On our way to Idaho, we drive into thick, dark smoke. The West is burning, over a million acres consumed by wildfires raging out of control. The smell of smoke hangs in the air, the sun is a muted orb of pale yellow barely visible through the haze.
I’ve seen this before, the way a wildfire devastates the landscape. The way the flames sweep through the forest, leaving behind blackened ashes where life once thrived. The year I turned sixteen, Yellowstone National Park burned through the summer–snowing ash down over the town where I grew up and flushing the horizon with an eerie red glow. We drove through the sodden, black remains that autumn on my way to boarding school, when my life was turning upside down and my heart felt as burned and barren as the forest around me.
The thing about a holocaust is that you can’t see how life will ever grow there again.
But I’ve learned a lot about fire since then. I’ve learned that, like everything in creation, fire has its purpose. And I’ve learned to see God in the burning.
God is often compared to fire in the Bible. When you read about fire, it usually means one of three things: an indicator of God’s presence, a means of His purification, or a display of His passion.
The Lord’s presence is often represented by fire. In Exodus, Moses meets God when he encounters a bush that burns, but is not consumed:
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” –Exodus 3:2-4
This was sacred ground, as Moses quickly saw. It was here at this commissioning, in the flickering light of that strange fire, that God gave Moses the job of shepherding the Hebrew people to freedom. He had heard the cry of His beloved and would lead them out of the bondage of Egypt.
Again, we see God’s presence in the pillar of fire that later led His people through the desert. A guide before them, the fire of the Lord went ahead through the wilderness and stopped where they were to set up camp, telling them when to move and when to rest. It was this pillar of fire that blazed through the dark desert nights, showing the wandering Hebrew nation that the Lord was still among them. His presence was evident:
And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. –Exodus 13:21
The fire of the Lord rested over the Tabernacle, hovering above the tent of meeting–the Lord’s dwelling place. When the Israelites saw fire resting above the tent, they knew that they were to stay where they were. Whether it was for a day, a week, or a year–when the fire rested, so did they. But day or night, when the fire moved from its place over the tent, it was time to pack up and follow.
It was there in the desert, a place of heat and wandering, that they first learned to follow the light.
Later, the presence of the Lord again appeared in the form of fire. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down and filled the people there, and as their hearts were changed fire appeared over each of them. No longer confined to a tent or a temple, no longer accessible only to consecrated priests, no longer separated from His people…the Spirit of God moved into hearts.
His dwelling place was no longer a tent of animal hides or even a temple of carved stone and gold, it was the hearts of those who love Him. He made His people into living temples, Tabernacles filled with the burning wildfire of His presence. He had heard the cry of His beloved, and would lead them out of the bondage of seperation from Him:
And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. –Acts 2:3-4
I’ve been thinking, what if we looked for God’s presence in the fire? What if we followed that fire, relying on the light and trusting where it leads? I’ve been praying that God will show me where He’s moving, and that I’ll have the courage to follow Him there.
I’ve been praying that the fire that burns in the hearts of God’s people will catch like wildfire…strange fire that burns but does not consume. Fire that brings, instead of devastation and loss, peace and restoration.
Lord, please fan into flames the Spirit in our hearts. Give us eyes to see where you are leading, and strength to follow. Let the fire of Your presence spread to every heart that’s cold, bringing life and warmth and hope wherever it goes. Father, I pray also for those affected by the fires that have destroyed so much this summer, that You would be with them–bringing healing and hope and peace. Make beauty from the ashes, Lord. Amen.