Fire is our metaphor for the way that God encounters culture. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about God is that God comes. God doesn’t just sit up in the divine council waiting for us to come. We all know that we’d never make it. Instead God comes to us. This is the heart of the Biblical story. From Genesis through Revelation, time after time, God comes to meet his people. Each and every time God encounters not only human beings but also the culture that inevitably surrounds us. Think about it. God can’t come to a person with out being relevant to that person’s culture (language, geography, ethics, morality).
So when God comes to dwell with us, and this may seem obvious, but God comes as Jew. Jesus was a Jew. The color of his skin and eyes, the shape of his face, the way he dressed and even the way he smelled was Jewish. Does this mean that out of all the myriad variety of human beings on this planet the ancient Jewish people are the best representation of God? Certainly not. God comes with a message, and in order that God might be heard and understood, God becomes relevant to Israel in the form of Jesus Christ. But Jesus was different. He was very much a part of the Jewish culture, but he was also more. He was the very best of that culture. He encountered the culture of the Jewish people and like a purifying fire, proceeded to transform it.
Encountering culture means being relevant and transformative. It does not mean unconditional accommodation of culture. But if the church has learned anything from the highs and lows of the last few centuries of missionary activity, it’s this: in order to communicate the good news of the Kingdom of God, we must first become relevant (in more than just language) to the culture. Fire seems a good metaphor for this encounter considering the frequency that God chooses to appear in fire (think burning bush, pillar of fire and smoke and Pentecost just to name a few). So what does it mean to encounter and be transformative in our culture? This is a question that must constantly be asked if we are to be faithful witnesses of the Kingdom of God. To put it bluntly, relevance to culture is not optional.