Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thoughts on Fire

Fire has been a part of life for most of us who have lived in southern California. My wife's family lost their home and all their belongings (as did three hundred other families in San Bernardino) just before Thanksgiving, 1980. A dozen years ago, our family lived through the worst set of fires that southern California had experienced. It affected our city, even to the point that some stood at the top ridge of our church property and watched to see if we would still have that property the next day. It was much worse to the east and south. I was reminded of this when I came across the following essay I wrote about those days as they were finally coming to a close. I thought that you might enjoy reading it, too, and so I've reproduced it below. Remember, I wrote it a dozen years ago, in a different church and setting, but it still has, I think, some encouragements for us today.
Thoughts On Fire
            “It looks like Armageddon!”
            “Wow, fires, winds, now solar flares disrupting communications.  What next—pestilence?”
            “It’s all gone.  There’s nothing left.  Everything I had was in that house.”
            “She tried to escape, but got disoriented in the smoke, drove into a ravine, and died when the fire swept through.”

    These are all remarks I heard from people personally and on the radio coverage of the fires that just swept through our region.  The disasters have demanded and captured our attention, as we all have listened intently to see if our homes or those of our family and friends were in danger.  I’ve had calls and emails from around the country asking about us, and we’ve made a few ourselves to people in danger areas.  While most reports have been of safety, some have not been so fortunate.  Friends in San Diego Country report the deaths of neighbors when the firestorm swept through at 2:00 in the morning and caught people trying to get away.  A ministry friend told me of families in a church he served that lost their homes.  Many of you know people whose stories are similar, and we don’t yet know the full extent of damage to homes in the affected areas, camps in the San Bernardino mountains, favorite recreational areas, and so on.

            Among the many reactions I heard, those that reflected on biblical imagery were, of course, intriguing for me to hear.  As you might guess, they got me thinking about where those images come from.

            Some mentioned Armageddon and “end of the world” type scenarios.  Of course, our local disasters pale in significance compared to larger scale devastation (world wars) or biblical descriptions of the end times.  However, as I drove to an elders’ meeting on Monday night and could see the hillsides beyond our valley lined with flames, I understand the thoughts people had.  There is a greater fire coming to the earth, and it will mark the culmination of the age and of God’s wrath upon a rebellious world.  Sadly, most do not take seriously the truth that Peter shares in 2 Peter 3:10:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

            When someone says they lost it all in the fire, I wonder how many of us would say the same if all our possessions were gone.  Having gone through this before with other families, I have seen Christians who lose their homes and still trust God, rebuild, and get on with serving the Lord.  I have seen others who mourn as if their children had died instead of their goldfish, and seem to think God has betrayed them by letting them suffer.  Two passages come to mind—one that was last Sunday’s text:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you...(1 Peter 4:12).

…[E]ach man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work (I Corinthians 3:13).

            To some extent, preliminary fires (literal ones) are reminders of two important truths for Christians.  First, that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Christian life involves suffering, even when we are doing right—but that such suffering is meant to purify us.  Second, the things that last for eternity cannot be consumed by fire, but living for the stuff that burns is, well, foolish.  I heard from someone who moved away from here a number of years ago.  He said that when he lived in southern California he was caught up, like everyone else around him, in the new car/new house/new clothes pursuits.  God took him through a fire-type experience.  Now he has a small old house, the same clothes, and a 1987 car—and he’s happy.  Do you think we need fires to tell us this?
            I have always thought that fire would be one of the worst ways to go—and stories of people perishing in fire are especially disturbing to me.  Yet that is the imagery that Jesus warns us with in describing the punishment that comes to all who have not repented from their sins and cried out to him for mercy.  It is Jesus himself who will say to such people,

“Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels…(Matthew 25:42).”

            He tells us,

“The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42).”

            Finally, there is a question that Peter asks right after that first verse I cited, about the elements being destroyed, and the earth and its works being burned up.  It is a query that we ought to be asking ourselves.  He says,

            “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be… (2 Peter 3:11).”

            It is a good question!  Yes, my house is still standing, but someday it and everything I have in it will be gone.  I can build monuments here, landscape gardens and parks here, preserve forests here—but none of it will stand the fire that comes.  Will this reminder that all the things that everyone prizes so highly and works so hard to acquire will disappear and have no lasting value speak to us?  Since what has been saved this time will undoubtedly go sooner or later, what kind of person are you going to be?

            Peter answers the questions by saying that the solution is to be found

“…in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat (2 Peter 3:11)!”
            Our behavior should be changed by our faith:  holy conduct is NOT clinging to that which is ashes in the making.  Godliness is living like Jesus lives, for eternal purposes.  By doing so we speed along the coming of that great final fire.  But why would we want to do that?  Peter tells us in the next verse.
 “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:12).”

             The reason we look forward to that last conflagration is that it is the only way that the better life, the eternal one, will finally come.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a dwelling place and things that last.  There are such things.  But they come to us after this age, not in it.

              Sometimes it takes a fire to remind us of what will never burn.