The Holy Spirit as fire …

St Michael’s, 15th May 2016 – Pentecost

Readings – Acts 2:1-21; John 14:15-27

It’s been a good week … I hope those who came to the prayer week were able to engage with the tables, and with God in prayer … and I hope those who weren’t able to come have seen the photographs on screen or online.

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You may have noticed we have a dove hanging in the hall area. The Lord’s prayer on which the prayer week was based, says nothing directly about the Holy Spirit, yet he is there throughout. In the reading we’ve just heard from John’s gospel, Jesus said,

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth.’ (John 14:15-17a)

That’s what it means to pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done … ‘, if you love me, keep my commands …

Another example – John 14:26,

the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

It is only as the Holy Spirit works in us to teach and remind us about the character, nature and power of God made visible in Jesus Christ that we are able to truly worship him, ‘Hallowed be your name!’

So while the Holy Spirit isn’t named as part of this prayer, it is saturated with his presence.

So as part of the display for the prayer week, I asked Mary if she could make the dove … the Holy Spirit is often represented by a dove, because of Jesus’ baptism, when Matthew tells us,

As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (Matthew 3:16)

Yet in the bible the Holy Spirit appears more often as fire, than as a dove … as in our reading from Acts today.

Pentecost was (and is) a major festival in Jewish tradition. It has a double purpose … it commemorates God giving his people the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 50 days after the Exodus; and it is also the culmination of the festival of harvest. It actually has a number of different names in the OT, but by the time of Jesus and the early church it was known in Greek as Pentecost, meaning the 50th day. After the events we read about in Acts 2, the church continued to use the familiar name, because Pentecost was such a significant event in the foundation and growth of this new work of God.

Our reading in Acts describes what happened … as the disciples were gathered for the festival,

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. (Acts 2:2-3)

The passage goes on to describe what happens next – a crowd gathers, visitors from across the Roman empire – in the city for the festival – are surprised to hear the good news of Jesus spoken in their first language, their native tongue. Some mock, then Peter stands up to explain – the first recorded sermon in the New Testament – after which 3,000 new believers are added to the company, are baptised and the new church is born.

Now those of us who have been in church for some time will have heard many sermons on this reading … after all, it’s the same reading we hear every year! And there’s a lot we could look at, there’s so much to learn from this story. We could talk about the languages, or gift of tongues; we could talk about the different background of the people in the crowd and how the good news of Jesus is for everyone; we could talk about the faithfulness of the disciples, and their habit of prayer … but this morning I simply want to look at the image of the Holy Spirit as flame, or fire.

In the bible, fire plays a number of roles …

First, think of the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses had fled Egypt for good … but God had other ideas. Though Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s court, most of God’s chosen people were living as slaves, and God wanted Moses to do something about it. So one day, while Moses is out tending the sheep, Exodus tells us,

he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up …When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ (Exodus 3:1-5)

Fire is a symbol of purity and of God’s holiness … and while God has found a way for us to come to him as forgiven and righteous, we still need to remember that God is holy. We must not take sin lightly … else Jesus need not have died for us. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins can be forgiven, the slate wiped clean … but let’s not take it for granted. And God called Moses by name … he knows us all, and calls us by name. We are his choice, his chosen people. And he has work for us to do.

The second image is that of the refiner’s fire … in the OT, through the prophet Isaiah, God said,

See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10)

And through Jeremiah,

Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people? (Jeremiah 9:7)

Notice that God is speaking of those who already belong to him .. who are already part of the people of God … this is not only about sin and forgiveness, this is about perseverance and holiness, living up, living out, the new life that God has given us in Jesus.

And in case we think these verses are from the OT, and so less important (which, by the way, I do not believe), Peter says much the same thing in the NT, in his first letter to the churches, where he speaks of an inheritance – salvation – that can never perish, spoil or fade, yet,

now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

So this second image of fire … the furnace, or refiner’s fire … is about growing in faith, sometimes through difficult circumstances when we may be tempted to give up. After all, faith is like spiritual muscle … it only grows stronger when we use it. And for some of us, life after becoming a Christian, is hard, harder than it was before. We’re not being punished, we’re being refined, made holy, made more like Jesus, we’re being made ready for heaven.

But the refiner’s fire is also about discipline and judgement … and if as a Christian, we are not living life God’s way, he may choose to do something drastic. That’s not always how God works … he is loving and patient and merciful … but sometimes we are stubborn and proud and just plain wrong … and he loves us too much to let us carry on that way. So he will do anything it takes to call us back again.

The furnace also reveals the underlying beauty of the metal … it’s effects are visible … and that brings me to our final image of fire, today. The tongues of flame that came upon the disciples at Pentecost weren’t the overwhelming, fearful fire of a furnace, nor a separate, distant image of God’s holiness. They were an external sign that something had happened on the inside, an inward change in the hearts of the believers …

When someone comes to faith, when they invite Jesus into their lives, and choose to stop living for themselves but to live for God instead (the technical or theological word for that, by the way, is repentance), then the Holy Spirit comes to live in them, as the felt presence of God, both Father and Son. His role is to keep us going in the faith, teaching us, revealing God’s character, showing us how to live for him as we grow in faith, disciplining us, developing in us the family likeness of being brothers and sisters in Jesus, so that we become more like Jesus.

But that inward change of heart, will always have an external impact … Jesus warned his disciples that,

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

And, of those who claimed to live for God but really only lived for themselves, he said,

By their fruit you will recognise them. (Matthew 7:16 & 20)

You cannot believe in Jesus and stay the same. Becoming a Christian will always make a difference in your life … a difference visible to others.

The tongues of flame on the day of Pentecost were a sign that God was at work. They were a sign to those onlookers who could see that something unexpected, even supernatural, was happening … but they were also a sign to the believers themselves … of reassurance, comfort, encouragement, confidence.

So let me ask you, what do you need of the Holy Spirit today?

Do you need to come to God for the first time … recognising your sin, and his holiness, finding forgiveness through Jesus, and new life in him?

Do you need guidance to know what God wants you to do in a situation?

Or do you need to sort out your life, do you need God to burn away the impurities that persist even though you are already part of his family, the church?

Do you need reassurance that the difficulties you are facing are part of God’s loving purpose for you, to strengthen your faith?

Or do you simply need his gentle touch, encouragement to keep going, reassurance that he really has come into your life, that you really are part of his kingdom, his people, his family … reassurance that you haven’t just made a ridiculous mistake, that it isn’t after all just a fairy story?

Elsewhere we read that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to the children of God, Hebrews 2:4,

God also testified to (salvation) by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

We don’t have time this morning to look in any detail at the gifts and fruit of the Spirit, there are several listed in the NT, but if there is something you need from God today, just ask. Ask the Holy Spirit for what you need. Because the Holy Spirit is the living presence of God, John 14:23,

Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 

The Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in us, at home in us …

Romans 8:14,

those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

So we come right back again to the Lord’s prayer … ‘Our Father in heaven’ … those who know the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in their lives, through knowing and trusting Jesus, are family, brothers and sisters, with an eternal bond far stronger than any earthly relationship.

There’s so much I could have said from this passage this morning … but you know what to do, don’t you? Same time, same place, next year!

We’re going to spend some time in prayer now … time to reflect on what I’ve said, and opportunity to pray and ask God, ask the Holy Spirit, to do or to give whatever it is that we need today …

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