PURGED WITH FIRE
Once when I was a little boy I saw a distorted image of myself in a shiny copper tea kettle. I found that as I drew closer to it with my face, the image became more distinct. But when my lips touched it I squealed with pain, for the kettle was full of boiling water! My lips swelled up so that I couldn't speak for the rest of the day. Consequently my tender imagination was appalled when I first heard of Isaiah's experience in the temple in Jerusalem (Isaiah 6). The Lord was sitting on a throne; there was an earthquake and the temple was filled with smoke . . . Isaiah cried: "Woe is me! I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips; and I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then flew one of the seraphim with a burning coal which he had taken from the altar, and laid it on Isaiah's lips, saying "Your iniquity is taken away, your sin is purged." Then the Lord said, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" and Isaiah answered, "Here am I, send me!" How could Isaiah speak these words, I wondered, after having had a burning coal touch his lips?
I have since come to realize that pain, arising from preoccupation with one's own self-image, is often a necessary preliminary to commitment to the Lord's work. The pain is valuable because it teaches us that self-love gets us into hot water! We must turn away from concern with our own image and look upwards to the Lord and outwards to other people.
Isaiah needed that burn on the mouth to check his former course and redirect his activities into new and more important channels. Hitherto his life seems to have been very like yours and mine, full of yieldings to the lower selfhood. His lips had spoken lies and his tongue had uttered perverseness. "Woe is me!" he cried, "for I am undone — my lips are unclean!" They needed to be purged with fire.
The lips, the mouth! What a wonderful organ is the mouth! We take in our food by it; we communicate with others by it, speaking words of sympathy, love and encouragement. With our lips we kiss. Yet what a cause of stumbling they can be! The alcoholic takes in poisonous drink by his mouth. The same lips which can sing "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts," can also tell the smutty story and foul up the whole environment — so that we "dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." To cleanse the mouth is to go a long way towards purifying the whole person, for, as Jesus said, "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." Purging the lips, therefore, goes much deeper than (say) washing the hands. Our hands represent our actions merely, but our mouth is the door of a passage leading into and from our innermost being. And it is the inner, secret area of desire and motive which must be purified if we are to become messengers of God — apostles who are "sent" on His affairs.
Purification involves the breaking down and removal of the self-centered ego. When Isaiah said "Woe is me, I am undone!" he meant it literally. The "I" in him was being undone. Only when our inherited selfhood is reduced to rubble by the battering-ram of temptation can we be rebuilt as a temple in which the Lord of hosts can sit on his throne.
Purification implies a simplification, a stripping away of everything which is of inferior quality and which causes a lowering of the value of the whole personality. He who wants the best should not fritter away his time, talents and energy on the second or third best, or fourth best. Ambition to excel, to achieve certain ends, to make a name and reputation, to amass possessions — these need not be evil in themselves, but they will have to be relinquished if they detract from what is of absolute value. Pleasures and amusements and petty social vices, in which we indulge in company with other men and women of the world, may be innocent enough, but we shall find ourselves having to drop them as we advance in the spirtual life — not from any motive of asceticism, but because they tend to devalue our personality. You cannot serve God and mammon.
Jesus said, "If your eye is single, your whole body shall be full of light." By the single eye is meant integrity, purity of purpose, the concentration on essentials, and the minimizing, if not the entire removal, of inessentials. The essentials of religion were defined by the Master himself when someone came up to him and asked, "What exactly is this new teaching you are putting over?" Jesus answered: "You shall love the Lord your God with heart, mind and strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself." Love to the Lord, and love of people — these are the essentials of a heavenly life. How readily some of us busy ourselves with inessentials in order to escape the responsibility of these essentials!
It is so much easier and less demanding to plunge into all kinds of activity, running busily hither and thither, being useful, doing good works, pointing out what's wrong with everybody and trying to put things right . . . going round and round the perimeter but never actually penetrating into the heart of religion. "Be still and know that I am God," says the Lord. Stop trying to put the world to rights and look inwards for a moment. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?" says the Lord. "Wash you, make you clean!" And again, in a very telling phrase: "Be clean, you that bear the vessels of the Lord."
How can we be made clean, spiritually? In Isaiah's vision the purification was effected by fire. Fire is the best consumer of garbage; it is also the best antiseptic, if we can take it. Fire, in the supreme sense, is the glorious, glowing, all-consuming and all renovating Love of God. The Lord is the Divine Sun of heaven, shining in its strength. He is Love itself; and to come near this flaming Source of all love is to be purged of every element of dross. To live in close daily contact with the Lord is the only effective antidote to the corrupting influence of the Second Best. For, when the Lord is felt to be near, we cannot from very shame escape the challenge of the Best. How can we wriggle out of our responsibility for the things that really matter, when we are conscious that the Lord Jesus Christ is standing over us and reading our thoughts, penetrating right through to our hidden motives? The fire of his Love and Wisdom burns up all our rubbish!
Once, at an open-air communion service at camp, we were each given a slip of paper and invited to write on it any problem we might want to bring before the Lord, any resentment we wished to get rid of, anything from which we wanted release and purification. We then walked one by one to the campfire burning in the middle of the circle, threw the slip of paper on the glowing embers and watched it go up in smoke. I personally was deeply helped by this simple act of symbolism.
Purification by fire is a kind of washing, which in Greek is called baptism. John baptized with Jordan water, whereas Jesus, who came after him and was mightier than he, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with FIRE. Water washing is surface cleansing; fire purifies the heart.
Isaiah, in the framework of Judaism, had to go into the temple to meet God and have his lips purged with fire; but today you don't have to enter any particular building, for the Lord Jesus Christ is here with us in the temple of his Divine Humanity. But, like Isaiah, we must have a personal encounter with Him. Do not shrink or hold back, even though it may be painful. You are as qualified for "baptism by fire" as were the apostles of old, on that memorable Day of Pentecost described in the Book of Acts; and the Lord is as available today as he was to them. We have but to know a minimum of truth concerning the Lord's nature and His holy Word, and He will fill that truth with the rushing mighty wind of his Spirit and the fire of his love, till they overflow and fill the whole place where we happen to be. The fresh wind will blow away the paralyzing and suffocating smoke of our past sins and mistakes. And the tongues of fire flickering over us will inspire us to new expressions of joy and praise, enduing us with power from on high.
There is probably quite a lot in you that needs to be purged away. You can't do the purifying, but the Lord can and will. Malachi saw God as a refiner of silver, seated at his crucible over the fire, purging the sons of Levi. And, as I began these remarks with a little boy looking at his distorted image in a shiny copper kettle and trying to get it into focus, so I will end with a vision of our beloved Lord gazing into our molten souls. Whenever we shun an evil because it is a sin, that evil floats to the surface as scum and he scoops it off, and watches for the next to come up. He continues to do this until he sees his own image reflected without distortion in the smooth liquid surface of our personality and life. Let us all reflect him in purity and simplicity, and the joy and peace of heaven will begin upon earth, and the New Age will dawn.