This reflection on “fire in the desert” arose from our first Advent study from the book "Songs from a Strange Land: An Australian Advent Calendar"—compiled by Celia Kemp for the Anglican Board of Mission. The illustrated book offers themed poems and literary extracts for each day of Advent. I noticed that the first week of artwork and texts seemed to involve ‘desert’ images—sand, stones, shrubs, stars, and sky. We talked about the desert as a “thin place”, that is, where the ‘barrier’ between heaven and earth—between the divine and mundane—seems to become 'thin' and we are more open to God’s presence. Day 6 of the Advent calendar presents Moses’ experience of the burning bush at Mount Sinai where God reveals his mysterious name: “I AM WHO I AM”. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (lately deceased, “of blessed memory” ז״ל) interprets as follows; “’I will be who or how or where I will be’ meaning don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you.” (Exodus 3:1-3).
Fire in the desert is rare because there is little vegetation to burn; hence, the three instances of fire at Mount Sinai are all acts of God. The first instance was the same burning bush when God proclaimed his name and sent Moses on his mission to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt (vv. 13-14). The second instance was the great fire-storm on the mountain when the newly freed slaves arrived at Mount Sinai (19:16-18; 24:17) and God again proclaimed His name and gave them the Ten Commandments (20:2). Moses and the people were terrified at the display of divine power (Heb 12:18-21) and readily agreed to enter into covenant as God’s holy nation. Many years later, the prophet Elijah fled to Mount Sinai where he also saw a fire-storm on the mountain (1 Kgs 19:12). This last instance is interesting: the narrator explicitly says that "the LORD was not in the fire", as though perhaps the reader might expect (on the basis of Exodus stories) that He would be. No—this time the Lord was present in the great silence after the fire, and then in a quiet voice (1 Kgs 19:12) that questioned Elijah (v. 13), rebuked him (v. 18) for claiming he was the only faithful person left in Israel (v. 14), and gave him directions to go back and continue his work for God among the people (vv. 13-17).
In these three instances of fire and revelation at Mount Sinai, we might consider how this sequence could apply to us. It is likely that any ‘fire’ we may find in the 'desert' of our life is put there by God for revelation. Such fire may be trouble and suffering, or it may be our longing and passion for the divine. Some biblical texts indicate that even the 'fire' of our faith is not our own work but a gift of the Spirit which stirs our hearts to do God’s will (1 Cor 12:9, 13:2, 13; Gal 5:22). The three dramatic fires at Mount Sinai say something important about revelation: ‘fire’ may be present at our calling (like Moses at the burning bush), at our conversion (like Israel at the foot of the burning mount), and in our crisis (like Elijah in the cave on the mount), but, after the passion is spent and we are in the everyday, God is with us in the great silence and in the quiet voice of conscience that interrogates our motives, rebukes us for our fear and arrogance, and directs us to return and serve His people.
'You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them…. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant' (Heb 12:18-24).