all fire lacked the tribal understanding that “fire is medicine.” Think about that: Fire is medicine. I’m tempted to paraphrase that as “the poison is the cure,” but I don’t think these leaders would compare fire to a poison. It’s just the cure.

Well, many of us still have a long way to go. The folks implementing these new policies have reported that one of the biggest obstacles they face is fear, especially from non-native people. An Indigenous scientist in Canada describes how quick non-native communities are to call the authorities whenever they see smoke on the horizon. When Smokey the Bear told us that it was our job to prevent forest fires, we internalized the warning. And it makes it hard for us to imagine that fire could be medicine. In our desperation to protect ourselves and to protect the forests, and in our unwillingness to listen to wisdom that was always available to us, we only made the fires more destructive.

I think our failure with forests is a symptom of a deeper tendency toward a kind of greedy, grasping control.

People of God, hear this: Our God is a consuming fire. Whenever we start to think God has brought us far enough, as far as we want to go, we may feel ourselves inclined to shore up our own security and certainty by snuffing out any semblance of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work. If you were here last week, you know Laura preached about water and described it as trying to stop the flow. We may see change coming like smoke on the horizon and start to wonder what those new flames mean for us: what they might mean for our legacy, for our inheritance, for all the things we’ve worked so hard to earn. We might be tempted to believe that we can completely contain the fire within our specific church, our specific set of practices, our hard-won collection of beliefs.

But that doesn’t stop the fire; all it does is make our hearts more brittle and dry. All it does is make us forget that fire might be medicine so that we start to believe fire can only ever be a threat. But we cannot put out the fire of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God.

The third story is about a fire on the edge of town.

In Luke 24, two of the disciples are walking on a road to Emmaus. You probably know the story. It’s a couple days after the crucifixion of Jesus. The women who received the good news of the resurrection came back and reported it to the eleven men who remained as disciples, but the men didn’t believe the women. It was too hard to believe.

Later that day, two of them are walking on the road. They feel so much fear and doubt. They thought Jesus would reign in glory, but his story ended in disgrace, as far as they know. Suddenly Jesus joins them and talks to them, but they don’t recognize him. They don’t recognize him until they reach their destination and Jesus breaks bread with them. Then suddenly their eyes open wide, and they say to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v. 32). Even before they consciously recognized Jesus in their midst, their hearts were set ablaze.

Jesus offered living water, but Jesus was also living flame: He was all the glory and holiness of God contained in a human body. When these disciples came near to Jesus, even before they recognized him, their hearts were like wicks: They caught fire. The fire was spreading.

Fire served another important purpose in the worship life of Israel: It was how priests disposed of the bodies of animals after sin offerings. The blood and fat would be used for different rituals within the tabernacle or the temple. That was the demonstrative, dramatic part of the liturgy. And then afterward the priest would quietly gather up the animal’s coat and all the innards, and he would take them outside of the camp and burn them.

You heard it in the reading from Hebrews 13 earlier, right? V. 11: “The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp.” And then the author of Hebrews makes the connection to the work of Jesus explicit in v. 12: “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.”

Let’s make no mistake: Jesus’ calling often brought him right to the center of Jewish culture and worship. In Luke 4 he initiated his ministry by reading Scripture in a synagogue. The gospels describe how Jesus made a scene by turning over tables in the temple courts, furious that people had turned the house of prayer into a “den of thieves” (Matt 21:13). But ultimately the saving, redeeming work of Jesus on the cross happened outside the city, outside the camp: It happened in a place of disgrace, away from the Holy of Holies, away from the center of things.

And we know what happened next: In that moment, through that act of love, Jesus effectively moved the center of things. Imagine that: It’s like suddenly the compasses all start pointing in a different direction. Jesus had told people what was coming: In John 4 he told the Samaritan woman, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (v. 21-23).

In Acts 2:3, the Holy Spirit filled the believers on the day of Pentecost and settled on their heads like “tongues of flame.” By the time Paul was writing letters to the church in Corinth, he would tell them plainly: “We are the temple of the living God.” (2 Cor 6:16.)

So the writer of Hebrews offers an invitation in v. 13: “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” What’s inside the camp? Inside the camp is the temple, and the priests, and structure, and security. What’s outside the camp? Outside the camp is where things are discarded. Outside the camp is danger, real danger that threatens our lives and livelihood.

Those of us who have come to believe that God is only present at the center of religious life, that God is only accessible through religious authorities, only visible in the Holy of Holies: Let’s go to Jesus outside the camp, where the bodies of the sacrificed animals are still smoldering. That was where everything started, anyway, right? Outside the camp, with a bush that was burning, with a pillar of cloud.

For these early Christian communities, life often looked a lot more like disgrace than it did like glory. They were victims of persecution and exclusion, often at the hands of people they loved. They had lost faith in any permanent, enduring city on earth and had thrown their hopes onto the divine city that God was building ahead of them. So the next verse of Hebrews, v. 14, was profoundly good news: “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

Listen very closely: If you have been burned by systems of oppression, or people who misused their power against you, or even by a church or Christians who did not know how to love you: Jesus is no stranger to burned things. If you have lost something or someone in your life that you thought you could not survive without, hear this: God is with you and is building a city made of things that are permanent. If the circumstances of your life have left you feeling lonely outside the camp of religious systems or the embrace of the institution, you are not alone: Jesus also suffered outside the city gate. It may be that you have found yourself there because Jesus wants to make you holy and to make his home in you. Perhaps you have found yourself there because you are supposed to show others the way.

People of God, hear this: Our God is a consuming fire. The author of Hebrews invites all of us to follow Jesus outside the camp, bearing the same disgrace he bore. That sounds a lot like surrendering our control for the sake of God’s purposes in the world. Those who are accustomed to the bright light at the center of things may need help learning to walk by the dim glow of smoldering embers.

Perhaps you have found security in a narrow, clearly defined understanding of who you are and who God is and how the world works…but now you sense God’s Spirit breaking down your borders, tugging at the edges of you in order to expand you, reaching toward wounds that you would rather leave unhealed. Go to him outside the camp.

Perhaps you’ve grown accustomed to perceiving creation as a resource to be used up; it’s made us comfortable and complacent, intentionally ignorant to the ways our lifestyles demand more from the planet than it was designed to give, or the ways that other people in other cities or other countries suffer inhumane conditions for the sake of our consumption. Go to him outside the camp.

Whatever God is inviting you to let go of; whatever new terrain God is inviting you to explore; whatever twilight you’re afraid to enter; there is a fire that has been placed within you that will lead you to the very heart of God.

Trust that God has lit the fire that is burning within you. Whatever you do, do not try to put that fire out. And trust that fire as it leads you forward, outside the camp, where Jesus is.

1 comment

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s