What is it about God and fire? You may remember Moses and God and the bush with the lights in it. The bush on fire, that never burns up. Fire and not fire. Burning and not consuming. Out of the fire God issued to Moses an invitation and command: Go, lead my people out of their slavery. And Moses began a journey to gather a people for God, to lead them out of Egypt, to lead them in the wilderness, to feed them and comfort them. Moses learned that you want to be careful with fire. You never know what passion it might ignite in you, what command it will give you, what fire it will light in your belly.
Or you may remember God and that pillar of fire shining forth in the night. In the desert the Israelites wandered, freed slaves with no direction home, except for God’s leading in pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Fire in the desert. In the dry desert. Fire. Fire and not fire. Burning and not consuming. Protecting and leading them. From slavery to freedom. From despair to hope. From anxiety to trust. The wanderers in the wilderness learned that you want to be careful with fire. You never know where it might lead you.
You may also remember that fire wasn’t always for comfort. Years later came the fires of invasion, the torches of the enemy, the smoldering ruins of a nation defeated. There were some who said God was in this fire too. The fire that was fire. Burning and consuming. The purging fire of judgment. All they held dear destroyed; thrown back again on their God. No gold or silver, fine clothes or shoes, weapons or houses, no carved gods or temples. All that kept them from God, now destroyed by fire. The Israelites learned that you want to be careful with fire. It can purge far too quickly. That ring of fire.
So what was God thinking as the followers of Jesus sat in that upstairs room waiting? What was God thinking, sending those tongues as of fire— Fire and not fire. Burning and not consuming. Tongues of fire resting on each of them. What did it mean? Why send fire? Why send the Holy Spirit in fire?
Was God thinking of that first moment with Moses, of a command to go and bring freedom to the enslaved, a command to gather a people who would follow and worship him? To feed that people in the desert and teach them the ways of God? Did the tongues of fire ignite a passion to go and gather, worship and follow, feed and set free? Is that what the Spirit is for?
Or was God thinking of that long road to freedom, tirelessly giving light in the darkness, providing protection from all that lurked in the night. Were the tongues of fire a sign of God’s leading and protection, no matter how difficult the road and how rocky the way? Is that what the Spirit is for?
Or was God thinking of how fire had purged the people, burned off their idolatry and sin, left them raw and needy before their God? Were the tongues of fire a sign that God would purge of all unfaithfulness? Was the Spirit coming to make all things new? Is that what the Spirit is for?
A passion was ignited at Pentecost, a passion for the way of Jesus. A promise was given at Pentecost, a promise of comfort in the darkness, a promise of hope in despair. And a new thing began at Pentecost, the beginning of painful renewal in the image of God.
And so we remember the fire. We remember God’s passionate call to us. We remember the steady flame of comfort and hope God provides for us. And we remember that no matter how painful our journey, God is tenderly shaping us into something new.