Sometimes it astonishes me that I am a pastor today, because as a child, I remember going to church on Sunday mornings and being bored out of my mind. Each Sunday my family in the same pew. We followed the same order of service, sang the same hymns, prayed the same prayers, heard the same ol’ stories, and looked at the back of the same ol’ heads.
I remember doing all kinds of things to pass the time, like counting the number of times the preacher would wipe the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. I also remember holding mama’s hand and playing with her jewelry, turning the rings on her fingers, messing with her bracelets. And when she would get tired of all of that, I would just sit there and twiddle my thumbs, while secretly hoping and praying for something, anything, to happen.
Lord, if you really love me, why don’t you send a mouse running down the aisle, or through the choir loft? And Lord, if you really loved me, maybe a cat chasing the mouse! Please, Lord, let something, anything happen!
I’ll never forget that one glorious Sunday my prayers were answered. In the middle of the typical, predictable service, while we were singing the offertory hymn, we began to smell this smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy murmur, “I think I smell smoke.” Mama whispered back, “Gene, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Then, in the middle of the half-hearted singing and murmuring, someone in the congregation shouted it: “Fire!”
We then did what most folks do when someone yells “fire” in a crowded building. We got out. Standing outside we discovered that the furnace had overheated.
It was too smoky to go back inside and too cold to stay outside, so after the pastor made the announcement about the furnace, he passed an offering plate (that he just so happened to conveniently grab on his way out door), skipped the sermon, and immediately pronounced the Benediction.
It was one of the best worship services that I’ve ever attended!
As a pastor, there have been many Sundays I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it could somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have looked at the congregation, some distracted, some nodding off to sleep, some flipping through the hymnal, some playing on their phones, and thought, “What we need here is for somebody, anybody, to stand up in this place and yell “fire!”
Well, this week we’re in luck, because somebody is coming to do just that! In the middle of our order of service comes this shocking introduction by John the Baptist:
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
And nine chapters later, Jesus affirmed these words by proclaiming:
Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you…I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
I believe we really need to hear these words because of how these words cut across the grain of why most of us, especially us grown-ups, come to this predictable place to worship Sunday after Sunday. Children may still pray for something exciting to happen at church, but we adults know better. We know that nothing ever really happens here. Nothing ever changes. If we’ve never done it that way before, then we’re not going to be doing it anytime soon! And you know something? We like it that way.
We come here seeking a place of comfort and rest. Because, after all, it seems as if our lives are always running on fast-forward, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to slow down and sit down, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with the things that are stable and dependable, even if it is sometimes boring.
In our fast-paced world where we have grown accustomed to burning the candles at both ends to make ends meet, we like to come to this sacred place to cool down, quiet down and settle down. In a world ablaze with constant change and ceaseless activity, we need a place, if just for an hour or so, to just chill out. So here we are. The problem is: Here comes someone who does something as audacious as yelling “fire” in a crowded building!
When we least expect it, and perhaps least desire it, John the Baptist stands up and says, “Someone who is more powerful than me is coming, and he’s bringing the heat!”
Moses was running away from his problems. He was looking for some sanctuary, a place to escape from it all. He was laying back, and he was laying low. Then, out of nowhere comes, you guessed it, fire! A bush burst into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “Moses, I have a purpose for you, yes even you Moses, with all of your problems and excuses. I expect you to stand up to the Pharaoh, speak truth to power and liberate the oppressed!”
And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you for I have a purpose for everyone of you. Like Moses, I also expect you to always stand up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized, proclaiming with your words and your deeds liberty and justice for all.”
The children of Israel were set free. But shortly thereafter, they began complaining, “You know Moses, at least as slaves of the Pharaoh, we had three meals a day. At least the status-quo gave us some sense of stability, security and certainty. But out here in the wilderness, we sometimes don’t know whether we are coming or going!”
Do you remember the response of God?
God said, “You poor, poor babies. I’m so sorry. Let me slow things down a bit and let you build a comfy and cozy sanctuary to shelter you from the wilderness. Let me give you some nice padded pew cushions, so you can sit down and take a load off. I’ll send you a preacher to sooth your spirits, a pastor to hold your hands and tell you only the things you want to hear.”
No, God said, “I’ll give you fire, a pillar of fire leading you out into the darkness, driving you towards your purpose, pulling you into my future. I’m giving you fire to lead you out of the sanctuary into the wilderness to be the embodiment of my grace for all people.”
And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, saying to a new pastor whose kids are grown who may be tempted to spend the second half of his ministry playing a little golf while playing a little church: “Jesus is coming, and he is kindling that same Exodus fire. And he’s going to light you up and show you gifts you never knew you possessed, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”
To give hope to an Israel conquered by Babylon, the prophet Daniel described the throne of God. But unlike most thrones, God’s throne is not stationary and immovable. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne that has wheels. God’s reign is active, turning, moving, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.
And here comes John saying to those of us who oftentimes feel conquered and defeated, cowering behind stained glass windows, set in our ways: “Jesus is coming with his kingdom on those same wheels of fire to liberate you, but not without first changing you, challenging you, and moving you to take action.”
The disciples were gathered together going through the motions, following the order of worship. The deacons were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone was comfortable and seated, typical boring service; then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, somebody stood up and shouted, “fire!”
We call that day the day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit showed up as fire. William Willimon says that on that day, “the church was born in the crucible, in the furnace of God’s fire. [And here comes Jesus, saying to those of us today who have come to this place to check out and chill out], ‘My Spirit is ablaze with that same Pentecostal fire, and I’m looking for a few good men and women, boys and girls, who are combustible!’”[i]
The truth is that when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing ever changes, a place where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as disciples of Christ, and we are not the incendiary force that Jesus ignites us to be. And we are one boring sight, to God as well as to the world.
Yet, when we be become ignited, fired up, and disrupted; when we allow ourselves to be engaged and challenged by the Christ; when we decide to not only worship Jesus but to follow Jesus; when we commit to not just go to church but to be the church; when we move our church out of the sanctuary into the world, each of us using the gifts we have been given by the fiery Holy Spirit to serve others, to truly love all people as we love ourselves; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the mission and movement of God, discovering God’s purpose for us, I believe we become a purifying blaze, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.
When others see that this church looks like the fiery Holy Spirit of Jesus, when they see that we understand…
Church is not about bringing people in to receive a blessing. It is about sending people out to be a blessing.
Church is not about changing people to be who you want them to be. It is about allowing God to change them to be who God wants them to be.
Church is not about feeding our souls. It is about feeding the hungry.
Church is not about finding a home. It is about welcoming the outsider.
Church is not about acquiring spiritual riches. It is about giving to the poor.
Church is not about learning how to be successful and get ahead. It is about sacrificially sharing with people who can barely get by.
Church is not about gaining eternal life for ourselves. It is about dying to ourselves…
When they see us adopting an entire class at Vance Airforce base, meeting and accepting them where they are; when they see us opening our doors to a Hispanic congregation; when they see us visiting the nursing homes and caring for the most vulnerable among us; when they see us throwing a dance party for the disabled; when they see us defending the rights of the marginalized; when they see us feeding and clothing the impoverished; when they see us continually participating in various hands-on mission projects in our city, throughout our region and around the world; when they read on our website, “All Are Welcome,” and they experience our commitment to a gracious inclusion and begin to realize that, that unlike many churches, all really does means all; when they see that we are willing to change and adapt, even reorganize, to meet the needs of a hurting and changing world; when they see that we have different beliefs, follow different politics and even different orders of worship, yet are forged together as one by the love of Christ; when they see the warm glow of Jesus burning in us and through us and from us, I believe that many here in Northwestern Oklahoma will want to catch fire with us and join us in lighting up this city and and our world.
The question today is: Will Central Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. Because today, here in this place, the good news is: I smell smoke. Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, rekindle us, ignite us, set us on fire and enflame us in passionate love for you and for others. Draw us out of the confines of our safe and predictable faith. Prod us, move us, pull us into an adventuresome discipleship. And may we forever burn brightly with your love for us all. Amen.
[i] This part of the sermon was inspired and adapted from a sermon preached by William Willimon, entitled Fire!