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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Flame We Inherited ~ Pentecost - 05/15/2016

Earlier this week, Brittany – our awesome church secretary – was telling me a story about she and Eric and the girls sitting around one of the first campfires of the season. She said as they relaxed around the fire, both Natalie, who is 4, and Kelsy, who is 9 mos., were just mesmerized watching the flames and the glowing embers of the fire. When Dad got up to stir and stoke the fire a bit, it released a swirl of sparks up to the heavens and the girls both followed the path of the sparks with wonder in their eyes. Natalie said “wow.”

It's a very natural thing, I think, to be mesmerized by fire. I doubt Natalie and Kelsy or any of us have been educated in how to react to fire … it just happens … around a campfire, in front of a fireplace, or even in the presence of the flickering movement of a single candle. It naturally calls us into a state of mind where we pass on age-old wisdom through stories and song. It's one of those rare places in this busy and over scheduled world of ours where a group of people can fall quiet and be comfortable in that silence. Being drawn into the beauty of a fire can also help create a space where we can more easily hear God and better understand how we are to be servants of God's will.

The image of fire is used throughout the bible and is often used to reveal truths to us about who God is and who we are.

I did a search for the word “fire” in the bible. As you can imagine, it was a long list. Can you guess how many times the word “fire” is used? ... It's 637 times.And that doesn't include words life “flame,” (69), “blaze,” (15) or “burn” (618).

Here are just a few instances that caught my attention.

In Exodus, we learn through a burning bush that God hears us when we call. “There the angel of the Lord appeared to (Moses) in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”(Ex 3:2) … And God said to him 'The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (vs. 9-10)

Bringing in themes of how we relate to and communicate with God, we see fire again in the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah … this time, the fire is in the form of singeing hot smoldering coal.  “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.' Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And God said, 'Go and (speak) to the people …;”: (Isa 6:6-9a)

The prophet Ezekiel uses fiery images to re-create his vision of a powerful, mobile, unstoppable God. “I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the (rain)bow in a cloud on a rainy day, ... This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.” (Ez 1:27b-28)

And in Luke, the companion to the Acts of the Apostles, fire has double representation in the story of John the Baptist's proclamation of the coming Messiah. It's used as a way to set apart Jesus' redemptive action in the world from anything that has come before. It is also used as a just and precise cleansing agent – burning the chaff and leaving the wheat. It tells us God in Jesus is here to eliminate brokenness and restore creation; to celebrate what is good and life-giving and triumph eternally over evil and anything that separates us from God.

“'I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals'” says John the Baptist. “'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.'” (Luke 3:16-18)

In just these few examples – four out of 637 –  we get a picture of a God who hears our prayers, who wants to be in relationship and communicate with us, who is powerful and unhindered by the decisions and choices people make, including us. And we are reminded that this God was willing to take human form in order to atone for all our brokenness on a cross and defeat death's hold on us in the news of an empty tomb.

Another thing all these texts mention is the act of speaking …

Moses is sent to speak to Pharaoh. Isaiah is sent to the people with the Word of God seared on his lips. Ezekiel is sent to speak to the scattered Babylonian exiles and assure them … God is not contained by the walls of Jerusalem … God is on the move and coming to you outside of your places of safety and familiar. Finally, we join John in the Jordan as he is speaking the will and word of God to anyone who will hear him.

And the text from Acts we are spending time with today carries that act of speaking even farther. In an act of ongoing creation … God pours out God's will in game-changing tongues of fire upon those gathered for Pentecost.

The fire itself is described as tongues.

You can see that is an image that resonated strongly with our confirmation students as we listened to this text a couple of weeks ago and designed a banner – a visual representation of this story from Acts.

As the people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they gain miraculous ability to speak in the tongues of others. Devout Jews from all over are drawn into what is happening when –  in their own languages – they hear them speak “about God's deeds of power.” I actually like the way the King James version translates this line better: “we do hear them speak – in our tongues – the wonderful works of God.” (11b)

Then they begin speaking to each other. “Aren't these just a bunch people from Galilee?” “Are they drunk?”

Finally Peter gets up to speak – he speaks the word of God to them – an account of Joel's prophesy. But now it is a prophesy fulfilled – more and more people speak of the wonderful works of God.

We inherit all of these stories of fire and we continue this story today – we are part of God's ongoing act of creation – and like this group of Galileans in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, we are also ignited by the spirit to continue speaking life into this story.

A genius part of the Pentecost story is that it holds within it responses to many of the reasons we may think prevent us from being servants of God's will in the world.

For instance, sometimes we minimize our presence in the world as people who strive to keep God and neighbor at the center of things. We say we are just a small church in a small town so we cannot do all that much. But our story today challenges those kind of assumptions. It says “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Just before this story, we are told that “they” number about 120.

That's less than half the number of Eden's baptized membership. It's probably far less than all those who will gather for worship this Pentecost weekend in churches throughout Munising.

We may also minimize our individual efforts, saying perhaps we are not trained or educated properly, we're too young, too old, not sophisticated enough  or we're not worthy of speaking the stories and teachings of Jesus to others. But look at Peter – it's Peter who gets up and addresses the crowd in Jerusalem. He does it in the best way he knows how ... in his own words he passes on what he learned at Jesus' feet.

Peter could be anyone of us in this room. He's a regular working guy from Galilee, gathered with a handful of other regular men and women, young and old, rich and poor, book smart and street wise, saints and sinners who have been drawn to following Jesus' Way.

And what a difference they made. Small groups and regular people are often who God chooses for storytellers. We have inherited this story and it calls us in many different ways to pass the stories on ourselves, even as we add ourselves to them. This weekend as we confirm Gabe, Jasmyn, Carly and Izzy, as they affirm their baptismal identities – I can attest to you that this story we inherit lives on richly and profoundly in the words and actions of these young citizens of the Kingdom of God.

When we hear this story of flaming tongues descending upon the people and enabling them to speak in different languages, it challenges us to think about how we tell others about God's great deeds of power. We may not end up speaking to those who do not know the English language very often. So maybe we should think about this in terms of the individual gifts and experiences we all bring to this act of storytelling. Maybe for us speaking different languages means we each speak the wonderful works of God in our own words and out of our own experiences. The way we each tell the stories will connect with some, and not others, but between all of us, we can connect with a lot of people, we can invite others to come and see that God has a word of grace for everyone – in everyone's tongue.

We speak Jesus' language of love that says all are welcome at this table of bread and wine. We proclaim universally that in Jesus repentance, forgiveness and everlasting life with God translates into every language and every human experience.

That's what Peter did that day in Jerusalem. Some people heard what Peter had to say and walked away, unchanged. Others were drawn into the story – about 3,000 became followers of Jesus, the story in Acts tells us. Scholars argue over the accuracy of that number, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is that we can be fairly certain – because we stand here as descendents of those Jesus followers today – that when they returned to their daily lives, they gathered around fires and told the stories and more people were drawn in, even by the flickering movement of one person – one Izzy … one Carly … one Jasmyn … one Gabe … one you – lit up in the hope of Christ.

Amen

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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