✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Fire can cleanse, and fire can destroy. Fire can serve good purposes, like keeping us warm or cooking our food; or it can do great harm, as we saw so dramatically in the burning of Trinity Lutheran Church downtown. God appears to Moses in the burning bush, which is aflame but is not consumed; hell is described as a lake of fire and unspeakable torment. So we must learn to distinguish between the fire that is from God, and the fire that seeks to work against Him.
On the 50th day after Easter, tongues of fire came to rest on the apostles as they were gathered together in the upper room. Then they began to speak with other tongues as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. Simple Galileans, recognizable by their northern accents, spoke with fiery boldness in the mother tongues of all those who were gathered there in Jerusalem from all over the world, proclaiming the wonderful works of God in Christ in dozens of different languages.
However, we also hear in the Scriptures of another fire of tongues. James writes this, “The tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell!” (James 3:5-6)
So there are two kinds of tongues and two kinds of fire here. First, there is the tongue of the Word of God, whose fire is the Spirit of God. Second, there is the tongue that is set within our bodily members, whose fire is hell. The devil always tries to copy and mimic God, but in an upside down and destructive way. Though both of these are fiery tongues, they stand in diametrical opposition to one another.
We know all too well how our tongues and our speech can be used in ways that are contrary to God and that manipulate things to our advantage. We know the perverse pleasure of sharing in gossip that helps rumors to spread like wildfire. We know what it’s like to deceive by not quite telling the whole truth, how to say things a certain way to make ourselves look better or cover up our sin. And we know what it’s like to use our tongues to cut others down rather than to build others up. Again James writes, “The tongue is full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10). Rather, St. Paul says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).
That’s what the problem was with the people at Babel. They didn’t use their tongues to impart the grace of God or glorify Him, but to glorify and exalt themselves. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves.” Not wanting to receive the identity that God had given them, they engaged in the religion of following their dreams and believing in themselves to get them to the heavens. But that is a doctrine of the devil. It is a hellish tongue which teaches you to trust in yourself and to pride yourself in your own choices and achievements. Still today God confuses and scatters us in our rebellion and tears down our towers, that we might learn humility and be brought to repentance before Him.
But, of course, our Lord doesn’t stop there. Then God undoes the destructive, fiery tongue of man with His own constructive, fiery tongue of life. Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. At Babel God said in judgment, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.” At Pentecost God the Father said in mercy to His only begotten Son, “Come, let us go down and pour out our Spirit on them, so that the words of the Gospel might be clearly proclaimed to them in their own language. Let their ears be opened so that they may not be confused but may understand and receive the forgiveness and salvation which you, my beloved Son, won for them on the cross.”
And so it was that there was a sound of a rushing, mighty wind and tongues of fire on those gathered together for worship on that Sunday morning. God was blowing the breath of His Spirit across the embers of His little band of disciples to stir up the flame of the Church. Martin Luther said that the artists who have depicted Pentecost missed the point when they drew the tongues of fire on the top of everyone’s heads. The tongues of fire should be resting over their mouths, he suggested, because the mouth is where the action is with the Holy Spirit. The church is a mouth house, where the Holy Spirit proclaims the Gospel from the mouth of a preacher, and believers confess that Gospel and sing and pray and extol the Lord and Savior with their mouths.
Our tongues must be purified with the Spirit’s refining fire to do that. Recall the prophet Isaiah, who saw the Lord lifted high and exalted upon His throne. Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Isaiah knew that his lips were soiled by sin and needed to be cleansed. Then one of the fiery seraphim swooped down to the incense altar and took a fiery coal and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, and he absolved him. “Your guilt is taken away, your sin is purged,” the angel said. Isaiah’s mouth was purified by fire.
That burning coal is a picture for us of the Word and fiery Spirit of our God. To those who cry out in penitence with Isaiah saying, “Woe is me; for I am lost!” “Lord, deliver me from my sin,” the Holy Spirit comes with the live coal of Christ’s Word and purifies our lips and cleanses us of our sin. The same Jesus who purified our human nature by becoming man, the same Jesus who felt the fires of hell for us on the cross and suffered the inferno of God’s judgment to redeem us and save us, the same Jesus who rose from the dead on the third day to give us victory over the grave and everlasting life–He now pours out His Holy Spirit to deliver those gifts of salvation to you through His Word and through the Sacraments. John the Baptist preached that “Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And truly the Holy Spirit is a cleansing fire, who purges you of all iniquity through the precious blood of Christ.
That’s what the Holy Spirit was all about at the first Pentecost; and that’s He’s still about today. We sometimes forget that the main thing that happened on Pentecost was not the signs of the rushing wind and the fire, but the preaching and the baptizing that the Holy Spirit did through the apostles. Most of Acts chapter 2 is the sermon which Peter spoke that day. By the Spirit’s power, He condemned the people for their unbelief in Christ and their wickedness in putting Jesus to death. Yet Peter also proclaimed how God accomplished His saving purposes through Christ's death, and how the Father raised Jesus from the dead as Lord of all and the only Savior. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart in sorrow for their sin, and they said to the apostles, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” About 3,000 people were baptized that day from all different lands and languages, who carried that Spirit-filled Gospel home with them, spreading it like a prairie brush fire. And of those who remained in Jerusalem, it is written that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and to the prayers.
So we may not have the sound of the rushing of the wind and the tongues of fire any longer–those were one-time signs marking the first outpouring. But the Spirit is still at work fanning the flame of faith and love to glow brightly among God’s people. The Holy Spirit continues to be poured out in baptism, which is the new birth of water and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit continues His ministry of calling people to true repentance and of preaching the life-giving Word of Christ. And the Holy Spirit continues to place the fiery Word on your tongue by giving into your mouth the body and blood of Christ, the Word made flesh, for the forgiveness of your sins. In these ways the Holy Spirit opens your lips, that you may pray to God, praise Him, and give Him thanks in true faith. As it is written, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Pentecost is still continuing. Not in the ecstatic babbling that goes on in so-called “Pentecostal” churches. Rather, it goes on whenever the Bible is translated into a new language or whenever a missionary carries the Gospel to people in their own mother tongue. Just the fact that we can even hear the Gospel in English right now is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. The forgiveness of your sins, purchased for you by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the early church which spoke Latin, has come to you in your own language, English, a Gentile tongue. That’s God’s gift to you. There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior from sin and death than to say it in your own language. Jesus is for you. You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your own native tongue.
Let us then, today and always, speak that language which the Holy Spirit has taught you, the language of faith. For it is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” Let us use our tongues to sing and proclaim the wonderful deeds of our Savior, who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. May our prayer ever be, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in the them the fire of your love.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt for some of the above)