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Transformation: Turn this cold stone into fire, 2018-0930

. 5 min read

Transformation
#4 –
      Turn this Cold Stone into Fire,
      A New Perspective on Human Spirituality
29-30
Sept 2018, Christ Mountain Top
Praying
the Psalm, Song of Solomon 2:10-13, 8:6-7
Children,
Matthew 3:11-12
Message,
1 Kings 18:21-39
Annie
Dillard tells the story of a night she spent camping, reading, and writing in
the Blue Ridge Mountains.  She was sitting
at a picnic table at the campsite, writing to the light of a candle.  A moth, drawn by the flame, approached and
landed upright in the melted wax around the wick of the candle.  The wings, legs, antennae, mouth blazed and
disappeared, leaving the body behind. 
She wrote this: “And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton,
began to act as a wick.  She kept burning
… a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating
monk.  The moth’s head was fire.  She burned for two hours, until I blew her
out” (Holy the Firm, 1977, p 17).
Today’s
transformational metaphor: FIRE!
How
many of you have worn clothing sporting the name and logo of your favorite
team?  How many of you wear clothing that
advertises the maker of the clothes? 
Advertisers call this “branding” – and, yes, it is as much about them
owning us as us owning their products. 
How does it feel to be branded by corporate America – Coca-Cola, Nike,
Hilfiger, Levi, McDonald’s?
      Branding goes back to the days of open-range
cattle – branded with the symbol of their owner, branded with a hot iron like
those great Western movies (or like the sadistic bad guys in our modern
thrillers).
      Isaiah has a vision of the glory of
God.  The floor shakes and the room fills
with smoke, the train of God’s robe fills the temple, the
lightning-serpent-angel creatures call out to one another . . . and Isaiah
cries, “Woe to me!  I am falling
apart!  I am a man of unclean lips and I
live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of
glory.”  And one of the creatures uses
tongs to take a coal from the altar, sets it on his lips and declares, “See,
your sin is atoned for and your guilt is taken away.”  Branded.

      Just before Jesus was taken up into heaven
as his disciples looked on, he told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift he
had promised.  About seven days later,
while they were gathered for prayer, the gift arrived – God’s Spirit coming in
a whirlwind and flames of fire, flames that separated and came to rest on each
one.  Branded.

      God desires to reclaim the people of
Israel for himself, and the contest is one of fire.  Baal does nothing in response to
prayers.  But the Lord sends fire to
devour sacrifice, wood, stone, and water. 
“Turn this cold stone into fire.” And the people call out, “The LORD, he
is God!  The LORD, he is God!”  Branded.
And
yet so forgetful.  Ancient monks
understood that one of the chief sins, chief dangers to the soul, in the
religious life was apatheia – a lack
of passion.  You know the proverb:
“Familiarity breeds . . . contempt.”  It
holds true in every arena of life.  You
can become so accustomed to what is true and beautiful, to what is holy and
loving, that you fail to value it highly. 
That’s why monastics embraced discipline – to keep themselves focused on
God – not simply to earn merit.  In the
Revelation, Jesus sends letters to seven churches and accuses the Ephesian
church: “You have forgotten your first love” (Revelation 2:4).
      “Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy
unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame” (Song
of Songs 8:6).  That small book, Song of
Songs or Song of Solomon, is a set of R-rated material tucked away in the middle
of the Old Testament that many have unfortunately ignored.  This graphic and erotic love poem became a
standard reading for the Jewish celebration of Passover, of their deliverance
from Egypt by plagues and through the Sea (Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth
Stones for Pastoral Ministry
, 29). 
It is a remarkable and holy thing that the celebration of the central
salvation story in Hebrew Scriptures be linked with a poem full of personal
intimacy, passion, and jealous love.  No
wonder that the church speaks of our central salvation story – the death of
Jesus – as the Passion of Christ.
      Robin and I, as we planned our wedding,
wanted to organize it in two movements, “the passion of James Patrick and Robin
Jayne” and “the passion of Jesus and his people”.  Our pastor at the time thought that was a bit
too explicit.  Oh well. 
“Turn
this cold stone into fire.”  But that
spiritual transformation is not always an easy or comfortable process.  The cold stone is burnt up, it becomes fuel,
it is transformed chemically in the fire just as we are transformed spiritually
in the presence of the God who makes us, saves us, loves us.  The Apostle Paul wrote of the way our lives
and souls are tested: “It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test
the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:13).  If you have ever held your finger to the
flame a little longer than is prudent, you know that test, that revelation of
who we are, is uncomfortable.  But . . .
      Standing outside the fire
      standing outside the fire
      life is not tried it is merely survived
      if you’re standing outside the fire
            (Sung by Garth Brooks)
So,
we step into the fire, allowing it to do its purifying work.  We step into the fire, allowing it to
transform us.  We step into the fire,
convinced we can’t live without a consuming passion for God.  We step into the fire, find that everything
is burned away and we are left an empty casing, a shell, a moth-like wick – and
the fire of God comes and fills this empty space.
The
ancient monks in the Egyptian desert, long before the organization of monastic
orders, understood the importance of an empty self – only an empty self could
be totally filled with the presence of God. 
For them, self-emptying was the work of prayer.
      Father Arsenius would spend all of
Saturday night in prayer, with his hands raised, until the sun rose.  Father Agatho said, “There is no labor so
great as praying to God.  Prayer is the
hard labor of a mighty conflict to one’s last breath.”  Some monks asked Father Macarius how to pray,
and he gave a wonderful, simple answer. 
“You don’t need to say much. 
Stretch out your hands (language simplified) and say, ‘Lord, as you will and as you know, have
mercy on me.
  But if there is war in
thy soul, add, ‘Help me.’”
      But I like this story best: one father
came to ask Father Joseph about the spiritual life: “What more must I do?”  “The old man, rising, held up his hands
against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said,
‘If you will, you shall be made wholly a flame.’” (The Desert Fathers
translated by Helen Waddell, Vintage Spiritual Classics, p 116-118).
Prayers:
      hands raised
      the prayer of Macarius