Magnify the Spark to Get the Fire Going
A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Pentecost May 20, 2018*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
Growing up I had a wonderful Great Grandfather around. Grampa Lou was actually in 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and told us stories going way back about that and the Bay Area. I loved Grampa Lou. He was a gentle man, tender and kind. He passed away in my late teens, and I have missed him all these years.
Grampa Lou was married to my great grandmother, Nanny, another sweet soul. They were not rich in material things but they had a wealth of love that they showered on us when they drove down for visits from Oakland to San Jose where we lived. Their loving presence was enough for us, but they found a way to bring us little presents.
One of my favorite gifts was a magnifying glass. It’s one of the few things I still have from my boyhood and I treasure it. Grampa Lou handed it to me when I was about eight. It’s a simple thing really. But it has meant a lot to me, and vibrates still with the loving hands that gave it to me half a century ago. As a kid I used IT to examine leaves and sticks, and bugs and rocks, and my skin and lots of other things. It was fun to see what the world looked like magnified. There’s a fascinating beauty in the details of creation.
If truth be told, though, at eight years old my fascination with that tiny stuff made bigger lasted five or ten minutes. What I actually loved about the magnifying glass back then was the joy of focusing sunlight into a beam to ignite smoldering sparks which with breath or a bit of wind could be fanned into flames. I am not sure Grampa Lou knew I’d be using his retired fine print reader to joyfully melt and burn stuff, but that’s what I did.
When I started writing this sermon I went outside and burnt something for the first time in years with the magnifying glass. I was hoping to maybe insert a funny note about reliving my childhood. But something unplanned and wonderful happened. I saw something I never noticed as kid. As I focused the beam I could see on the paper the sky, the sun and the clouds moving across the it. How I never noticed that before is beyond me. I was so surprised that I suddenly felt one of those thin places where God’s presence seems more palpable.
Obviously I am not pointing out I like to ignite things with a magnify glass for fun. See the metaphor in the story for the Spirit’s flames of love, is fire, right? Well, wind and fire. We are told
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit . . . (Act 2:1-4 NRS)
You know how when we focus the sun with magnifying glass, and get a spark and with a bit of breath it can turn into a flame? That’s what we can hear the Pentecost story to be like.
Only the son is Jesus and the flame is bigger– it’s love (God is Love, right?) And the wind is the Spirit stoking, breathing on us, until our spark of God – of Christ in the world– bursts into flames of Love. We know the flames and wind are metaphors because the story indicates they are: “a sound like the rush of a violent wind . . . Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them . . .”
Theologians call an appearance of God a “theophany” it’s a Greek word that translates as “God appears.” We don’t have an equivalent word in English, but that’s okay I like the sound of the word theophany and what it means . . . “God appears.” And God does appear in the Bible often in images of wind and of fire. The world begins in Genesis with a theophany of God as wind, the breath of God, “ruah” a feminine part of Yahweh, sweeping over the dark void and creating the world. Perhaps the most famous theophany in the Hebrew texts is when God appears to Moses in the flames of a burning bush. And the flame theophany motif continues in the Exodus story with God appearing as a pillar of fire at night before the Hebrews as they roam through the desert. God is also experienced in the Bible a number of times on mountaintops in fire as we hear in some of the songs and Psalm today. 1
The New Testament has flames in stories of God appearances. Obviously in today’s text but there’s a more subtle one we might not even think about. It is John’s story of Jesus beside a fire preparing to feed his followers. I love that image of Jesus tending to the flames that nurture us.
Flames in camp fires, fireplaces, even candles can be meditative and open up portals to the Sacred, and carry us to a thin place where we are more aware of Christ’s presence. Fire can inspire awe and fascination. And that is, in part, why it is a really good metaphor for how we experience love. Love – as we have recently discussed– is God.
And as we also discussed how God is the awe we find in every bit of creation. And fire, like love, provides comfort when we are cold or in the dark. Fire like loves warms us. And love like fire heats up our passion. The flames of love motivate us to not only be enamored with a spouse or partner, but in the broader agape sense of love, to have passion for others, those who are in need of care or protection.
Fire can also symbolize the Light that God is in our lives. The light of fire, like the Light of God, glows and attracts, lights pathways, makes our way safe. It can act as a beacon both warning us and guiding us. And we are, of course, supposed to be shining lights ourselves, lights that are not kept under a bushel.
And fire can temper, that is make strong. Love does that to our faith. Love can also burn away that which troubles us in the faith, even hate we may arrive with or have been taught or think religion is supposed to be about. Jesus tells us that all of scripture hangs upon the commandments to love God and others, and that unequivocally there is no greater commandment than to love. We can hear that to mean that anything that is not love can be consumed by love, so any– ANY– hate talk we hear in Christianity can be placed to the test in the flames of love. If anything in scripture is interpreted to be unlovingly that interpretation will not survive that test. It must turn to ashes in flames of Love. Jesus’ teaching is that Scripture hangs upon love, that means it does not hang upon hate . . . EVER!
That’s the testing ground not only for Scripture, but for Church doctrine and tradition, for televangelists, for churches for any sermons – including mine, and actually for all of our conduct. If it’s not love oriented, it’s not God oriented. If it is not love it is not God!
I have mentioned before that I don’t believe in a torturous hell created by God. I reject the idea that there are awful flames of hell for anyone. But what if the flames of hell that we hear about, are metaphorically the flames of love surrounding and comforting, guiding and calling, thawing cold hearts, tempering loveless or hateful lives. A God who is love might just create that. A soul in need of love being surrounded by God’s comforting flames of love fits my experiences of God, who is not just as we say each Sunday, good all the time, but is also love all the time. A God who is good and love all the time, that God’s flames of “hell” could be flames of caring compassionate love like those in the story that alight on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost.
There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures where the Prophet Elijah does not die but ascends to heaven, caught up in a fiery storm. I am struck by how Elijah’s story is both sort of like the Pentecost story, but also the opposite of it. Second Kings tells us that Elijah was out walking with Elisha as “ they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (2Ki 2:11 NRSV). Elijah’s goes up in a whirlwind firestorm. The wind and fire of God goes with him.
Jesus we are also told goes up, but instead of the wind and fire of God taking Jesus away never to be seen again, the story is that Jesus sends something like fire and wind down in theophanies experienced by, and resting upon, his followers. Jesus’ body can also be understood to also return as of the Body of Christ, the Church.
One of Christianity’s gifts to theology is said to be centralizing the idea of the incarnation of God in humans in us alone and collectively. And the Pentecost is about just that. We are to be theophanies in that God appears through us. The flames of God are not just for the likes of Elijah in heaven after death. The flames of God can grow from sparks of God in each of us as they are fanned by the breath of the Holy Spirit into flames.
Every year we begin the Christian calendar with an Advent discussion pretty early on about Mary’s song “The Magnificat.” The Magnificat, as the name sounds, is about magnifying God in our life. Mary sings that her “soul magnifies the Lord. . .”Another common Advent lesson is John the Baptist in Luke portending that the One who’s coming will “baptize . . . with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
As I mentioned last week the author of Luke wrote the Book of Acts where today’s lesson comes from. And he begins Acts with Jesus’ followers being baptized with the Spirit and with fire just like John the Baptist predicted. And the incarnational part of the story can get lost sometimes in all the flash and whirling, but, the reading today is in a very real sense a second coming of Christ in and through us. The Holy Spirit fans the spark of God in us to a flame of burning love and in so doing our souls – like Mary’s– magnify the Lord. Christ is incarnate in us. Like Jesus we are to burn with desire to help others. We are to be Light in the world. We are to help Christ save the world literally, not just later in heaven, but now on earth.
Pentecost is the birthday of the church. But we do not blow out flames like we do on our birthday cakes, God huffs and puffs and makes the flames of love glow and grow in us– and stay lit and burn bright. Let us go and magnify the Lord, magnify the sparks of God within to keep the fire going, letting our sparks be fanned to glow and grow as flames of love now for as long as we live.
* based on a sermon I wrote in 2012
1. Some of the information on fire in the Bible was derived from a website called Biblestudytools.com. Which can be found at this link: http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/fire.html
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED