Summary: We have experienced the warm glow of God’s blessings, but the fire of judgment is also at hand, for worship becomes ritual, there is a critical spirit, and pessimism spreads. Diligence and integrity bring vitality in worship.
In all the annals of human history, there is one item which has held out more hope and yet offered more terror than any other. Wherever human beings gathered, in the infancy of our race, there this one item, this one element, both attracted them and repelled them; it drew them close and yet it sent them running. This one thing, more than any other, has allowed us to survive, but, at the same time, has in it the potential to destroy everything which we have accomplished.
Can you guess what I am talking about? Do you have a clue? This one thing enabled us, from our earliest days, to have power; and yet that very same thing has made us afraid, for we knew it could kill.
That one thing is fire. Fire is the element which we have always cherished and yet always feared. Fire is the one thing we have always needed and always wanted; on a chilly day like today, it is only because something is on fire that we are warm and comfortable; and yet fire also strikes terror in our hearts, because we read of families wiped out and homes ruined where fire has gone out of control.
Fire has always fascinated us, and yet it has also repelled us. Fire fuels our highest hopes, as we don’t have fur like other animals, unless we’ve been to Saks Fifth Avenue! We need warmth to protect us from the elements; but we teach our children not to touch the stove, lest their delicate skin be damaged. If you are a parent, one of the first words I dare say you taught that little toddler was the word, “hot”. “Hot” Don’t touch!
Fire. The ancient Greeks told the story of Prometheus, who, it was said, stole fire from the gods and brought it to humanity. For this Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock, where a vulture would peck at his liver continually. It’s just a pagan myth, and you and I won’t take it too seriously, but it does remind us that fire is a precious gift, which can also turn on us and disappoint us, if not destroy us.
If Greek myths about stolen fire and a liver breakfast for the birds are, for you, well, for the birds, then I have a simpler story that illustrates how fire attracts and yet destroys and disappoints. My father used to tell about his childhood days in the winters of northern Indiana, nearly a century ago. At Christmas they would set up a lovely tree in their home, and, as tradition dictated, they would put candles all over it. They would stand back and admire this lovely confection and think of that starry night when the Savior was born; they would marvel at the magic of flickering tapers and would delight in their beauty. But, said my father, it seemed that almost every year, some time during the Christmas season, some candle would burn down too far and touch a dry twig, and in an instant the glory of the Christmas tree was being rushed out the front door into the snow, there to burn itself out in an ugly heap. The fire of glory and delight so easily becomes the fire of dried up disappointment. The fire of joy so quickly turns into the fiery ashes of mourning.
Solomon had dedicated the Temple in a long and passionate prayer. The king had poured his very heart not only into the construction of this wonderful new worship space, but also into its solemn consecration. His prayer had rehearsed Israel’s glorious history and especially the story of his father David. He had boldly called on God to judge with righteousness anyone who misused the house of God, and had acknowledged that famine and blight might come, that defeat in battle and confusion at home might appear. But Solomon had asked his God to forgive all the people’s sins, so that God’s name might be magnified in the use of this house. Solomon’s prayer was truly magnificent, full of the harsh realities of human life, but nevertheless packed with trust in the mercy of God.
And so God answered Solomon’s prayer. God answered his prayer by sending a roaring fire from heaven, to consume the sacrifices that had been laid on the brand new altar. And our text tells us that the fire of the glory of God filled the temple, overwhelming everyone. The people did the only thing you could have done when that happens; they fell on their face and worshipped. Abjectly, sincerely, in awe and wonder, they worshipped so mighty a God.
“When all the people of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed down on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and worshipped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.’”