God’s devouring fire

Feb 23, 2015 by

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Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. — Psalm 50:3

When God comes near, there’s a devouring flame — a fire that burns away all the stuff in our lives that gets in the way of God’s love. When God’s love gets ahold of our lives, God’s fire begins to burn away all the stuff that blocks the flow of divine love in our lives. This blockage is what we call sin — the stuff in us and in our world that blocks the movement of God’s love, the circulation of God within and around us. For example, the sin of pride blocks us from vulnerable relationships, from the risk of a relationship, a relationship without posturing — pride blocks us from knowing God’s love in a friend. And jealousy blocks us from a life of gratitude, from recognizing the gifts we already have, ordinary gifts, extravagant gifts of life from the abundance of God’s provision. And greed blocks us from letting God’s love for the poor flow through us, through our bank accounts, through our hands as we share what God has shared with us. God’s fire is grace, the flames of grace that burn through our sin so that love can flow in us and through us.

Maybe a good image for this kind of fire is to think about your life as a forest of Ponderosa pines. I grew with them in Arizona. The pine trees are made to survive wildfires. Their trunk and bark are fire resistant. In fact, a Ponderosa forest needs fire. The fire burns the pinecones and spreads the seeds hidden inside. Wildfires also create a layer of nutrient-rich soil for the seeds, fertilizer for the seedlings as they start to grow. God is like that kind of devouring wildfire, burning through our lives to enable new growth, new life.

I got this image, of God as fire roaring through a pine forest, from Lauren Winner’s new book, Wearing God. Here are her words: “If God is fire, we are a grove of ponderosa pines. Without the heat and burn of God’s flame, our pinecones would remain closed tight around the seeds that are needed for our thriving and growth and new life.”

Sin is social — because it has everything to do with how we, as individuals, block ourselves from God’s flow of love in the world. Private jealousies and resentments and lusts have everything to do with how we think about one another and treat each other. And our hope is that God will burn away all of those blockages, all the stuff that gets in the way of being people who flow with divine love, people who let our lives circulate God’s gentleness and grace.

This week I want God’s fire to devour a particular social sin, the sin of anti-Muslim violence in our community, as we witnessed with the murder of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha, just a few miles from where we are right now (Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship).

I want God’s fire to devour this social sin, the sin of religious racism, of violent resentment — a sin that infects minds, convincing people that some lives are less human than others, that some are cheaper than others, a sin that corrupted the mind of our neighbor, here in Chapel Hill, the sin that convinced him to shoot three people because of a disagreement about parking. I want God to come with devouring fire, to burn away these powers of sin, social sins that distort minds, sins that refuse God’s love, sins that reject God’s gentleness and care, violence fueled by religious racism.

“Our God comes and does not keep silence,” the Psalmist writes, “before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him” (Psalm 50:3).

We hope for transfiguration — that God’s presence would settle upon us, upon our lives, our neighborhoods, and our world, just as the cloud of God’s glory descended upon Jesus in the story of his transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9).

In the fourth century, bishop Ambrose of Milan said that the life of Jesus was God’s fire on earth. In Jesus, he said, “Love was illuminated. Justice was resplendent.”

That’s our hope — that the love of Jesus would enflame our lives, that Christ’s justice would burn through our social sins, transforming us, transfiguring all things with God’s life.

As the apostle Paul wrote, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness.’” It is “the glory of God [that shines] in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

And our prayer, our hope, our calling is that God’s glory may also shine in our faces — and not only ours, but in the faces of our neighbors, that all creation may shine with God’s glory, God’s love, God’s justice and God’s peace.

Isaac S. Villegas serves as a pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. This reflection is adapted from his sermon on Feb. 15, 2015.

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  • Scott R. Troyer

    Thanks for your thoughts, Isaac! This reminds me of an excerpt from Hans Denck’s commentary on Micah:
    “Such a security will exist also in outward things, with practice of the true gospel that each will let the other move and dwell in peace – be he Turk or heathen, believing what he will – through and in his land… Everyone among all peoples may move around in the name of his God. That is to say, no one shall deprive another – whether heathen or Jew or Christian – but rather allow everyone to move in all territories in the name of his God.”

    • Conrad Hertzler

      This is an interesting thought from Hans Denck. I would need to read it in its context but the excerpt posted here brings up questions in my mind. What are the implications of allowing “everyone to move in all territories in the name of his God”? Does this mean that we are to just let others be and not share with them about the one True God? Does Hans Denck believe that the true gospel is defined as letting others believe as they will because it promotes peace and love? I could be misunderstanding completely what he is driving at here but this is the way it sounds. Scott, do you have any more light to shed on this post?

      • Charlie Kraybill

        Hans Denck was a universalist … an anabaptist universalist. He believed that, in the end, even the Devil and his demons would be saved by God. Of course, in our modern times we no longer believe in literal devils and demons. But we can still take Denck’s point.

        • Conrad Hertzler

          We no longer believe in literal devils and demons? Goodness, have I been so far out in left field all this time? I thought we did. Again, I know that neither of us will be able to change the other person’s mind on this forum so I won’t try. But I do want to say that if Jesus, The Word, spoke about the devil and demons, I will believe Him. I would rather believe him than in my own modern enlightened intellect which often lets me down.

      • Scott R. Troyer

        Many early Anabaptists advocated strongly for religious tolerance for others as well as for themselves. These ideas come up later in Anabaptist history as well: when Jacob Amman opposed Hans Reist in the late seventeenth century, it is likely that a large part of the disagreement was a result of Reist’s universalist leanings. According to Denck’s spiritualist faith, being a Christian was not about converting others, but about living lives that follow the Word of God (the Word being Christ, rather than scripture. Scripture describes the Word, but it is not the Word itself). Christ promoted peace, accepted religious and social outcasts, and denounced the self-righteous. Christ’s example was more inclusive than exclusive.

  • Gary Hill

    Thank you, this is inspiring!

  • Karen Rath

    How does the author know this man shot those 3 people because they were Muslims? It was a parking dispute. He was an atheist who seemed to have equal disdain for Muslims and Christians. He obviously had no regard for the sanctity of life and that is a grievous sin, but what evidence is there that this was a case of religious racism and that the lives of those 3 victims mattered less to him than if they were Christians or another religion or no religion? I am tired of identity politics that needlessly divide us and slogans like “black lives matter” and “Muslim lives matter.” ALL lives matter. And by the way, sin is not social. Sin in individual. Each person is responsible for his or her choices and sins. A terrible crime occurred in Chapel Hill because an individual man chose to kill 3 innocent people over a parking dispute. Let us mourn that and not turn this into another opportunity to polarize people by race or religion.