Reading: Acts 2
My son David preached yesterday, and his sermon reminded the congregation that the images surrounding Pentecost of "tongues of flame" aren't always comfortable ones. In ordinary years, the average congregant might perhaps equate those flames with the warmth of a fire on the hearth, or in a wood stove. Perhaps we might think of roasting marshmallows over a campfire or a candle-lit dinner with a loved one.
Warmth, beauty, sustenance--these are the associations we might make with the fire and flames of Pentecost in an ordinary year.
But as David pointed out, this isn't an ordinary year. Fire still rages over vast areas of Northern Alberta, and the entire city of Fort McMurray has been evacuated. "Only" two lives lost (if one can describe anyone's death as "only two lives"), and those in a motor vehicle accident, not in the fire itself. But eighty thousand people are now homeless and unemployed, and many of those will never return home or work in Fort McMurray again. Parts of the city have been destroyed by fire, while much of the rest will likely sustain damage from the smoke and heat.
Tell the people of Fort McMurray or anyone whose home, business, school or place of worship has been consumed by fire that flames are warm, sustaining and nurturing! The truth is that those small, tame fires are merely seeds of something that can grow to be much bigger. Given the right encouragement, a campfire can consume a city.
Believe it or not, those raging, out-of-control fires are necessary. A forest fire is nature's way of clearing out dead growth and underbrush, and preparing a nutrient-rich seed bed for new life. Certain pine cones will only open to release the seeds within when heated to extreme temperatures. Numerous species of animals and birds, including deer and black bears, thrive in the aftermath of a forest fire. The death and destruction of the old brings about life for the new.
And so we come to a bunch of men and women, some hundred and twenty persons in all, hiding, meeting in small groups, comforting one another and grieving for the past, as those in transition are wont to do.
Then roaring through their gathering with the ferocity and violence of a Northern Alberta forest fire comes the Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
If we had any knowledge of the true power of that invocation, many of us would never utter it again.
That roaring power immediately destroyed that tiny gathering of Messianic Jews. They began babbling in languages they'd never learned to speak. Onlookers accused them of being drunk--at nine o'clock in the morning! The tongues like fire raged, burning away their protective cocoon. They left the room where they were gathered and began to witness to the people of the city. They stopped speaking their own language, and told the story of the Risen Christ in tongues that their listeners understood.
And within days, one hundred and twenty Messianic Jews became over three thousand Christians. The raging fires of Pentecost had given birth to the Christian Church.
We sit in our pews today, and we have once again dwindled. Two thousand years of traditions and doctrine and being embraced by the political establishment have grown up around the pillars of our faith, sometimes choking them, and certainly smothering new ideas. We have become more afraid of losing our positions of influence with the governing bodies of our countries than we are of losing our evangelistic roots. Many of our churches today are insular, pursuing what they perceive as "their God-given mission," in isolation from other congregations of the faithful and from the world. The majority of congregations today aren't any bigger than that scared little group of first century Messianic Jews, and many of them are much smaller.
And so we huddle in our little congregations on Sunday mornings, speaking our own languages, preaching to the converted, and fearing the future.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come.
Burn away our fear and shame. Make us drunk with the possibility of new life. Blow away our cloak of respectability, and teach us to speak the languages of the masses outside our door.
Teach us to prophesy. Fill us with dreams. Boot us out of our sanctuaries and into the world. Impel us to act.
Prepare us as a seed bed to nurture new life.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come!