Fire on the Mountain

7 July 2020

I delivered this talk at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, some weeks ago as a discussion starter. The full discussion centered around the question, “Where is God’s Presence?”

I know this sounds like a lame question. This is theology 101, right? God is omnipresent — He’s everywhere. So great; that’s settled.

What I hope you’ll find this morning is that our Scripture passage (Acts 2:1-24) forces us to rethink. Omnipresence is true, but it’s also true that God is particularly present in a special way at specific times and places.

This is true starting all the way back in the Garden. If we closely read the description of Eden and the accounts of the fall of Lucifer, we find that the Garden was planted in the lowlands of a region called Eden. It had to be in the lowlands, because there was a river that watered it — and the river had to flow down from higher ground. Somewhere else in Eden was a place of volcanic beauty, where Lucifer, the anointed covering cherub in the very presence of God, covered in gemstones, walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. Obviously that’s not the same place where Adam and Eve were going about naked among the fruit trees.

But in the cool of the day, God would leave the glory of the fiery stones and come walk in the garden with the man and woman He created.

When we sinned, God dispatched a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the gate to the garden. Divine fire blocked our way back to God.

From that day forward, we often meet God in fire.

Moses meets God in the burning bush. Before they cross the Red Sea, God stands between Israel and the Egyptian army in a huge pillar of cloud and fire.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. (Ex. 14:19-20)

Later, Moses and the whole nation meet God on Mount Sinai. God descends to the mountaintop in fire and storm.

And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. (Ex. 19:17-19)

When the tabernacle is built, divine fire comes out of the sanctuary and kindles the offering on the altar. Later, God executes wayward priests who offer strange fire on His altar.

And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:22-24)

God leads Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they’re camped, the pillar of cloud and fire is always above the Tabernacle, and divine fire burns on the altar, a portable mountain of God.

When Solomon dedicates the temple, God once again brings down fire from heaven and kindles the altar.

When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever.”Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD. (2 Chr. 7:1-4)

When Elijah faces the prophets of Baal, he calls down divine fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.

And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. “Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” (1 Ki. 18:36-40)

Days later, when Elijah flees into the desert, he meets God once again on Mount Sinai. All the things that happened with Moses happen again: storm, fire, and earthquake…but God is not in them. Then God comes to him in a still, small voice.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Ki. 19:11-12)

After the resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to go disciple the nations, but to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit came on Pentecost, he came as God had come on Sinai: a mighty rushing wind and fire. But this time, the fire is not in just one place: one mountain, one altar, one pillar of fire. There are tongues of fire on every believer’s head.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

And just like with Elijah on the mountain, the real power’s not in the fire. The real power’s in the voice that comes after the fire: everyone hears the wonderful works of God in their own language, and 3,000 people are added to the church that day.

Now there’s a temptation that hits us, as soon as we start to talk about how every believer has this. We stop thinking it’s special. We mentally put it with omnipresence. Everybody has it. It’s no big deal. No.

Do you understand the picture God is painting here? Every believer is the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire, the Tabernacle, the Temple, all rolled into one. This is not just omniscience; God is specifically present in you in a way that He is not present with everybody. When you walk into a room full of unbelievers, the fire of God just walked in — and remember, after the fire comes a voice. What will you say? It matters!


Going to Extremes

21 April 2020

I had occasion to speak on Deuteronomy 14:22-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on March 22nd. Owing to plague-driven necessity, the sermon was pre-recorded. You can find the video link here. If you prefer audio, see below.

You might also want to read Speaking with an Edge.


Just the Server, not the Chef

4 February 2020

When talking about the Lord’s Table, the first observation to make is that the command is “Take and eat,” not “Take and explain.” A life of obedient Table observance is necessary; the explanation, while theologically important, is really just something to argue about over a cold beer—very secondary by comparison.

The second observation is that it can’t possibly be wrong to simply observe the Table as we’re taught in the New Testament. When I serve someone the bread, I tell them “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I say this because Jesus said this. I do not explain further, because Jesus didn’t. It can’t be wrong to just do what Jesus did. (Or what Paul laid down, following Christ’s example.) Now, it’s possible that various alterations and elaborations are also ok (and note that Paul doesn’t quite do exactly what Jesus did either). But it can’t be wrong to just stick very closely to the biblical examples we’re given. (And as a practical matter when you’re celebrating the Table with people from multiple churches, sticking very closely to the biblical text avoids a lot of sticky difficulties.)

The third observation is that it’s possible to waaaaay overdo the search for an explanation. Aquinas tried to explain the realities of the Table in Aristotelian terms, which sounds a bit precious to modern ears. The contemporary equivalent would be someone setting out to explain the Table through a clever application of quantum mechanics. (“See, in the first three dimensions, it’s bread, but in the 17th dimension, it’s the body…”) Um, no. Let’s not.

So a minister is well within his rights to say what the New Testament says, stop there, and decline to comment further. In sensitive company, that’s often exactly what I do.

But since we’re all friends here, let’s crack a cold one and chat a little. I’d say we’re pretty well stuck with some kind of real presence. The alternative to believing in Christ’s real presence at the Table is believing in His real absence, and that won’t do. A Corinthian abusing the Table can’t be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord if the body and blood of the Lord are not present.

Of course the bread and wine remain bread and wine, symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but let us not forget that there is a class of symbols that accomplish what they signify. When I gave my wife a ring, in the presence of witnesses, with the words, “With this ring I thee wed…” — the ring is a symbol, all right. But it is a symbol that accomplishes what it signifies.

Likewise, in a way that I flatly decline to speculate about, I maintain that the bread and wine are symbols of the presence of Christ that accomplish what they signify. In them, Christ is truly present, and through eating and drinking, He is present in you. You are the body of Christ, because you are what you eat. You want to know how that works in detail? Way above my pay grade, man. I’m just the server, not the chef.

I’d recommend John Williamson Nevin’s work for further reading on this.


The Practice of Prayer

27 January 2020

I had the opportunity to speak this week at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, on “The Practice of Prayer.”

 


Epiphany: The Astrologers Find Jesus

6 January 2020

Contrary to the popular song, the Magi were not “three kings.” The Magi were diviners, astrologers, prophets, wise counselors — not kings, but king-makers, the power behind the throne of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s enemy to the east. So when their delegation arrived inside the Roman Empire, in the court of Herod, Rome’s puppet king in the province of Judea, it made a bit of a splash. The fact that they were looking for a new king only made it worse. 

How did they come to be looking for a king? “We saw his star,” they said. Five hundred years earlier, Daniel had become the chief of the Magi, not only recording his own dreams and visions of Israel’s promised Messiah, but also bringing the Hebrew Scriptures with him. A thousand years before that, those Scriptures reported, Balaam had prophesied that a star would rise out of Jacob. 

The Magi watched the heavens as a matter of course. And when the star appeared, they searched their books, learned what it meant, and came to meet the king. Took a little doing, but they found Him. 

Christians sometimes get a little possessive of Jesus, and start thinking that “outsiders” (however defined) can’t possibly know what we know about Him. How could the Magi find Jesus by watching the stars? Because He made them, and rightly understood, they point to Him.  

As does everything else. 


The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Weird Trust

5 January 2020

God often shows us what He’s going to do by giving us a word that initially makes no sense. 

The coming of Jesus is first foretold to Adam and Eve as the Seed of the woman, who will crush the serpent’s head. As the centuries pass, God slowly adds more detail to the picture. Balaam, a strange and greedy figure, foretold a royal star rising out of Jacob (Israel). Many other prophets also spoke of a coming king that would conquer and reign. Others saw a suffering servant who would die for his people. It was so hard to reconcile these themes that some of the rabbis suggested the prophets were speaking of two different messiahs, which they called the (royal) son of David and the (suffering) son of Jacob. During Jesus’ lifetime, His closest followers glommed onto the ‘royal conqueror’ theme, and totally neglected the ‘suffering servant’ theme. 

What they did not want to see was the truth that Jesus embraced: by obeying the path of suffering, He was also walking the path to reigning. It only became clear in the doing: Jesus has transformed the world; He dethroned the divine kings, confounded the philosophers with the good of Creation, and sidelined the religious elite so that you and I can know God directly. And He’s not done yet.

He lived a life of service, and in His death gathered every sin, every character flaw and weakness and sickness of the world into Himself. They died on the cross that day, and were buried in the heart of the earth, and when He rose to new life, He brought none of that out of the grave. Whatever holds you back from the purposes God built into you, you could let it go today and be free for the rest of your life — because Jesus has already settled accounts with your limitations. 

So what are you called to? What have you been told you could do, what has God shown you, but you haven’t pursued it because it just makes no sense? What might happen if you just obey by doing what you can do now?


The Eleventh Day of Christmas: It Doesn’t Have to Look Like You Think

4 January 2020

We have a bad habit of refusing to accept what God does because it doesn’t look like we expected it to. 

It was not just the divine kings and the philosophers who were scandalized by the coming of Jesus. In the prologue to his gospel, the Apostle John remembers, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” The very idea of a divine human being was a scandal to the religious establishment…a scandal that had been vexing them in their own Scriptures going back 500 years before Christ. 

During that time, the entire nation was enslaved and deported to captivity in Babylon, an experience that God told them (correctly) would cure them of idolatry forever. The prophet Daniel was an advisor to the Babylonian kings, and one day Daniel saw a vision that was nothing but trouble. He saw “one like the Son of Man” — a human, in other words — riding on the clouds. Now, this is already a problem, because in Daniel’s world, only God rides on the clouds. A human being can’t do that. But it got worse. The Son of Man rode on the clouds to the Ancient of Days (God, again), and received a kingdom from Him. For a good Jewish boy whose nation has just given up worshipping idols, this is one too many gods — and one of them is a human. The whole thing is no good. Daniel 7 says he was grieved in his spirit. In the dream, he gets an explanation for part of what he sees, but this part of the vision is not explained, and even after he’s given an interpretation, he says that his thoughts greatly troubled him, and he kept the matter to himself.

The riddle posed by that vision had been troubling interpreters ever since Daniel wrote it down. And the religious powers that be had a very hard time accepting that a child born to a construction worker could be the answer to the riddle. 

What is God doing in your life that doesn’t look like you expected?


The Tenth Day of Christmas: Flesh is Good

3 January 2020

This time of year, people get caught up in all kinds of resolutions–a modern, if short-lived, renunciate lifestyle that would do the monks of yesteryear proud. Now, far be it from me to talk you out of going to the gym or passing on that second helping of pie, but let’s not lose our balance. Like the Preacher said, eat your bread and drink your wine with a merry heart all the days of your fleeting life, for God has already accepted your work.

In the teeth of the philosophers’ disapproval, the early Jesus-followers stubbornly maintained the goodness of material things. If the Divine Order of the universe–the Logos–could become flesh, then flesh had to be good. 
They even put this into their early baptismal formulas: the closing of the early versions of the Apostles’ Creed have a line that we translate, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” Except it doesn’t quite say that. The Greek word for “body” is soma, and that’s not the word they used. They used the word sarx, which is the same word the apostle John used in the shocking climax of his prologue: “The Word became flesh.”

What the creed actually says–and remember, this is the creed you would memorize and say in public in order to be baptized; every Christian knew it–is “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” That which Christ assumed–full humanity, including the physical, fleshly body–is good, and will be fully redeemed on the last day.

So eat the fat and drink the sweet before God with a merry heart; He has given us all things richly to enjoy, and every gift of God is good, if it is received with thanksgiving. 


The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 


The Eighth Day of Christmas: Nothing Like You’d Expect

1 January 2020

An individual can have an awakening overnight, but the consciousness of societies changes very slowly—and the whole human race takes even longer. In the realm of politics after Jesus, it took nearly 2,000 years to get rid of fake divine kings. The incarnation of God did something similar to philosophy, and it’s taking even longer to work itself out. 

The Greeks were the finest academic minds of the time; even today, Greek thought is the foundation of Western philosophy. The Greeks observed that despite its constant flux, the material world follows orderly rules. The source of this order couldn’t be in the material world itself, they reasoned, because the material world is constantly decaying. In fact, the source of order couldn’t be on the chain of being at all, since everything on the chain of being—from beach sand to the gods—is subject to time and change. They postulated an underlying order, distinct from everything else that is, which they called the Logos (literally “Word”).

That order was behind, and expressed by, the regularity of the material universe. It was bigger than the world, certainly bigger than any person or god — after all, persons have emotions and change; persons can’t be trusted. By contrast, the Logos was an impersonal, trustworthy order, an unchanging source of certainty.  

And then the Apostle John comes and says “The Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we saw His glory.” To the philosophers, that was ridiculous. No mere god could be trusted with the order of the world. And how would that even work? The order of the world certainly could not become flesh. 

Ridiculous as it sounds, John says, it’s true all the same: you aren’t floating loose through an impersonal universe, nor are you at the dubious mercy of a character like Zeus. “The Order of the Universe has a name,” John says. “I met Him. He’s nothing like you’d expect.” 

If you’ve never read John’s firsthand account of what that was like, you might be surprised. Give it a shot — John’s Gospel is only 16,000 words or so, divided into 21 short chapters. It takes about an hour for an average reader.