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Monday, September 12, 2016

Lessons from the Fire

Isaiah 43:1b-3a

            We had a fire last Sunday at Pleasant Grove UMC.  Our church van was parked under the breezeway between our gym and the promise building and it caught on fire (or was set on fire--it's still under investigation).  The van was destroyed and the promise building sustained smoke and water damage and there is no power to the building.  It was a sad loss, but I am very thankful no one was hurt.  It could have been much worse.  I'm very thankful to God who watched over us and I'm thankful to everyone who has helped us work through the aftermath of our fire.
            It's been a hectic week, but I’ve still had time to think about what God would have me say this Sunday—the first Sunday after the fire.  There are some lessons we can glean from the experience I want to share, but before we get to that, hear the Word of God to us this morning from Isaiah 43:1b-3a.

Isaiah 43:1b-3a
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

The Meaning of the Passage
            These words of Isaiah were given to God's people in Judah, foretelling their future.  They were to face a terrible tragedy.  Their kingdom, their capital city, and the Temple were to be destroyed.  All the people of Judah would be sent away from their homeland into captivity.  Yet God promised to be with them through it all and to bring them back.
            However, this prophecy looks even farther into the future.  It also speaks about our time.  It tells us that God will be with people who follow Jesus faithfully.  Though we face persecutions, trials, and tribulations because of our faith in Jesus, God says, “I am with you.  Don’t be afraid.  I have called you, by name.  I will sustain you through whatever troubles you face for the sake of my Son, Jesus—whether it be a fire, social upheavals, friends that turn their backs on you because of your beliefs, persecutions, suffering, sickness, even death.  None of these can really harm you, because I—the Lord, Your God—am with you.”
            Let me share three lessons we can learn from the fire.

First of all, the fire teaches us the Church is not the building.  It is the people.
            I am as guilty as anyone of saying, “I’m going to the church.”   We all do it.  We talk about the “church” as if it were a building.  But the church is not a building.  The church is the people. 
            Whenever the New Testament talks about the church, it uses the word to refer to the followers of Jesus, not the building.  For instance:
  • Acts 8:3 – “But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church…”  See, it wasn’t a building he was trying to destroy; it was believers who were spread all over the place.
  • Acts 12:5 – “…while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.”  You see, a building can’t pray for someone.  Only people can.  The church was the people.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:9 says, “You are God’s building.”
  • 1 Peter 2:5 says, “And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple.”

            So, fire may destroy our van or our building, but it cannot destroy the church, because the church is the people.  We are God’s people—we who believe and follow Christ.  And God says in Isaiah 43:2, “When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.”
            I think seeing our beautiful van scorched and ruined, and seeing the Promise Building damaged and temporarily out of service—though painful—can be a helpful reminder that the church is not a building or a van.  The church is the people—you and me.  And if for some terrible reason these buildings were completely gone, we would still be the church.  I think of our ancestors who started this church over 150 years ago.  They had no building.  That is why the church is called Pleasant Grove, because all they had was the shade of a pleasant grove of trees under which to worship.  The church is not a building; it's the people.

The second lesson we learn is about spiritual warfare.
            This fire is a vivid reminder that we are in the midst of a spiritual war. Ephesians 6:12 reminds us, “…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
            The fire was very suspicious.  The van had not been driven in two weeks.  Vans don’t just burst into flame all by themselves.  Was it arson or was it just a freak accident?  Investigators don’t have a definitive answer yet.  However, I can tell you—regardless of whether or not a person set the van on fire—it was a spiritual attack by Satan.  
            Satan comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), but I am not afraid of the Devil.  For my God is mightier than the Devil.  My God is the “Holy One of Israel.  My Savior.”  And He has already defeated the Devil!  And yet, this attack reminds us how critical it is to, as Ephesians 6:13 says, “…put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil.”
            Friends, don’t be blind.  There is a spiritual war going on all around you.  You can’t see it and Satan doesn’t want you to see it.  He would rather you be consumed by all the distractions of this world—entertainment, football games, food, travel, selfish gain.  You are an easy target when you are distracted.  Let this fire be a stark reminder of the stakes of this spiritual war.  Wake up!  Be vigilant!
            Ephesians 6:14-18 says,“Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  And Verse 18 (so critical) says, “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”
            Prayer is so critical!  It is the most powerful weapon in spiritual warfare.  Prayer helps us be vigilant so we aren't caught off guard by the Enemy.  Prayer puts us in the right frame of mind for the spiritual fight.  Prayer shows us the battle plan so we know what to do and when.  Prayer calls upon all of heaven's support so we don't get overwhelmed by the dark forces all around us.

The third lesson is what all this tells us about the future.
            I think our Youth Minister, Amy Harris, said it best.  Here’s what she told me.  She said she was with her kids last Sunday watching them load our burned up church van on a flatbed truck to haul it away.  She said, “God must be about to do something really big.”
            Church, I believe God is about to do something really big at Pleasant Grove.  A different kind of fire was started last Sunday.  I’m not talking about the one that burned up the van and damaged our building.  No sir.  I’m talking about a revival fire God is kindling in our hearts.  It’s a purifying fire that compels us to turn away from our sins and truly get our hearts right with God.  It consumes all that is unworthy in us until we are wholly committed to our Savior’s Church.  This fire is a burning desire to put Jesus Christ first and foremost in our lives.  It’s a fiery passion to serve Him by loving each other and our community like we never have before.  It’s an eternal fire the Devil and his minions can never put out.
            God is about to do something big at Pleasant Grove.  It’s a fire that can spread throughout our community.  Can you imagine it?  Can you imagine—not just our church—but all churches in our community on fire for God?  Can you imagine Christians who are so committed to Jesus that stand out so much from the crowd that everyone gives glory to our God—even those who don’t yet believe?  Can you imagine people becoming Christians because of your testimony?  Can you imagine marriages being saved, people being freed from addictions, finding true joy and peace and salvation?  
            I can see it; and I see the Devil trembling in fear at the thought  of it.  I believe it is why our Enemy is trying to disrupt and discourage us, but I won’t let him!  Will you?  Join with me in praying that God would fight our Enemy!  Join hands with me!  Let us be united together in our determination to follow Jesus with our whole hearts and discover what He is about to do!

Good Friday Leads to Easter
            I am reminded of another time when a terrible tragedy preceded God doing something really big.  In fact, it was the biggest tragedy ever and the biggest thing God ever did.  On a day we have come to call "Good Friday," humanity nailed the Son of God, Jesus Christ, to the cross. It was the darkest day in human history.  Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead to defeat the Devil forever and free all humanity from the power of sin!  It was the biggest event in all human history.
            If God can take an act as evil as the crucifixion and turn it into something good, I know He can take our fire and turn it into something good.  As Romans 8:28 says, "All things work together for those who love the Lord."  Church, I believe the fire only shows that God is up to something big at Pleasant Grove.  Get ready!  It's time to get on board with God!  Don't get left behind!

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