Eternal Flame

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Pentecost.

Leviticus 6:8-13

The Lord said to Moses: Command Aaron and his sons: This is the Instruction for the entirely burned offering—the entirely burned offering that must remain on the altar hearth all night until morning, while the fire is kept burning. The priest will dress in his linen robe, with linen undergarments on his body. Because the fire will have devoured the entirely burned offering on the altar, he must remove the ashes and place them beside the altar. The priest will then take off his clothes, dress in a different set of clothes, and take the ashes outside the camp to a clean location. The altar fire must be kept burning; it must not go out. Each morning the priest will burn wood on it, will lay out the entirely burned offering on it, and will completely burn the fat of the well-being offering on it. A continuous fire must be kept burning on the altar; it must not go out.

***

About a month after I started seminary, a group of classmates put out an invitation: a weekend camping trip to the closest state park. 

I’d only ever been camping—proper camping, in tents—once before, but it sounded like fun. So we went. 

Except, by the time we got our act together and got a weekend scheduled, it was late October. Which made it very, very cold at night. 

We got there later than we’d hoped, so getting a fire going—both for warmth and for dinner—was the first order of business. We weren’t expecting trouble—the ground was dry, there was a fire pit at the campground, and no fewer than four of our group were Eagle Scouts. Two Bens, a Luke, and a Daniel—all of them with extensive camping and fire experience. They would get the fire going, and my friend Beth would cook dinner. She has a knack for feeding groups of people.

Except it wasn’t working. As night fell and the temps dropped, all four of those Eagle Scouts fluttered around the campfire, trying to get and keep a fire going, and it just. would. not. 

I know almost nothing about how to make a real campfire, so I don’t know what was wrong. I expect it might have been a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes fire needs space to breathe. But after about an hour of frustration and a lot of choice vocabulary, my friend Beth finally shooed them all away. She gave us all bananas to tide us over until dinner and told us to go for a walk. 

I don’t know what magic she did, but that fire was roaring when we came back. Beth stayed by that fire all evening, long after dinner, long after the ghost stories, long after folks started drifting away to their tents. She let it die down, but didn’t let it burn out, so that we had warmth, and a place to gather again if we got cold. She didn’t snuff it out until the rest of us were wrapped up in our sleeping bags. 

I’d only known Beth for a few months then, but she has become a fast friend since, and I think I should have known by the way she tended that fire that hers would be a friendship worth keeping. 

It takes effort, to keep a fire going. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on the environment, but every camping trip has to have someone whose job it is to watch the fire—to rake burning coals back towards the center, to watch for wet wood smoldering out, to add more kindling if it’s needed. You can’t just throw on lots of wood and expect the fire to snap to life. It takes constant, thoughtful care. 

Our scripture today is a snippet of Leviticus—not a book I’ve often opened at this pulpit. Much of Leviticus is composed of lengthy, detailed instructions for how the Hebrew people should worship God—instructions about kinds of animal offerings, tabernacle décor, ritual purity, priestly clothes, festivals and holy days, and all the other minutia of religious life. To my modern ears, it’s not precisely an engaging read—too many rules and details that we simply don’t feel called to embrace as modern Christians. 

But if you can stomach the minutia of Leviticus, there are beautiful patterns that begin to emerge. The first part of Leviticus is staged as conversation between Moses and God in the wilderness—when the Hebrew people are still in the desert, still in transition, still unsettled, still on the move. Yet they don’t wait to worship. They don’t wait to set up sanctuary until things are more convenient. God draws up the plans for a tabernacle, a tent where they can worship. It’s pretty fancy, as tents go—more like glamping than camping—but it is incredible, that even in the wilderness, the Hebrew people carry their faith on their backs. 

Ans occasionally, even in this in-between time, they do settle in, set up their tents and their tabernacle, and stop a while. And when they do, life falls into order—the regular rhythms of praise and prayer, offering and sacrifice, repentance and forgiveness. Each morning and each night offerings are made on the altar where they are burned to God’s glory. The first time this happens, it’s actually God who breathes fire out into the tabernacle to burn the offerings. Now it is the priests’ job to do what God once did, burning the offerings, and keeping the fire going continuously—keeping the fire of God alive. 

Three times in this chapter of Leviticus, God charges Moses that the fire must not go out. Repetition in Jewish literature is a good sign that we should be paying attention, and this one builds to a powerful conclusion. The altar fire is to be kept burning, God says, the altar fire must be kept burning—the fire must always be kept burning. 

That word, always, is an interesting one. In Hebrew the word is Tamid. As an adverb it means always, continuously, without ceasing, eternally. Eventually, it became a noun—the Tamid, which described the duties of the priests of Israel, the day-in, day-out, mundane faithfulness of their work. Sweeping ashes. Encouraging embers. Changing into clean clothes. Saying prayers. Day in, day out.

Tamid are the ceaseless things. The constant things. The neverending work of faith. 

That first year of seminary, my Old Testament professor was a man named Samuel Balentine—the kind of professor with a tweed jacket and the slow, deep bass voice of a public radio announcer. One of his great passions is for these overlooked books of scripture—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers—books that seem at first glance like overwrought manuals to an outmoded way of living and believing. But Dr. Balentine always told us that the tabernacle and temple were microcosms of the whole world—God’s beautiful, orderly creation recreated in miniature. Our meticulous care in worship reflects the meticulous care that God put into the creation of the world—day in, day out, for seven days.  

In our Christian life, Tamid—ceaseless faith—looks less like tending fires, scraping ashes, and worrying about clean clothes. For us, that daily faithfulness, that meticulous care, looks different. Sometimes it’s writing birthday notes or condolence cards to people in this congregation. Sometimes it’s picking up a few extra boxes of crackers for Food for Thought. Sometimes it’s taking half an hour in the morning to pray over coffee. Sometimes it’s prepping a hundred tiny cups so that we can share in communion. Sometimes it’s writing our pledge checks. Sometimes it’s stopping to admire God’s sunset. Sometimes it’s showing up to church to meet the electrician or plumber, or volunteering to serve on a committee, or practicing guitar for worship. Sometimes it’s the quiet confidence we carry with us even on the darkest days that Jesus is still Lord. 

The life of faith is not often big and splashy. It is often simply the quiet, meticulous repetition of acts of care, compassion, and courage. To be people of faith is to tend fires that began long before our birth, and will go on burning long after we are gone. Yet it is our job, in quiet, conscientious ways, to keep the embers alight while we are here.

My professor, Dr. Balentine, wrote that “Tamid rituals sacralize the virtue of piety as a perpetual, habitual, constant mode of living. Regular—not occasional—acts of worship anchor live in god. Observance of the rites of faith that is disciplined—not haphazard or sporadic—keeps one tuned to truths that may otherwise slip away or be overwhelmed. The priests are charged with responsibility for Tamid rituals that invite and enable a ceaseless orientation to God.”[1]

These are not glamorous words. “Regular, disciplined, responsible.” These are not words to set anyone’s soul on fire. And yet we find that our faith is kept alight by these practices, daily, weekly. 

There will be periods of your life when your faith is like a raging fire, unstoppable, a force wholly apart from you. And there will be days when your faith is the tiniest, smoldering ember in a dark patch of ashes and smoke. It may seem like it is in danger of going out altogether. 

But all it needs, my friends, is a little tending. A little watchful care. Do not be afraid to sit in the quiet and the dark with the embers of your faith. Do not be afraid to nudge it back, even so slowly, to life. 

I think of my friend Beth, sitting there by the fire, so that her friends would have a warm place to sit, somewhere to make light-night smores, someplace safe from the darkness of the trees. It was tedious, meticulous work, and it was love. 

Our faith can be an everlasting flame, but only if we tend it a little. It is mundane. It is tedious. It is everyday. It is unceasing work. And it is how we love the Lord.

Amen.


[1] Samuel E. Balentine, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Leviticus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 66. Italics mine.

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