Without the Holy Spirit, God is distant, Christ is merely an historical figure.
Gentle breezes, strong winds, cyclones, hurricanes; they describe a variety of strength and power in the elements. A refreshing breeze is welcome on a warm day; the gentle swaying of trees is calming and relaxing, but a destructive storm is abhorred at any time. We have varied reactions to wind, depending on its direction, strength and how it affects us. There is something similar to be said about fire, depending on where it is and its size. It can conjure up images of warmth and togetherness at the hearth or around a camp fire, but it can also bring to mind a burning house or a rapidly spreading brush fire.
The two elements of wind and fire are key parts of life; both have energy and can be harnessed creatively such as in producing electricity. We can enjoy them and their by-products in particular situations, and take them for granted when they are within the normal range, but we are very conscious of them when they are very strong or out of control. They can be viewed and experienced separately, but there are many occasions where they interact, where the influence of both can be combined, or even is needed. When wind and fire are put together other varied possibilities come into play. Both in moderation offer a pleasant picture, but if both are intense it is quite different.
- Lighting a fire requires some air to enable it to get going, but too much wind can prevent the fire from getting started. If it is lighting outside, strong winds can lead it to spread, increasing its potential for destruction, especially in dry foliage and open terrain; fire without much wind is easier to contain and enjoy.
- A breeze can be pleasant, but a strong wind has power to knock down, or to tear apart. With fire a whole new destructive possibility is added, as the two elements together can present a frightening force when both are intense. They test the utmost skill of fire fighters to deal with them.
It is interesting that these two same elements of wind and fire are central to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-3).
- There was the sound of a strong wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting; its noise was indicative of its potential. [The same Latin word ‘spiritus’ is used for both spirit and wind.] This was a Spirit-filled encounter, where power was shared, strength was given to those who were weak in faith and who lacked courage. There is the mystery of wind, as we do not see it, but we are aware of what it can do. Its presence and action are descriptive of those born of the Spirit (See John 3:8).
- There were tongues of fire. The Apostles where a group of people who had been silenced by the events of the final week of Jesus’ life; their tongues had gone silent and their fire had gone out; energy and passion were low, with courage dimmed and fear predominating. Being behind closed doors seemed the most secure place; there may have been a fire in the closed room, but the inner lives of the Apostles seemed to have grown cold. They needed the gifts of the Spirit if they were to have tongues and voices, with the courage and conviction to go out and to announce the message.
Both elements of wind and fire symbolised the gift given, the mission entrusted to the Apostles and the energy required to carry it out.
The presence of wind and fire was not new in God’s interaction with people; they have been present at other times to manifest God’s gifts and call.
- In the creation story we are told of God’s spirit hovering over the water; this has some similarity to the image of the coming of the Spirit on those at Pentecost, where it rested on them (See Gen 1:1-2, Acts 2:3).
- On their journey of liberation from Egypt, God guided the pilgrim people by a pillar of fire (Ex 13:21).
- Fire and wind were significant in the life and mission of Elijah, who was a prophet in the spirit of Pentecost; he called down fire on his sacrifice to reveal the true God (1 Kings 18:37-38); he was also called upon to recognise God’s presence and revelation in the gentle breeze, not in a great wind, nor in fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). At the end he was separated from Elisha by a chariot of fire and taken up to God in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).
- The gifts of God were of the Spirit of power, of love and self-control; they were shared in many varied ways and to be fanned into a flame (2 Tim 1:6). That called for the kind of passion and enthusiasm that Jesus had when he spoke of wishing to cast fire on earth. (Luke 12:49-50); he wished his followers to do the same.
Fire, tongues and flames are real, but they are also symbolic in speaking of the gifts of the Holy Spirit shared with us and the challenge before us. God gives us the energy we need and the direction to take in living as Pentecost people amid the storms of our time, where the hearts of many seem to have grown cold. They are given for the unique situation in which we live and minister as was true for Elijah, or those in the room at Pentecost. That requires our acceptance of the gifts and our desire to allow them to be fruitful. We have the freedom to use them well, but we can limit their effectiveness – as gifts they can remain dormant or be restricted in their expression. The presence and action of the Spirit draw us into the mystery of God’s presence and send us forth with energy and enthusiasm to live those gifts given to us, which are to be used productively for mission (see Gal 5:22-23). We need our rooms, our houses and our hearts to be open to their reception. It is in being filled with the generosity of the Spirit that we have fire, energy and burning tongues, as well as gentleness and self-control, to continue the proclamation of Spirit-filled Good News, for it is a message to be shared and not contained through fearfulness.