When I was a lad I was in the Scouts. As far as I was concerned one of the main attractions of being in Scouts was that it gave me a good excuse for messing around with fires. On a couple of occasions, however, things didn't go entirely to plan. Like the time I was sat round a camp fire, singing camp fire songs, with my feet stretched out to the fire. My toes were nice and toasty, but when I stood up at the end of the evening I discovered that the soles of my trainers had melted. Mum was not happy. Or the time that we were set a patrol competition to see who could make the hottest fire the quickest. Each group was given a golden syrup tin, which no longer had golden syrup in, but a small amount of water. We had to make a fire and put the tin in the fire. The first one that got it hot enough for the steam to push out the lid won. Guess who was crouched over the fire, fanning it furiously with a plate, when the lid blew off in a gush of superheated steam? Fortunately there was no lasting damage, just a bit of a shock! I'd like to say I grew out of it, but just ask my children to tell you what happened last year when I tried to flame the Christmas pudding.
The point is that fire can be dangerous. As well as being welcoming and drawing us in, there is a sense in which we don't want to get too close to the fire. We know that if we get too close it can burn, it can cause us pain, and so we are cautious about it. (at least we are if we're not idiot boys who should know better)
As we continue thinking about fire in the Old Testament this morning, we are going to encounter a more edgy role that fire plays in our Christian lives, one that might be painful, but one that I believe, in the end, is really important in us to being able to draw nearer to God and to each other.
In preparing for this morning I had a look on the website at what Steve was sharing with you last week. If I've got it right, you were with Moses at the burning bush. In that encounter God revealed to Moses a whole load of things about what God is like: holy, relational, compassionate, active, and sending. In response to that last one Moses had a whole load of excuses: He'd been rejected before, he wasn't ready, he didn't want to risk getting rejected again, he didn't have the skills or gifts, please just get someone else. But God reassured Moses that he was the right one, that he was going in God's name, that God would equip him, and that he would have others alongside him. Moses drew near to the fire in the bush, drew near to God, and so was drawn nearer to his fellow people. It changed his life.
He went to Eygpt, he led the people out of slavery. He led them despite grumbling and disobedience. He led them in the desert. He led them to the edge of the land God had promised them. After Moses' death, Joshua led the people into the promised land, into the inheritance that they had been promised. God gave the people leaders in the Judges, people like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. Then it was the time of the Kings, starting with Saul, David, and Solomon. From a tiny exiled group of slaves, by the time of Solomon, God forged a fruitful empire whose influence ranged from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.
Then things went down hill fast. Following Solomon's death there was a split in the Kingdom between the North and the South, between Israel and Judah. Land was lost to the kingdoms. The regional super powers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia started threatening the kingdoms. The Kings did not follow Yahweh only, but worshipped other gods, and led the people to do the same.
Around six hundred years after Moses' encounter at the firey bush, and about eight hundred years before Jesus was born, a prophet called Isaiah started his ministry. During the sixty odd years that he brought God's message to the people in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, there were four different Kings in the capital of Jerusalem, two were OK, one, Ahaz, was very bad and one, Hezekiah, was good. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated, and its people were carried off to exile, never to be heard of again as a nation. Invaders even reached the gates of Jerusalem, but were defeated by God's sovereign action.
All through the book of Isaiah we keep coming back to the idea that God is King. Not only is God King, but God is the high King, the King above all Kings, the one who rules over all the nations, the one who is to be worshipped and obeyed. God is the one who sets out the way people and nations should live, and who will judge them. Because God is King, God is the one God's people should rely on. They should not turn to other gods, or to other, worldly, kings to save them or protect them. God is their King and is trustworthy. Isaiah's key message is that God is King.
This key message is shown in the first six chapters of the book, which are all set in the throne room of God. It's a bit like in the Lord of the Rings films, or Arthur and his knights round the table, when the King is there with his attendants and councillors, people coming in and out, judgements being made and communicated out to the kingdom. Mostly the messages are messages of warning of the dangerous consequences of the unfaithfulness of God's people. The image of fire appears several times in these messages, burning away the evil. In contrast some of the messages are ones of hope and promise for the future if God's people return to God.
At the beginning of chapter six, the writer is caught up in a vision of that throne room. It is more glorious than he can ever have imagined, the King is more majestic than he knew. The whole room is filled with a sense of God's glory. The air is full of the song of the angels, celebrating and declaring God's holiness, God's might, and the extent of God's kingdom over the whole earth.
“Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of the angel armies
The whole earth is full of his glory.”
Just as God revealed himself to Moses, so God reveals himself to Isaiah. God reveals the height of God's throne and the breadth of God's kingdom. Mose's response was one of excuses. Isaiah's response is full of self-awareness. The holiness and brightness of God's light makes Isaiah aware of his own unworthiness and darkness.
Now, I know that Steve did a bit of Hebrew with you last week when you were thinking about God's name, Yahweh. I've got a bit more for you today. What Isaiah says is usually translated something like, “I am lost”. The Hebrew word here, daw-maw, means to be silent.
Underneath what Isaiah is saying seem to be three ideas. Firstly he knows that he is guilty of having been silent when he should have spoken up for God's Kingdom. He hadn't spoken against the worship of other gods, he hadn't spoken up in defence of the outcast, the poor, or those on the edge. He had been silent in the past. So secondly, because of that silence, he is now unable to join in the worship of the angels. His guilt and shame prevent him from praising God. He is silent in the present. Thirdly he knows that his guilt, and the guilt of his people, mean that they run the risk of God's judgement, the silent forever of death. He will be silent in the future.
But God's word is greater than Isaiah's silence. An angel brings the fire of God from the altar, from the place of sacrifice (remember Elijah's story), to Isaiah's lips. Then the angel does a very strange thing, touching the coal to Isaiah's lips, and speaking forgiveness over him. This fire of God cleanses Isaiah's lips and in doing so it releases him from silence. It releases him from the guilt of his past silence. He is forgiven. It releases him to worship in the present. He can join in the song of the angels. He can express that worship in action by volunteering to be one of the King's messengers. It releases him from a future of death, he will live and speak for God. The fire of God burns away bonds of silence.
But this is a strange fire. It is a fire that touches lips without burning them. Maybe we could call it “smart” fire. It burns away what needs to be consumed so that what remains is pure. It melts what is hard so that it can be reshaped, without destroying any of the raw material. It cauterises the wound perfectly, without damaging any of the surrounding flesh.
I think that the key to understanding how this fire can do this is found in the place that it comes from. It comes from the altar. This is the heart of the place of worship, the place of sacrifice. I say again, do you remember Elijah's story on Mount Carmel. As Steve shared a few weeks ago, the altar was the place that animals were sacrificed in temple worship. These sacrifices were brought to an end by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus' death on the cross. In that sacrifice Jesus took on himself all the consequences of our sin. He was silent before his accusers. He felt himself to be forsaken and unheard by his Father. He entered the silence of death. He paid the price. From that place of sacrifice comes the fire that can purify us without destroying us, because Jesus took the destruction on himself and overcame it.
Later on in Isaiah, in chapter 43, we read this promise:
“But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”
God does not promise that we will not feel the heat of the fire, or even that it will not be painful. God does promise that we will not be burned and that the flame will not consume us.
If we believe God's word, and in the power of Jesus' sacrifice, then we can have the courage to draw near to the purifying fire of God. As we do so, it will do the same for us as it did for Isaiah. It will release us from the effects of past sins in forgiveness. It will release us to worship in the present presence of God and equip us to serve God. It will release us from the power of death. Our lips will be purified to speak out, to worship, and to tell others about the good news of Jesus.
So, I think that it's fairly clear how drawing near to God's fire (or allowing it to be brought close to us) can draw us nearer to God, but earlier I said that I believed that it can also draw us closer to each other as well. How does this work?
It seems to me that one of the things that stops us from drawing near to each other is our sin. This works in two ways. Firstly there are things that we do and say that make it difficult for people to be around us, that destroy our relationships with each other. Very often these are sins that we commit with our lips. We are silent when we ought to speak and speak when we ought to be silent. We talk about each other rather than to each other. We are a people of unclean lips.
Secondly our sin makes us unwilling to get close to others. We judge others, feel ourselves to be superior to them, are unwilling to open our lives up to them in case it costs us more than we are willing to give.
As the fire of God touches us, so these things are burned away. We become more pleasant people to be around. We become able to know when and how to speak with love so that others can be encouraged to be open to God. And, sometimes, warned of the consequences of resisting God (this is mostly what Isaiah was sent to do). As we are more aware of the amount of work that God is doing in our own lives, so we become more forgiving towards others, more willing to bear the burdens of our fellow travellers and more able to forgive the wounds that are inflicted on us. And so, once again in during near to the fire we draw near to God and draw near to each other.
I believe that Steve has been encouraging you, through Lent, to take a time every day to stop, look, and listen to God. In a little while we're going to have the opportunity to do that this afternoon. Maybe this week we could use some of those times to ask God to show us areas of our lives that need a touch of the coal from the altar. As we take time to look at our own lives may we see those areas and have the courage to allow God to burn them away, that we, with Isaiah, may have clean lives and lips that join the angels and the earth in declaring the holiness and glory of our King.