I love to stare at a fire. I love the comfort that it provides. Not only does it provide a physical warmth, but for me, it also stimulates a spiritual and mental warmth. Whether it’s in the fireplace on a cold winters night, or a summer campfire – fire mesmerizes me. The crackling of the wood as the flame – from blue to orange to yellow – yields to sparks that fly upwards and disappear into the sky. The refreshing smell of the burning wood, the flames dancing – it’s primal. As old as time itself. If you stare into it, it almost becomes spiritual. You reflect about life. Yourself. It’s almost hypnotic. Fire is alive. Perhaps this is why God comes to Moses through a burning bush.
Sure, fire can be destructive, but tell me what can’t be if you let it get out of control. Fire can consume – but in it’s purest form – fire provides life. Perhaps this is why fire is often used when describing Heaven and, of course, Hell. One type provides life. The other provides destruction. In the reading from Exodus today, God comes to Moses in the purest form, in a Flame of Life. A Flame of Love. It doesn’t consume. It engulfs. It breathes life. Love is the same way. People are engulfed and overcome by love. Love breathes life.
I’m envisioning Moses on the mountain. He comes to see this burning bush. He’s entranced by it’s flames. It’s probably a little cold, being on a mountain, so he feels its warmth. Just as you sit watching a campfire, the flames almost speak to you. For Moses, the fire actually does speak. It’s God talking. The fire burns hotter, and brighter. Moses has to hide his face. It’s Holy ground. The love and grace he feels is immense. God tells Moses His plan. Moses asks, ‘Who shall I tell them you are?’ God tells him – ‘I am who am.’ I am the creator of everything that is. I am life. I AM. Moses is transformed by the life-giving, life-breathing flames of God’s love – a fire that does not consume, but one that gives life. Thousands of years ago this happened, yet it’s a story we know, a story we remember, and message that lives with us always.
Fire can be destructive though. If we let it get out of control, or take it for granted, or don’t respect it – it can burn us. It can destroy. Paul warns us today of avoiding overconfidence. The Bible is littered with countless stories, and occurrences, and parables of God’s message and will for us, on how we are to live, and proving God’s existence. But we must not take God’s love for granted. We must not be arrogant, we must not get overconfident, thinking that God will save us regardless of how we act. Otherwise, we’ll get burned, and it could be for eternity.
But fire can also cultivate. Forest fires, for instance, look destructive on the surface. They can destroy thousands of acres of trees, animals, homes and property. But when you look at the forest, fire kills the destructive weeds, shrubs and undergrowth, and diseases that plague a forest and prevent it from thriving. If left to grow wild, a forest becomes thick and cluttered and to an extent – lifeless.
Fire cleanses the forest. It thins it out, kills all the bad parts. The ashes return to the soil and the soil is enriched and fertilized. The trees grow back taller, and stronger, and more vibrant, bearing richer fruit. Fire, again, is life.
Fire cultivates. Just like with the fig tree in the Gospel today, the soil around the fig tree was being exhausted by the lifeless fig tree. The tree needed to be pruned, and the soil around the tree broken up and turned over and fertilized, so that the air, rain and nutrients can enter. So the roots can absorb all this goodness and the tree can prosper once again. Perhaps in this parable, the gardener burned the area around and including the fig tree, purifying it, cleansing it of its ailments. And then the gardener tilled the soil, enriching it, and it grew back stronger.
If we let our soil get hard, and we don’t prune the dried up branches, and we don’t cultivate ourselves, we will not experience this warm fire of life Moses experienced, that Jesus lived, and Paul professed. We’ve got to experience a cleansing fire from time to time. Whether it is simply the season of Lent, or some trial or issue we struggle with in life – we’ve got to encounter those flames. Those flames that purify, and cleanse – those of warmth and comfort. Those flames that mesmerize us, and entrance us, and cause us to reflect on our life. We must always look to the engulfing warmth of Christ’s love and always strive to do better. To be better people. To cultivate others.
What’s the alternative? Both Jesus and Paul warn us today. We must not get overconfident. We must not assume we are always on firm ground because we will lose our footing and fall.
But when we do fall – and we will – we’ve got to ask for forgiveness. We’ve got to confess and repent. Quickly. Otherwise the flames get out of control. And then it may be too late. Confession helps us keep the fire in our soul in balance. It’s the difference between a cozy fire in the fireplace and a house fire. The grace of reconciliation gives us that life-giving and engulfing warmth, rather than consuming burn and destruction.
God wants us to be engulfed by His love. He wants to come to us where we are, in a most primal, basic, and approachable way. Jesus wants us to take His love and His word, and use it to cultivate the soil of our soul. Sometimes we need to be cleansed. Sometimes we need to feel the heat. But if we trust in Him, the flames will not consume us, but will cultivate and breathe life into us and those around us.