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Fiery Preaching

What does fire sound like? What music, what notes, what tune would come close to it? Composers throughout the centuries have attempted to mimic the sound of fire, among them Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One of the most powerful tunes I've ever witnessed in film is from Amadeus, a biography of Mozart directed my Milos Forman. In the scene, Mozart is lying on his deathbed, and his nemesis Solieri is helping write what will be his last composition, his requiem. Mozart asks Solieri, "Have you ever felt the flames of hell?" "Oh, yes!" Solieri replies, and then Mozart, as if in a trance, begins to dictate note after note to Solieri who desperately tries to write them all down--all the while the viewer hears the sound that is playing in Mozart's mind, the rising and falling of the notes depicting the rising and falling of the flames as they lick at the tormented soul of Mozart, the volume rising as the flames grow larger and larger in his imagination.

George Frederick Handel has also imagined what fire sounds like in his famous oratorio, Messiah. One of the songs is based on our first lesson for today from Malachi. The baritone sings, "For he is like a refiner's fire," and the chorus replies, "and he shall purify." Again, the notes come in rapid succession, rising and falling like flames, growing in intensity like a blaze out of control.

About fire we have a divided mind. Although we have a fascination with it, we are almost universally afraid of it, especially of a fire that is beyond our control. We use fire to purify. I remember being taught the trick of putting a needle under the flame of a match to sterilize it before using the needle to remove a sliver. And we use fire to destroy. How many of you have panicked when a pile of leaves or a campfire has gone beyond its boundary and threatens to rage out of control?

The evil genius of the terrorists of September 11 was their use of fire to destroy both lives and buildings, and with that evil act stamping the indelible mark of fear on our American consciousness. It is this dual use of fire that our text for today plays off of. Is the fire we are experiencing from God for our purification or is it from the devil for our destruction? Well, for those who are suffering from the flames of whatever fire torments them, all they know is that it burns. We talk of our suffering in terms of fire. Those who suffer from mental illness talk of a fire that burns in their brain, voices that torment them like flames. Those who suffer shame talk of a burning feeling deep in one's soul when coming face-to-face with one's imperfection and sin.

Guilt burns the same way. Victims of physical and emotional abuse suffer from the flames of the passion of their abusers; sometimes children are literally burned by their tormentors. Yet a case could be made that our use of fire is also our greatest genius as a species. Using fire has allowed humans to adapt to life anywhere in the world, even in the frozen wonderland of Minnesota, where I was born.

Fire eliminates the bacteria in meat and other foods that cause life-threatening disease. Industrial revolution is predicated on the ingenious use of fire controlled by encasing it in steel which drives the pistons which drives the motors which drives the commerce that revolutionized our society.

It is fire that makes our cars go. It is fire that makes electricity that causes our lights to shine, our refrigerators to cool, our computers to compute. Our genius as a human race is in our use of fire.

But just as we can use fire to build, we can use fire to destroy. I'll never forget the positive gushing of praise and wonder in the news media in the first Gulf War of the early 90's, as we witnessed the videotape of a "smart bomb" flying in to destroy its target. The logic of war is this: Fight fire with fire. And just as a forest fire threatens to burn out of control and firefighters will burn a section of the forest in front of the fire so that nothing will be left to burn, so in war, we destroy a people and their land so that the leaders have nothing left with which to enflame their political passions.

Yes, we are regular geniuses in our use of fire, smart enough to destroy the whole world, and even our good use of fire to fuel our society is destroying the earth. For where there is fire, there is smoke and exhaust to turn a phrase. And the smoke and exhaust fill the air, choking our children with asthma, covering the earth in acid rain, burning a hole in the protective layer of ozone that surrounds the earth.

Where is this fire coming from? Is it from God or the evil inside of us? In the end it matters little for with it we are still burned.

Flannery O'Connor said it best in her short story entitled "Revelation." In a vision of the pilgrimage of souls to heaven, the lead character of the story sees the following:

Bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people who Miss Turnpin recognized at once as those who like herself and her husband, Claude, had always a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity. Accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior, they alone were singing on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Even our virtues will be burned away, whether the fire is God's purifying fire or the fire flamed by the passion of evil people bent on destroying all they hate. Fighting fire with fire, even for a righteous cause, still brings about total destruction. Nothing can stop the burning except one thing. Repentance.

When I was a Boy Scout long ago, we learned in our first aid course that if a person should catch fire, the very worse thing that person can do is run, for fire needs oxygen to burn and running just fuels the flames. In order to stop the burning, we were taught to do three things: Stop. Drop. And roll. Not a bad image for repentance.

When the flames of sin threaten to consume us, our first instinct, it seems, is to run all the harder, try all the more to be virtuous and good and righteous, all the while even our virtues go up in flames. We need, first of all, to stop. The word repentance in the New Testament is metanoia, and it means to turn, the idea being to turn from the direction you were going to face another direction in order to go a different way. But before we can turn, we must stop. Stop what we are doing. Stop believing that our frantic activity can put out the fire. Stop waging war in the name of all that is good and virtuous and right. Stop burning the world's resources to fuel our greed and consumption. Stop. Stop giving in to the flame of our passion and anger.

Next, the Boy Scout manual says we must drop. Drop to our knees in prayer. If the direction we were going was only fueling the fire, we must seek help to find the new direction. Only God can show us the way.

* Stop what we are doing to fuel the fire.
* Drop to our knees to implore God's forgiveness and seek God's direction.

You know, all good analogies must come to an end. I could think of a way to import spiritual meaning into the words Stop and Drop, but I'm afraid I'm stretching it a bit with the next move of repentance so I beg your indulgence.

Roll. Two things come to mind with this word. One is a memory I have as a child of laying down at the top of a grassy hill, tucking my arms in tight to make my body like a compact sausage and rolling down the hill. The sheer joy of the memory brings a smile to my face. Another thing that comes to mind with the word roll is motion. To roll is to move, for it comes from the Latin word rota. Rotation, which is at its core a turning. Turning around a center.

John has come on the scene to announce a movement. The kingdom of God is at hand. "Repent and believe the good news." Hear the joy in this announcement. Those who roll with the movement have good news. Center your motion in that good news. Give from your abundance of cloaks to those who have none. Share your bread with those who hunger. This is what it means to roll along with Jesus, to be part of his Gospel Train.

* Stop what you are doing to fuel the fire.
* Drop to your knees and pray for forgiveness and direction.
* Roll with the movement that will bring peace and justice to a hurting world.
* Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, from whom all good things come, we know not the source of the fire, only that we suffer from its intense heat and the pain of its burning. We repent of all we have done to fuel the flames and ask that you help us to stop what we are doing that is against your will, to drop to our knees in humility and repentance, seeking your guidance for the direction you would have us to go and, finally, strength to go in that direction with joy, carried by your love, as a child is carried by gravity when rolling down a hill. Above all, Lord, quench the fire of sin in our hearts with the joy of your saving love. Amen.