fire

Showdown

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be hearing stories of the prophet Elijah. Before I go much further, it will help if you know a couple of the other main characters.

First, there was Israel’s King Ahab. In the Bible, he comes across as a weak king, in particular because he followed the will of his wife rather than God. His wife was Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. She brought great tension to the land of Israel because she wanted the Israelites to worship the gods she preferred rather than Yahweh. In particular, there was the god Baal, a popular deity throughout the lands surrounding Israel.

All of these stories occurred more than 800 years before Jesus was born.

Today’s story involves a showdown, a “one vs. many” faceoff. Such a story is a staple of westerns; think of The Man with No Name vs. the Rojos in “Fist Full of Dollars” or Marshal Kane vs. the Miller gang in “High Noon.” Those are just modern examples of a kind of story that has been told for millennia. The Bible is full of them, as are other ancient texts.

Blog readers, please take time to read the story, found in 1 Kings 18:17-40. You’ll have a hard time following me if you don’t read the story.

You’ve got to love the title Ahab gives Elijah: “you troubler of Israel.” Hearing this, a prophet hoping to make a difference in a bad situation would at least would know he was being effective. Of course, Elijah was quick to point out the source of the real trouble, the people turning away from God with their leader’s tacit approval.

They were, as he noted, “limping with two different opinions.” How often do we do that—pay lip service to God, but then go against God in the choices we make? “Limping” is a good description. We find ourselves hobbled, unable to move forward in life.

I’m reminded of James’ words delivered in the context of “double mindedness”: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” In this story, you can see the people struggling with whether to act on what they and their ancestors have heard for generations. When Elijah told them they needed to choose between Yahweh and Baal, they remained silent, unsure what to do. They would need a sign, another in a long list of signs God sent them to draw them back.

By the way, there is humor in this story. With his life on the line, Elijah showed great wit as the priests of Baal tried to call down fire on their offering. Maybe Baal is meditating. Maybe he took a trip. Maybe he is asleep!

Of course, Elijah had created a situation where it was all or nothing. If the slightest part of his challenge to the 450 priests of Baal had gone wrong—if they had some kind of trick, some kind of way to slip and light the fire during the course of the day—Elijah would have been dead, as would have been the worship of Yahweh in Israel. He had to make the priests look laughable, if only to keep the people standing between the angry priests and him laughing.

The priests did finally give up. It was Elijah’s turn. Might as well pour on the water, right? If God is going to answer, God is really going to answer, with smoke and steam! Let there be no doubt.

And there was no doubt; all that was left was for the people to cry out, “The Lord indeed is God! The Lord indeed is God!” It was a creedal statement, an affirmation of their renewed belief.

The killing of the priests was a brutal solution in a brutal time. We flinch at such accounts now, but we are reminded that ultimately, what is not of God’s will cannot continue to exist.

Thank God that he has made our choices easier. Christ is the choice that dictates eternal outcomes for us. As we choose, we have the full story of God before us in Scripture, and we can test what is in our hearts against what is there.

May we look to Jesus and learn to say, “The Lord indeed is God,” in every moment of our lives, regardless of the choices we face.

 

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The Returning Fire

Acts 2:1-21

Fire dancing on the heads of the first Christians—that’s the primary image I get from Pentecost. It was not a burning fire, however. It was a spiritual fire entering them. Jesus sent them fire for their bellies.

And did it ever work. A people who had moved from cowering in fear to quietly praying and waiting suddenly ran into the streets declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Crowds gathered; Peter preached. Three thousand new believers came to Christ that day.

Would you like to see something like that happen today? Would you like to see a returning fire in the bellies of American Christians? Would you like to have to figure out how to handle dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new Christians in our community all at once? (Yes, there are ways to organize for such events.)

Lord knows, we need such an awakening. I suspect the Lord simply waits on us to let it happen once again.

What led to that astonishing moment remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see how we can open ourselves to a new, fiery experience of the Holy Spirit.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Stop cowering in fear. Like Jesus’ earliest followers, you’ve had some experience of the resurrection. Yeah, you didn’t see the risen Christ or see him ascend into heaven, but something brings you here. Some experience of Christ in your life, some sense of connection via the Holy Spirit, draws you.

As I said before, Jesus’ followers trusted their experiences, let fear go and began praying. What would happen to us if we went to praying, alone and in groups? I don’t just mean on Sunday, with congregants lifting up names and situations and the pastor saying words. I mean praying in our homes, in our workplaces, morning, noon and night, until we find ourselves living in a continuous state of prayer.

Something will happen. Something will happen. Of that, I have no doubt. New convictions and new gifts from the Spirit will come. At that point, we would be truly different from the world and even from most of the churches around us.

From there, the model is kindergarten simple, as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

With the returning fire visibly working among us, Christian show and tell should become easy. We naturally will show more love, grace and forgiveness. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by simply seeing actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what we have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw in the believers; some will always sneer. Peter used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.

Prayer. Show and tell. Let’s try it. We will see the fire return again and again.

Out of the Fire

2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.


The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.

The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.

Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.

Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.

Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.

Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.

After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.

So,how do we submit?

Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.

Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.

The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.

First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.

Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?

Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.

When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.

 

 

Show and Tell

It’s the end of the Pentecost story that intrigues me. Any preacher would like to see 3,000 give their lives to Christ following a sermon.

What led to that astonishing response remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see a model for evangelism so simple a kindergartener should be able to grasp it.

God led the way, of course, and God still leads the way today. Pentecost began with Jesus’ followers waiting and praying, just as Jesus had told them to do before he ascended into heaven. God arrived as the Holy Spirit in wind and something that looked like flame, and the earliest church members received a power they did not have before. Specifically, they were able to declare Jesus as Lord and Savior and be understood regardless of the audience’s language.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Maybe, just maybe, this Pentecost model I think I see is simple enough to undo some of that fear.

The model in the Pentecost story is as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

First, God showed the early church in tangible ways the Holy Spirit was with them. Wind and fire. Supernatural gifts. How could they doubt?

In their excitement, they showed others what they could do; they demonstrated the changes in their lives.

That should be easy enough for us to do today. Our faith should make us different in ways people can spot. We should show more love, grace and forgiveness than we would without Christ in our lives. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

If we don’t have much to show—if we’re not different than before our conversion—we need to re-examine our relationship with God. Maybe ideas like love, forgiveness and grace really haven’t sunk in.

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by your actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what you have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw; some will always sneer. Peter just used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.
Show and tell. Try it. You might be surprised who watches and listens.