God As Fire - Reservoir Church
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Fire - Lent: A Spring Season

God As Fire

Steve Watson

Feb 18, 2024

As we get started on our Spring season of Lent, I remember in December when I was doing some preparation and prayer, trying to get my head around this theme of fire that Ivy and I were working with together. 

And there were three things that kept coming to mind.

One was the way we feel like so much of our world is on fire. The headlines of our news and sometimes the headlines of our hearts scream of toxic politics, disastrous climate change, brutal violence, crumbling religions – Christianity included, and yet a failure to imagine and organize together around a better future. 

This world is on fire, and that can be really scary. 

A second thing that kept coming to mind was this one weird and haunting line from the Bible. 

It’s in the New Testament’s letter called Hebrews. It’s a collection of reflections and encouragement for a first century Jewish community trying to follow in the way of Jesus. And near the end, without a ton of context, there’s this line, that says:

Hebrews 12:29 

“Our God is a consuming fire.”

Our God is a consuming fire.

  • What does this mean?
  • What is God like after all?
  • And how does fire as a metaphor for God speak?

I wonder if it speaks warmly to you – with the glow and wonder of candles and campfires, like the ones Ivy remembered and brought to life for us last week.

Or I wonder if it is scary as hell to you – some of us know about burns from fire, about home fires, about the threats people make using hellfire language. 

Our God is a consuming fire.

I wonder how this line speaks to you. 

Growing up, both my grandparents’ home just a few miles from me and the home I was raised in had fireplaces in the middle of them. 

The fireplace in my grandparents’ home was one of my favorite places as a kid. My brothers and I used to beg to sleep over at their house on Christmas Eve, where like many other nights of the year, we’d sit up late around the fireplace. 

It was so warm, so beautiful, and when we were little, my PopPop – that’s what we called my maternal grandfather -my Pop Pop had these salts he’d throw into the fireplace that would make the flame blaze different colors, like blue or green or deep red. 

I know now it’s chemistry, but when I was a kid, it seemed like magic, like PopPop was some kind of beloved wizard who’d make the most perfect fire more beautiful, more wonder-full. Staring into those colored flames, my little world seemed so big and beautiful and surprising. 


The fireplace in our own home was a little more complicated. 

We didn’t have any special chemicals to change the color of the flames. 

But it was also a family gathering place in our house during long New England winter times, at least back then. And all kinds of things happened there. 

One of my more complex memories of shame, and of the things my family could and couldn’t talk about, happened around that fire. 

I was in seventh grade, I think. It was not a happy time in my life.

I had some secrets I kept, one of which was that I stole things.

I had, for instance, stolen a pack of cigarettes from the store as a curiosity, to see what smoking felt like. And I had smoked a couple of them, just a tiny bit, in the woods behind our house, and then forgotten about them.

But one night around the fire, as I remember it at least, my older brother was like: hey, look what I found in Steven’s jacket. And he held up the pack of cigarettes, or at least what was left of them.

I remember my face turning bright red with embarrassment, with shame. And I lunged toward my brother, grabbed the cigarettes, and threw them in the fire.

And as I did it, I said:

I have no idea how these got in there. I didn’t do it. They’re not mine. 

And I stormed out of the room.

This is a long time ago. I don’t know if everything in my memory is 100% accurate, but what I don’t remember is any follow-up. I don’t remember anyone asking me more about what happened, or why it was so upsetting, or if I wanted to talk about any of it. 

We just moved on, silent – the drama and shame and lies and tension of that moment just lingering in the family, smoldering with its own kind of fire. 

Even with those kinds of memories, though, I kept coming back to that fireplace, with and without the rest of my family. The feelings and memories I carry from that place are more complex than my grandparents’ fireplace, but even in my own house, I kept coming back. 

And I always took one of two seats in that room – the two seats closest to the fireplace. Where I could feel the heat there and get long, unfiltered stares at those dynamic, flickering, consuming flames I couldn’t take my eyes off of. 

I wonder if that complexity of experience, but that returning again and again to wonder isn’t a little bit like the experience the ancients had of God, when they associated God with fire. 

In the old stories of Exodus, fire is again and again a metaphor for God’s presence with ancient Israel. 

The scriptures in the first week of our guide to this season are all from Exodus, including this one:

Exodus 19:16-18 (Common English Bible)

16 When morning dawned on the third day, there was thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and a very loud blast of a horn. All the people in the camp shook with fear.

17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain.

18 Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it with lightning. The smoke went up like the smoke of a hot furnace, while the whole mountain shook violently.

The 12 tribes that would make up the ancient community of Israel were desert nomads at this point in their story – free from past enslavement, but not yet settled and organized as a city-state or a nation.

And here, they gather around Mount Sinai to worship and reckon with their God.

I have no idea what literally was happening, like if someone could get photographs of moments like this from 3,400 years ago, what would we see?

We can’t of course, so we get the ancient metaphor and poetry of it all, where there was a storm with thunder and lightning, and the mountain where God is appearing feels like a blazing furnace, shrouded in smoke. 

What did it mean that God with them felt like a lightning strike turned to blazing, smoky fire?

On the one hand it scared the hell out of them. 

They were like:

Moses, you talk to God. We do not want to join you there.

They viewed the power of God with wonder and awe, but also something like terror. Who can see God and live?

And yet in this moment they assemble with Moses to be with God. And in the ancient story of these people, God terrifies them and yet they can’t help coming back and longing for God to be with them, hoping that God lives among them.

Because God may be wild and powerful, but they also knew they were better off with God than without. 

Why was that?

What spoke to them about God being a force, a person, who blazes with consuming fire?

What spoke to Moses in his first encounter with God? He was a middle aged man, full of his own secrets, living in geographic exile from his home, but also living in a kind of metaphorical exile too – not at home in his own body, in his own life and story, when working as a shepherd, he saw something like a burning bush. 

  • Was it the glare of the morning sun after a long night in the desert?
  • Was it a blaze of color in spring flowers spotted far from home?
  • Or was it a literal bright, but unconsuming wildfire?

We don’t know.

But we know that when Moses first discovers God, he discovers God as an un-consuming fire – dynamic, vibrant, powerful, blazing like flames, but not burning up or harming whatever God touches. Fire that burns bright without harm. 

This is God as Moses came to understand God – fierce and powerful enough to be an everlasting creator and mighty liberator but also safe and good enough to call friend.

  • What speaks to us when we think about a living God among us?
  • What speaks to us as we imagine a God who is somehow like fire?
  • Beyond the world on fire, beyond that haunting line about our God being a consuming – or is it un-consuming – fire? 

As Ivy and I started work on this season, the third thought that came to my imagination – and one that I think Ivy shared as well – was picturing us all again and again gathering around little fires and wondering together about God. 

I picture some of us like I do, awake early by ourselves with a candle lit, looking at the flame and wondering how God is here with us .

I pictured families over a meal, lighting a candle in the center of the table, and having a moment together to wonder about what God is like and how God is part of the household, and what God might be doing there

I pictured friends meeting up for a community group or whatever else and catching some time together to silently look at a flame and wonder about God. 

In this season’s Guide, there are six weeks of material. Today starts the first week, where we wonder about God as fire. 

It’s only 10 pages, and not too many words. But don’t rush through it. Pull it out again and again, even just to read one little bit, or to gaze at an image for a while. 

And this week, as with each of the six weeks, there is an invitation to sit by a fire for a moment. The hope is you do this at least once a week, but it could be every day if you like. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or a firepit, awesome!

If you want to use a candle, that’s great! That’s probably what most of us will do. 

If it feels safer or better for our climate to use electric fireplaces or candles or have that image of a glowing fireplace on your television, that’s cool too.

Or burn incense, or find yourself an active volcano, or whatever.

But the idea is to be with yourself or even better, be with someone else by something like a flame, each week, even more than once a week, and wonder about God, and wonder about God with us, and say a prayer.

There’s a different way to do just this each week. 

See what it’s like.

And as you do this, one place in particular I encourage you to notice the presence of God isn’t just in the fire, but in the people you are with, yourself included, and what the flame illuminates there. 

Because as in the days of Moses, still now we most often and sometimes most brightly feel the fire of God among us. We sense the presence of God with most glory when we are with others.

I help organize the citywide clergy group for the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. We are Jewish, and Muslim, and Christian clergy, sometimes Buddhist leaders too, who like to know and understand and care about one another, and to practice solidarity as we work for a more just city together. 

And one of my co-leaders is a local rabbi named Toba Spitzer. Toba is wise and brilliant and interesting. She wrote a book called God is Here that inspired a sermon series of ours a year or two ago. 

And in our latest clergy gathering, we were looking at Muslim, Christian, and Jewish sacred texts that speak to the importance of our relationality, our togetherness.

For the Jewish text, Toba brought a rabbinic commentary that says:

“if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah [God’s Presence] abides between them.”

The Shekinah is an old Hebrew word that refers to the dwelling, or kind of settling presence of God. It’s when you know that God is here. 

And you’re speechless with wonder, or it’s so good and weird and sweet and powerful that you say a word like: wow, or like: glory!

And the rabbinic tradition says that whether you realize it or not, this is always happening when people together read the sacred text.

And the way my friend Toba and others have read this is even more broadly, like anytime we communicate for the sake of deeper understanding and wisdom together, to bring some benefit to the world, than the Shekinah, the dwelling of God that makes you say: Wow! Is there. 

When we’re in real communication, going deeper, together for the good, there’s that extra something we feel – that heat, that power, that warmth, that magic – why call it God? 

Maybe because it is.

Maybe because we need God among us, to bring fire to our earthy selves. 

And maybe because we don’t ever see God directly, like you can see your hand before your face.

No one has ever taken a photograph of God. 

Our experience of God is mediated. Even at its clearest, it’s a little bit indirect. We encounter God through things that evoke wonder, like the ocean, or perfect music, or amazing food, or yes, even fire. 

We encounter God through the person and the life and words of Jesus for sure.

And also through the presence of God when two or three are gathered in God’s name. To me that does not mean when two or three get religious. We know from the Bible and from our own experience, that being religious is no promise of the felt presence of God. But when two or three gather in the spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of love, there’s something there.

My childhood memories around fire – some are of presence, like at my grandparents’ house where the warmth of the room and PopPop’s magic fire-changing power and all spoke to me of the presence of God. 

And some of my memories are of absence, like the time around the fire where I knew shame and distance and inability to really be together as we were. To me, all that spoke of a kind of absence of God.

Both can be true when we are with others. 

So I thought at the clergy gathering about recent human encounters when I could sense God’s shekinah – the dwelling, the settling of God among us that makes me say: Glory, wow. This is too good.

I thought when a goddaughter I really missed and wanted to see reached out to me to ask for prayer for something at her school. And the way she reached out and reconnected brought me so much joy.

I thought of one of you who asked me if you could share a confession in privacy and confidence. And how you bared your soul by sharing what is to you a most shameful memory, so that we could speak the truth together that even there, you are seen and loved and forgiven. So good. 

I thought of when I gather with my community group on Saturdays to read the Bible and to share of the most important things in our lives, and how it’s holy how we share the truths of our lives and seek the truth of God, in a circle of loving-kindness.

Or the couple minutes during Grace’s and my latest dance class we’re doing, where inexperienced stumblers that we are, for a few moments, something clicked, and we felt like we were gliding through the room together – two of us as one, soaring, dancing across the space. And it felt elegant and smooth and all sparky with decades of love. 

All really different kinds of moments, but all sparked by fire. All a window into the truth that God is there. 

There’s something about the openness and vulnerability that all these moments have in common. There’s something about the safety everyone has experienced, that this is a person and a place where you can be really open, where you can be true, and that will be safe. And there’s something about the tenderness and connection there, where one is saying – I see you truly, kindly. And the other is saying – I am seen truly, kindly. And in a way, everyone is saying both at once. 

It makes me feel like: wow, glory! So good. 

We begin, friends, where we will end in six weeks.

There are forms of fire that only burn… that “steal, kill, and destroy.” We’ll talk more about those. This is the kind of fire that is not God. This is Jesus’ description of every force in and among us that is an enemy of God.

But there are also forms of fire that open us up, that make us larger and freer and more loving – that set our heart on fire in the best of ways. And love seems to make space for those.

Love is the hearth where fire roars.

Love is the ground where we sense God and say glory.

Love is the wick where fire burns.