Fire is a powerful symbol. Like other things in life, in small quantities it is essential for survival and yet when out of control it’s terribly destructive. Over the summer we saw plenty of images of wild fires caused by the heatwave that gripped Europe. Fire is often used as a warning. I recently watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films and there’s a moment in one of them when the stubborn old king will not seek help from the neighbouring kingdoms despite being under siege and over-run by Orks. Gandalf, the white wizard, and the Hobbit, Pippin, work together to over-rule him by setting light to a beacon at the highest point in the fortress castle. A chain of beacons is then lit across the mountain range and armies of middle earth ride out in aid of the king to rescue him and his people at their time of greatest need. It feels like the fires this summer are a warning. A warning that the climate emergency is real. It is now on our doorstep and adversely affecting the rich nations of the Western world, as well as those in the 2 thirds world who have struggled with the consequences of extreme weather for years.
There are lots of significant moments in the Biblical narrative that centre on fire. Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Thus, fire indicates holiness and we think of Isaiah’s lips being burnt with a hot coal to cleanse him as he’s anointed for his ministry as prophet. Fire also symbolises God’s presence. The pillar of fire went ahead of the Israelites having been freed from slavery in Egypt as they journeyed to the promised land. Then, in the book of Acts in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is seen as tongues of fire resting on each of those gathered in the upper room. In addition, fire symbolises hope and redemption. Peter was huddled by the fire when he was tempted to deny Jesus three times ahead of his crucifixion and yet, after his resurrection, Jesus cooks breakfast for Peter over a fire on the beach by the sea of Galilee and recommissions him as the rock on which he will build his church.
Fire can also represent celebration and a coming together to share stories. It’s warmth and light dispels the darkness and helps to ward off our worst fears and anxieties which feel particularly real and overwhelming at night. Although, this winter, heat and light will feel for many like a luxury they can’t really afford.
In 2 Timothy chapter 1 verse 6, a God-given anointing is likened to a fire that is received by the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. However, Paul is concerned that this fire might go out due to discouragement and despair. So, he is urging Timothy to fan into flame the gracious gift of God, that inner fire. He is imploring him to stand firm and not see suffering as defeat, but rather as a means for Christ to be illuminated even more clearly through him.
I wonder what fanning into flame the gift you have might look like? Where are you in need of encouragement? Are there people you need to spend more time with because they stir up energy and positivity inside you? Are there spiritual practices such as regular prayer, meditation or silent reflection which would help you to stay more aware of the divine presence as you face life’s difficulties or challenges? We all go through seasons when faith is a struggle and the fire of conviction dies down. But we can proactively seek to re-energise our spirits, look for the good in others and trust that the light will ultimately triumph.
One of the ways in which I encourage myself in my faith is to think back to times when our prayers were answered. I can remember as a child listening to intercessions in church week after week as we prayed for peace in Northern Ireland, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the collapse of the Berlin wall. Resolution to these conflicts without more significant bloodshed seemed impossible. Yet, I saw a peace deal signed, Nelson Mandela become president and the wall come down! Things may seem pretty bleak at the moment, but let’s think of one thing we can commit to that will help keep the fire of our hope and faith alive.
We don’t do this in our own strength but in the knowledge of, as Paul reminds us, “Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”