Just a few days ago I happened to read again the words I wrote in the last days of 2019 as we considered where God would lead our church and community this year. My prayer then, was that we would be a community that was ‘on-fire’. Everyone filled with the fire of God’s Spirit living in us, and empowered to do great things for him.
2019 had been a year when we had felt that we had been ‘under-fire’, dealing with issues and challenges that none of us had expected to face, and so I spoke with optimism and a thankful heart that the God who had seen us through the previous 12 months would be with us in the next. We had come to recognise that Jesus had faced trials and opposition and that we, his followers should expect to meet the same because God’s world view, his truth revealed in scripture, is often at odds with the world-view offered by the culture of our nation.
I asked the question, ‘would things go well for us in 2020 or would we come under-fire again?’, and I prayed that God might fill us again with his Spirit so that we might be ‘on-fire’ for him.
Scripture is full of images that link fire with God’s presence. He speaks to Moses from a burning bush, and leads the Israelites to their promised land in a pillar of fire. When the first Jewish followers of Jesus received God’s Spirit, tongues of fire touched each of them, and in the temple, it was fire that consumed the sacrifices and that burned the incense. In fire there is power, there is cleansing and there is danger.
As 2019 came to a close, our TV screens were filled with the images of the terrible bush fires laying waste to large areas of Australia. But now, only a few months later those images have disappeared from our screens and fire has been replaced with fear. Today the destructive power of the flames has changed into the invisible fear of a hidden killer, called covid-19, and the world we are living in has been turned upside-down.
Living through a pandemic, a plague, may be new to us, but they have happened before. The Bible tells us of plagues that afflicted the Egyptian people, and the Israelites as they travelled through the desert. Jesus himself warns us that plagues will come, both in Matthew’s Gospel and in his Revelation that John recorded. Whatever caused this coronavirus pandemic, one thing we can be certain of, God knows what is happening and through it he is working his purposes out.
Found at the start of the Old Testament, the book of Numbers, records the events that occur as the Israelites travel from Egypt to the land promised to them by God. They know that God has rescued them from lives of slavery, making bricks for the Pharaoh’s grand building schemes, but this does not stop them complaining. The people revolt against their leaders, Moses and Aaron, and God responds by sending a plague. You can read about this in Numbers 16:41-50.
The story tells of a virus spreading rapidly and the deaths of many people. God seems intent on bringing destruction on the Israelites but Moses and Aaron are not content to accept that things must play out in this way. They see God in action and they realise that sin is the issue and that fire is needed to bring an end to death’s reign.
Moses tells Aaron to get the fire from the altar and to run with it into the middle of their community. There, where the people are dying, Aaron stands, quite literally between the living and the dead, and burns incense, to make atonement, to repent and seek forgiveness for the sins of the people. And the plague stops. Thousands have died, but the plague stops.
Today we don’t burn incense to deal with sin. Jesus’ death on the cross, has dealt with sin, once and for all. We do however need fire, because sin continues to plague our nation and the peoples of this world. We need the fire of God’s Spirit, living in those who have accepted that Jesus is both their personal saviour and their Lord and King and we need to come before God to repent and turn away from the sin, that is in our lives, in our culture and in our nation.
Social distancing and government-imposed restrictions may make it harder for us to run, as Aaron did, and to stand between the living and the dead. But when he did, God saw him and responded. Our prayers and our words may seem as ineffective as the smoke of the burning incense that Aaron carried, but God is listening.
Today, with the whole world ‘under-fire’ from the threat of covid-19, will you join me in praying that God will send the fire of his Holy Spirit on us and that he will give us the courage and strength to run and stand between the living and the dead, wherever that may be. That he will give us a passion to pray for our neighbours and our nations, to ask his forgiveness for the sins that our culture promotes and we often embrace, and plead for his intervention, that this plague too might stop.
Be encouraged. We serve the God who hears and answers our prayer.
Prayer and worship go well together. I pray that this song will lift your heart, mind and spirit as you worship and pray.