By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Have you ever received a gift you were not sure you knew what to do with? I suspect we all have. Garish ties that you would not be caught dead in…rank perfumes or colognes that you would not wear for fear of dropping everyone in the room into a faint…horrible pictures from some rich, ugly old relative that are suitable only for the attic. There are some gifts we do not know how to handle.
Now, let me change the subject for a moment. Let’s talk about FIRE. Fire is fascinating. Little children say they want to grow up to be firefighters. If you hear that there is a fire in the neighborhood, chances are you will go out to watch it…which, of course, creates a big problem for those kids who DID grow up to be firefighters. On a winter’s evening, we like building a fire, not just for the warmth, but for the chance to watch it do its work. On a summer’s evening in the woods, we enjoy gathering around a campfire, not for the warmth, but for the sheer pleasure of being near it. Fire fascinates us.
Now, combine those two thoughts: gifts and fire. I wonder what would happen if someone gave you a gift OF fire. To be sure, you WOULD be fascinated by it. But what in the world would it mean? Perhaps the early Christians wondered. After all, that was the Lord’s first gift to the church on that momentous and earth-shaking Pentecost…FIRE.
You remember. The faithful had gathered there in that room near the temple in Jerusalem, 120 of them. They had been there for the better part of ten days, spending their time in prayer, choosing another apostle to replace Judas who had recently committed suicide, talking among themselves of the ministry of their Lord Jesus who had been taken up from them into heaven just a week-and-a-half before. Just prior to his ascension, Jesus had told them to go into Jerusalem and not to leave the city until they had received the gift of which he had spoken to them earlier, the gift of the Holy Spirit. So they did. They were gathered there to wait, not quite sure what this gift was all about.
Yes, they had HEARD something about this Holy Spirit. During their meal with Jesus on the night before his crucifixion, the Lord had told them that it was necessary for him to leave them so that he might send them another COMFORTER, another one who would walk beside them, one who would ENCOURAGE them, one who would EXHORT them, for all of those ideas were wrapped up in the name the Lord used to describe the Spirit…the PARACLETE. They were not sure what Jesus was talking about, but they did not let on. A bit later, the Lord had told them that this comforter, the Holy Spirit, would be a GUIDE to them; the Spirit would guide them in all truth. Again, they were not certain what to make of it, but they kept quiet. And then, just before Jesus was taken up into heaven, he told them that they would receive POWER, a supernatural power, the Holy Spirit, that would drive them to the ends of the earth with the message of the Gospel. Again, they did not understand.
Even today people do not understand. I read recently of a couple of preacher’s kids who were observed by their mother playing an unusual game with a baby doll at a construction site next to their home. The little girl would present the doll to her brother who would sprinkle a few drops of water on it then throw it into a deep hole that was to become a future neighbor’s basement. The little girl would climb down, retrieve the doll, and the process would start all over again. “What are you doing?” the mother asked. “We’re playing DADDY. We’re baptizing babies.” The mother asked for a demonstration. With great reverence, the little girl presented the doll to her brother who sprinkled a few drops of water on it again while saying, “In the name of the Father and the Son and IN THE HOLE HE GOES.”(1)
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Suddenly, the group there heard a noise. It sounded like a windstorm…a hurricane…a tornado…the sound of some tremendous force. But nothing was moved: no buildings destroyed, no doors slammed shut, not even a leaf rustled. As they looked around to see what was happening, they noticed that above each head was what appeared to be a FLAME…FIRE that simply sat there…the FIRE that would be Christ’s first gift to his church…the FIRE that was the Holy Spirit.
A gift of fire. I wonder if the disciples had any more idea what to do with a gift like that than we do. I doubt it. But to their eternal credit, and to our undying benefit, they did not think of possessing the gift; they let that gift possess THEM.
The fire was exactly as advertised. It proved to be a COMFORTER, an ENCOURAGER, an EXHORTER or CHALLENGER. Look what happened to Peter. To say the least, this big fisherman had always been a brash fellow. He had been brash enough to leave his fishing business, to drop his livelihood when Jesus had said to him and his brother, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” He had been brash enough to try things that were beyond human comprehension like healing sick people and walking on water. He had been brash enough to take a sword to the servant of the High Priest in Gethsemane despite being tremendously outnumbered. But brashness has its limitations. Peter was also COWARDLY…just cowardly enough to deny that he had ever KNOWN Jesus when confronted by a little servant girl. Yes, that fisherman was brash…but not brash enough in himself to do what he did on Pentecost.
Do you remember? Here it was just seven weeks after Peter had turned tail and run, just seven weeks after Jesus’ enemies had murdered him, just seven weeks after Peter and the others locked themselves in that Upper Room after the crucifixion for fear that they TOO would be arrested and killed. And now, all of a sudden, here was this same Peter standing up in the center of the city where the life of his Lord had been taken, proclaiming to all who would listen the message of a risen Savior.
Peter was a changed man. The Holy Spirit had come upon him to give him comfort in the place of his fear, to give him encouragement in place of his questions, to give him a challenge in place of his silence. Peter had the fire…or perhaps it would be better said, the fire had HIM.
It has worked the same through the centuries since Pentecost. There was that young man from north Africa, a brilliant thinker, a man anxious for a relationship with God, a man concerned about his own sin, a man afraid to make any commitment to Jesus Christ because his lifestyle was incompatible with any real Christian witness. He too was taken by that fire and was turned into one of the greatest theologians in history. His name was Augustine.
There was another young man, a priest in an Augustinian monastery in the sixteenth century. He had become concerned about the direction his church was taking; he was concerned that the church had its priorities skewed. The fire took him, comforted him in the face of the hostility of his superiors, encouraged him to share what he felt with his people, challenged him to press on with the task of stopping the abuses. The fire took him…Martin Luther…and led him to begin a reformation that has continued to this day.
Two hundred years later, another young man was taken by the fire. He saw problems in his own church, the Church of England. And, as might be expected, he faced fierce opposition. Although he was a priest in the church, he was denied the right to preach, so he took to the open air. He was comforted in the face of angry church officials; he was encouraged as he saw thousands respond to his preaching; he was challenged to fan the flames of revival in his land. And the result was what history has called the GREAT AWAKENING…all because that young man…John Wesley…went to a little prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and, as he wrote later, felt his “heart strangely warmed,” warmed by that fire of Pentecost.
But there was more to the fire that rested on those disciples there in that room in Jerusalem. Jesus had promised them that the Holy Spirit would be a GUIDE to them. After all, fire has always served that purpose. Until just the past century, the fire in lamps and torches was the only way one COULD be guided through the darkness. The lights we have in our own day are really nothing more than artificial fire…fire to light our way…fire to guide.
Peter was guided by the Spirit as he preached that morning. After all, he was a fisherman, not an orator. Truth be known, Peter had no business being up there in front of ANY folks, much less all those. But he WAS. And DID HE COME THROUGH! 3000 converts! He had help…the guidance that came from the fire.
There is one thing more that must be noted about this gift of the Spirit that Jesus gave. Yes, it comforts, encourages, challenges and guides…but over all of that, the fire is POWER. That is why fire fascinates us so. It can do more in minutes than a great host could do in a lifetime. We recall the fire bombings of World War II and are amazed at their all-consuming energy; we speak of a firestorm of protest and refer to something that is mighty in its force; we call one of the darkest chapters of human history the HOLOCAUST, a word taken directly from the Greek which means to “burn completely.” Fire fascinates because fire has such power.
Peter knew that power. He was no speaker, just weeks before he had denied the Lord he was proclaiming, he faced a hostile and possibly murderous audience, STILL Peter stood up to preach. And that preaching had such power, the power of the FIRE, that the church grew from 120 to 3,000 in just one day. That is POWER!
He probably did not understand it. I doubt that any of them did. The folks who heard him did not, especially when they heard the message of the disciples in the languages of their own homelands. That kind of power is beyond human comprehension. But, understand it or not, the power…the fire…was THERE that day, and the fire has continued to empower the church through almost 2,000 years.
It is here today. It is still the Lord’s birthday gift to the church. Unfortunately, we treat it as we would one of the horrible ties or smelly perfumes or ugly pictures. We do not know what to do with it, and, quite honestly, we seem to live as if we would just as soon not have it.
I suspect we are afraid of it. It is almost as if someone had given us a caged beast. We would be terrified at what would happen if somehow that cage would be opened. We read the account of what happened to those early disciples at Pentecost; we see what a tremendous effect the coming of the Spirit had on them, what an unbelievable difference was made in their lives; and somehow we know that if the Spirit came to us in that way, if the fire would take hold of US like it did them, things would never be the same. We are afraid of that.
On the other side of the coin, there is still that natural fascination we have with fire, with POWER. We think, “Wow, what great things could happen in us and through us if we would open ourselves up to the Spirit like Peter and the rest did! What a witness we would have! What a church we would have!” And it is true – we would be given such power that things would never be the same again.
Do we want that kind of power here? Or are we too afraid of it? Do we want the fire of Pentecost to burn in Greensboro? Or are we worried that it might call from us more than we want to give and disrupt our comfortable lives?
If we want it we can have it. We can have it by preparing for it in the same way the early disciples did. First, they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They had learned to trust him, to count on him, to worship him. They had learned to follow him and be obedient to his commandments. Second, they lived in an air of expectancy. Jesus had told them to go to Jerusalem and WAIT, without doubt one of the most difficult commands he had ever called them to obey. But they obeyed, and they waited…with a sense of real anticipation. Finally, they prayed…not just for a moment or two; they prayed for TEN SOLID DAYS. “O LORD, GIVE US THAT FIRE!” And then it happened…the Lord’s first birthday gift to the church…the all-powerful Spirit of the living God. We can have it too.
The Holy Spirit is a gift who brings comfort, encouragement, challenge, guidance, and, most of all, power. Will we treat the Spirit as a gift we would just as soon do without? Will we simply be fascinated by the Spirit as we watch others set on fire? Or will we pray, “Lord, give US that fire.” That is MY prayer for St. Paul Presbyterian…and I hope…I hope…it is yours.
1. Taken from a story told by Dave Wood in Grit Magazine, Jan.31- Feb. 6, 1988
Copyright 1996, David E. Leininger.Used by permission.