Let’s be honest. Church, even as Christmas approaches, can be a pretty boring experience. Each Sunday we sit in the same pew, follow the same order of service, look at the back of the same ol’ heads, sing the same hymns, say the same prayers, and hear a sermon that we’ve already heard before.
I remember as a child doing all kinds of things to do to pass the time. I remember counting the number of times the preacher would wipe the sweat off 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, begging for something, anything to happen.
Lord, if you love me, why don’t you send mouse running down the aisle, or through the choir loft? And Lord, if you really love me, maybe a cat chasing the mouse! How about bird swooshing through the front door! Please, Lord, let something happen, something, anything!
I’ll never forget that 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. It was hard to tell what it was, a burnt, smoky kind of smell. Then came the whispering. The hymn became more mumbling than singing. I heard Daddy whisper, “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: “Fire!”
We then did what most folks do when someone yells, “fire,” in a crowded building. We got out.
We evacuated the sanctuary, but only to discover, there wasn’t really a fire. The furnace had simply over heated or something.
It was one of the best worship services that I’d ever attended!
As a pastor, there have been many a Sunday I’ve thought about that exciting day in church and secretly wished that it would somehow be repeated. In the middle of the service, oftentimes in the middle of my sermon, I have thought, what we need is somebody, anybody to stand up in this place and yell “fire” to just to create a little bit of excitement.
Well, this week, we’re in luck, because somebody is coming that is going to do just that! In the middle of our order of service that hasn’t changed in decades, 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.
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, we 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 quiet consolation. Because after all, our lives are always on fast-forward, a real-rat race, always moving, constantly changing. So, each Sunday we gather here, to sit down, to stop, to center ourselves, to get grounded, to touch base with that which is stable and dependable, even if it issometimes boring.
In our fast-paced world where we have grown accustomed to burning the candles at both ends, especially during these weeks before Christmas, we like to come to this place Sunday after Sunday to slow down, 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, to just chill out. So here we are. The problem is: here comes someone who does something as audacious as yelling “fire” 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 is coming with fire!”
Moses had just killed a man in Egypt. He’s a fugitive, a sinful human being floundering in the middle of nowhere without a purpose. Then, out of nowhere, comes, you guessed it, fire! A bush bursts into flames. Then comes a voice that lights a fire under Moses. “I’m sending you Moses to stand up to the Pharaoh, to the powers that be, to give liberty to the oppressed!”
And John says that Jesus is coming to those of us today who just want to unwind and relax, “I’m consumed with that “burning-bush” blaze and I intend to light a fire under you. I intend for you to rise up, speak up and speak out on the behalf of refugees and migrants, to proclaim with your words and actions liberty and justice for all.
The children of Israel were freed by Moses from Egyptian slavery. But shortly thereafter, in the wilderness, they began complaining, “You know, at least as Pharaoh’s slaves, we had three meals a day. At least the status quo gave us some stability, some sense of security. But now, here in the dangerous wilderness, we don’t know where we are going or what we are doing.”
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 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 good preacher to sooth your spirits, ease your minds.”
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 to be the people I am calling you to be out in the wilderness.
And here comes John, saying to those of us today who just want to sit back and lay back, “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 even knew you had, reveal opportunities your never dreamed possible, and take you to places you’ve never been!”
When the prophet Daniel describes the throne of God, he doesn’t describe a reign that is stationary and static, immovable and immobile. No, the prophet says that God sits on a throne with wheels, active, on the move, going places. And they are not just any wheels. Daniel says that they are wheels of blazing fire.
And here comes John saying to all of us who prefer to be set in our ways, secure in our beliefs, Jesus is coming on a chariot with those same wheels of fire to change your ways, challenge your assumptions and move you to take action.
The disciples were gathered together after Jesus had left their presence. They were just following the order of worship, going through the motions. The ushers were making sure everyone had a bulletin, everyone’s comfortable and seated, doors shut, typical boring service, then, at some point, perhaps in the middle of the offertory hymn, the building began to rumble, the windows started rattling, the doors swung open, and somebody shouted, “fire!”
We call that day the day 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 here who are combustible!’”
The truth is, when our church becomes nothing but a safe, static sanctuary, a place of secure stability where nothing ever changes, where we can cool off, cool down and just for sixty-minutes a week, chill out, we are not fulfilling our purpose as the children of a dynamic, moving God. 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, disrupted, when we allow ourselves to be engaged by the Christ, when we truly decide to not just worship Jesus in here but to follow Jesus out there, 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 him, to truly love all people as we love ourselves, to meet the needs of our community; when we lose ourselves and become caught up in the movement of God, we become a purifying and warming blaze, and it is, I promise you, a glorious site to behold, to God, as well as to the world.
The question today is: Will First Christian Church accept a baptism of unquenchable fire? I believe I know the answer to this question. For today, here in this place, the good news is:
I smell smoke.