This morning I step into a unique and beautiful position. This position is one that affords a perspective of a people who has faced many challenges in the past two years. This group of people — you — have been forced to examine who you are and where you have come; in turn, you have had to face yourselves and determine where you are going and what you want. And what has happened in these years has caused you to grow closer, to speak more intimately, to laugh with more understanding and companionship. Those whom I have met this week and during the days of my interviewing speak together as if you were — dare I say — almost a married group in that you speak honestly as you finish one another’s sentences. And what you have discovered and what you have determined is that you want God to be in your midst, to be in your hears and on your lips, to be in the work of your hands and to be carried to the places you go. I have seen the presence of Christ within you, and I have witnessed the desire for more of Him in your lives and and in your work. God tells us in Jeremiah 29 that we will find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts, and when we pray He will come to us.
And it is this idea of presence and what results from it that I want to guide our focus in the passage of Jeremiah 23 that God declares His presence in all the world. Nothing can hide from Him and from Him there is no shadow. While some are either drawn away or fall away from the community, it is His presence that is complete and cannot be shaken. His presence fills the void and offers a deeper regard for Him when He cannot be seen or heard or felt. His presence within us brings us faith.
In Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he speaks of faith. And Paul knows his audience. He recognizes their awareness of their ancestry and lists prominent individuals who were known for their faith: the Israelites fleeing through the Red Sea, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, and those nameless thousands who were persecuted for their faith. As Paul addresses the Hebrews speaking of where they have come, he offers respect for their faith, their determination, despite their struggles by reminding them that struggles have been with them from the beginning. But Paul is doing something interesting here. Instead of saying, “Look! Faith produces freedom. Faith brings peace. Faith offers security” he reinforces that understanding of faith. When we look at this passage we can see that the results of struggles were good: the fall of Jericho, administration of justice, freedom of the Israelites from Egypt. Additionally, the result of faith was also one of pain: chains, imprisonment, persecution, death. So what is Paul saying here? Why is he speaking of faith in such a way that would appear encouraging but offer such examples that could dishearten the Hebrews?
Before I come to that I want to share a story. My mom’s side of the family got together at my grandmother’s, I called her MeMa, every year on Christmas Day. She made the dressing and pies and everyone else would bring something: turkey or ham, beans, yams, homemade bread. The list goes on. We raked leaves and then burned the piles, the pecans snapping and popping and they burned. We laughed and enjoyed one another’s company for the day. Well, my cousin John and I would go walking around the neighborhood so that he could smoke a couple of cigarettes. Her little neighborhood was in the middle of a larger space of pastureland and wooded areas. At the end of one of the roads was such an area of wooded space. John and I would clear out the leaves from the dirt and sand and build a small fire. There, in the darkness and cold of the winter, we would sit together by the fire and listen to the wind and the owls and the mysterious rustling in the shadowed brush just beyond the light of the little fire.
It’s this image of fire that brings us into our Gospel passage. Jesus says that He has come to bring fire to the earth. He says, in the fullness of His humanity, that He wishes it was already kindled. And then He echoes the words of the prophet Micah who spoke of family against family, member against member. What is Jesus saying here? Why is He wishing for something to happen that will ultimately bring pain and fracture?
Both Paul and Jesus are speaking of the presence of God. In the passage from Hebrews Paul speaks of faith that conquered kingdoms and of faith that the world was not worthy to witness. But he also speaks of faith that resulted in torture, imprisonment, death. Jesus speaks of the presence of God that will divide and will separate. Make no mistake, these passages are not soothing, satisfying illustrations of peace and tranquility. These passages hold pain and fear and anxiety. These passages reflect the pain and fear and anxiety that we experience in our world.
How often do we see pain within our families? How often do we witness fracture and hatred within our society? How often do we experience heartache when we are or a loved one is maligned for who they are or what they believe? Who among us has experienced betrayal? Within our world is abuse, divorce, addiction, hatred, and emotional and psychological issues as a result of trauma. Our world can be messy and cruel and empty.
What we see from our passages of text this morning, ultimately, is that God is present. He is present through His word that holds power like fire. He is present in the column of fire that lead the Israelites by night. He is present in the fire that Jesus brings and kindles. He is present here and now that the candle above the tabernacle testifies to.
While we live in a messy and fractured world, we have the assurance of the presence of God here, right now. And how do I know this? Because of your faith. The faith that continued to knit you together these years. The faith that brought you together in community many years ago. Some of you were born in this church. Some came as children. Some came as you moved into the area. Some of you have been baptized, celebrated your first communion, been married here, had your own children baptized here, and your children’s children. This faith has bonded you to one another despite the anguish of the world. You laugh and mourn and pray and heal and serve together. You believe in the presence of God here in this place because you bring Him with you. Every time you gather, you bring Him with you. Are your days always peaceful and joyous? I don’t believe they are. And yet, you still endure. God sustains you and has sustained you. You remain faithful to Him and the community He is shaping you to be. You remain faithful as this church as you move into the community in which you live, this fractured and messy community here in Southeast Oklahoma. My hope is that we continue to know, to be assured, to have the faith of our ancestors of His presence within each of us and within our church family. My hope is that we love Him and remain faithful to Him and we carry Him into this community in which we live. Although there will be uncertainty and perhaps pain, my hope is that we remember and remind one another of His presence and the faith that will be perfected within us.
Let us pray. Almighty God, Keeper of our souls, You bring all things under your sovereignty. Cleanse us and reveal Yourself to us. Draw us back as we stray and help us to forgive ourselves and others. Guide us as we seek to serve You in our community. All these we ask in the name of Your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.