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The Flame Shall Not Consume You
Dr. Baron Mullis
January 10, 2016 - Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

 

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The Flame Shall Not Consume You                                                               
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22        

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016

 

With all of the mentions of fire in our readings today, perhaps I should begin with a clear statement: This is not a sermon about Hell or Hell-avoidance tactics. 

Many years ago, I was preparing to preach at a funeral for a member of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and when I had finished preparing the manuscript, being a bit unsure of myself, I shared it with Bill Enright who was then the pastor of that congregation.  He read through it, and he settled on one line, “The fire of life has been extinguished.”

I knew perfectly well what I meant by the line, I was trying to find a sanitary way of saying that the deceased was dead.  But I’ve never forgotten what he said, “You don’t ever want to mention fire in a funeral.  No matter how carefully and correctly you use the term, you won’t be able to convince some people that you’re not talking about Hell and the deceased’s proximity to it.”

All of which is to say that when I mention the flames today, I’m not talking about hell.  Nor is Isaiah.  The modern construct of Hell would be as alien to Isaiah as binary code would be to Picasso.  It’s irrelevant, not the same language, and utterly anachronistic.  So when Isaiah says, “the flame shall not consume you,” he means something a bit different.

He is talking about when the world comes unglued. 

Now that’s a language we can speak with Isaiah.  A few of us know a thing or two about when the world comes unglued.

Culturally we know it when national tragedy strikes: school shootings, flooding and tornadoes, epidemics – we know what it looks like when the world is coming unglued.

Personally we know it when life takes an unexpected turn: divorce, bankruptcy, disease, untimely death – we know what it looks like when the world is coming unglued.

Isaiah did too. 

This portion of text comes from what scholars call second Isaiah, and it’s during the time when whatever sad, pitiful little ragged remnant that was left of what King David had built hundreds of years before was finally being polished off completely by the victorious Babylonians.  Sure, Israel had been great, but it has soon split into two kingdoms, one fell within a generation and the other had finally come to its end, and an ignominious end it was, with the king, the symbol of the country, tortured and executed and the students of the finest schools dragged off to another country to be made to do God only knows what.

Isaiah isn’t writing about Hell but he knew something about the world coming unglued. 

The portion we read today follows tightly on the heels of a chapter where God describes the people as blind and deaf to the presence of God and the relationship as one of wrath. 

Not exactly a warm and friendly description of the relationship between God and Israel, but remember always that wrath is the expression of God’s love denied – and so it finally, always returns to love, and with that we encounter this incredible hymn of the faith of Israel, starting and ending, with verses 1 and 7, with the description of God as the creator of Israel, and by extension all of the universe.  And in between these twin descriptions of God as creator lie verses reiterating God’s nature as redeemer, preserver, and at the very heart of the hymn lies these words, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”1

To the apparent reality that the world was coming unglued came not a promise that it would stop, not a promise that things wouldn’t come apart, not a promise that the Babylonians wouldn’t win, but a promise that God would be God with them, and a reminder that they – and we – are loved.

Love matters, and the absence of love matters greatly.

Indeed, Paul Hanson, of Harvard Divinity School tells a story of the CBS Evening News turning the camera on an eleven year old girl after her classmates had committed a terrible crime and asking her she thought of it.  He writes, “Thoughtfully she said through her deep sadness, ‘They needed someone who loved them and showed them that, someone that really cared about them.’ It was clear through her honest eyes and the conviction in her voice that she had someone who loved her.  But tragically, two eleven year old boys had come abruptly to the end of their childhood because they had not received the gift of love.”2

Indeed, if there is a characteristic of what it means to be human, I am increasingly convinced that it is the capacity to give and receive love.  Love is hard to define – in a few weeks we will take a crack at the wonderful Pauline hymn to love – maybe you remember it from a wedding – Love is patient, love is kind – and at best, Paul describes what it looks like.  But whatever it looks like, it is the baseline of God’s relationship with humankind.  It is the baseline of what defines our humanity.

And our humanity is defined by the humanity of God, because to be human is to be made in the image of God.

In Karl Barth’s marvelous work, The Humanity of God, he writes this:

“It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes, His humanity.” 

Important, but I love what he wrote next:

“Would that Calvin had energetically pushed ahead on this point in his Christology, his doctrine of God, his teaching about predestination, and then logically also in his ethics!  His Geneva would not then have been such a gloomy affair.  His letters would then not have contained so much bitterness.”3

In other words, if you get God wrong, everything else is going to be off. 

When the Israelites were going through hell, not to hell, but through hell, what God gave to Isaiah to write to them was love.  Barth concludes, “How could God’s deity exclude His humanity, since it is God’s freedom for love and thus His capacity to be not only in the heights, but in the depths, not only great, but also small, not only in and for Himself but also with another distinct from Him and to offer Himself to him?”4

We can be with each other because God is with us!

When Luke tells us the story of Jesus being baptized down in the Jordan, he’s telling us the story of God being with us, the very same story that Isaiah shared with the downtrodden people of God just some five hundred odd years before.  It is the same story because it is God’s ongoing story with humanity. 

When Jesus comes down to Jordan to be baptized, it’s God getting into the middle of humanity.

When I teach this text in Bible Studies, I am invariably asked a question about baptism – maybe some of you have it today.  Baptism in the time of Jesus was a ritual washing to rid one of sins – that’s how the people understood it, and I always teach it that way because John’s out in the river baptizing people – into… what?  He’s baptizing them for cleansing of sin.  And Jesus comes out in the river and says, dunk me. 

People always stop there, wanting to know why Jesus needed to be baptized – surely the sinless, holy Jesus didn’t need to be cleansed, right?

When Jesus comes down to Jordan it is sort of the opposite of that.  When Jesus comes down to Jordan, it is the holy plunging into the midst of the unholy.

Jesus is God’s refusal to leave us to ourselves.  Jesus is God’s refusal to abandon humankind.  Jesus is God saying again to humankind, “I will be with you,” as God has all the way back to Moses; all the way back to creation.

And then there’s that flame again.

Isaiah says it one way, the flame shall not consume you, but then Luke twists it another way, the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Now remember, we’re still not talking about hell.  This isn’t a word for people in danger of going to hell, this is a word for the people who already know what it looks like. 

This isn’t Jesus saying, “Now friends, some of you are wheat, and some of you are chaff, and if you’re chaff, I’m going to burn you up in the everlasting fires of hell, believe promise of the Gospel.”  That’s not what the text says!!!

Because remember, this is good news, and it’s not good news unless it’s good news for everyone. 

Every one of us has wheat and chaff within us.  God is going to hold onto the wheat, and in the great redemption epic of creation, God is going to keep on holding on to the wheat, no matter what.  As James said last week, there’s no guarantee that mourning won’t happen, only that joy will return, likewise, there’s no guarantee you won’t walk through the flames, but there is a guarantee that God won’t ever leave you.  The flame won’t consume you, because God will always be with you. 

Now, if any of our officers-elect, our deacons and elders, are squirming from the reality that I’m up here preaching about fire, wheat, chaff, and who knows what else, well, here’s what I have to say about that: good. 

Because in just a little bit, we’re going to call down another kind of fire, we’re going to call down the flames of the Holy Spirit in the hopes and prayers that God’s love will so infuse your ministry that you will serve as flames to ours, to mine and this congregation you have been called to serve.  And I have an admonition for you: let it be Jesus that burns within you. 

Let me share one more quote with you, this one from Reinhold Neibuhr.  Writing about a visit to a local congregation, he described the sermon as “fulsome eulogy of Jesus Christ.”  The preacher would raise up an historical figure of magnitude just to have them bow down to Jesus, and Neibuhr concludes that the preacher has missed the point of Christ.  He writes, “Through the whole discourse there ran the erroneous assumption that Christians are the real followers of Jesus and no effort was made to describe the wide chasm which yawns between the uncompromising idealism of the Galilean and the current morality.”  Then he asked, “I wonder how many sermons of that type are still being preaching.  If that sermon is typical it would explain much of the conventional tameness of the church.”  Finally, he writes, “How much easier it is to adore an ideal character than to emulate it.”5 

Elders and deacons, congregation members and visitors, we’re not here to eulogize Jesus, we’re here to follow him.  We’re not here to avoid hell, but to follow him. And should following Jesus take us into the dark places, we’re still called to go.  We are called to be, as Barth said, with each other as God is with us, to let the humanity of God define our humanity.  We are called to be the people of God. We are called to let Jesus burn within us.

 

Just as we began with a clear statement, let us end with one as well: We are promised that the flames that surround us shall not consume us.

But the flame that is within us most certainly will.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.


1 Isaiah 43:4
2 Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 in Interpretation. (JKP: Louisville, 1995) p65
3 Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (JKP: Richmond, 1960) p45
4 Ibid.  Emphasis mine.
5 Reinhold Niebuhr, Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. (W/JKP: Louisville, 1980) p90

Last Published: January 15, 2016 8:19 PM