My wife, Charlotte, and I just returned from a vacation in northern Michigan. As usual, the trip contained moments of both joy and frustration but I’m glad to be home. One day in particular, we traveled north to Mackinac Island, on northern Lake Huron. The day was enjoyable until we had to return. We had bad directions and it was dark with unfamiliar roads. So, of course, we got lost. More specifically, I got lost.
We were looking for a highway exit that wasn’t there and I drove miles past where we should have gotten off the highway. We ended up driving along U.S. Route 10 late at night, trying to get back to something remotely familiar. There were signs for a town ahead with a name that Charlotte recognized, Ludington, but the further we drove the further away it seemed. At one point, we passed a house with a fire burning in a barrel in the driveway and a man working in the garage. I turned around at the first opportunity and returned to the house. The man—a stranger—was able to get us going in the right direction and we eventually made it to the cottage where we were staying, two hours later than we should have.
At the time, I thought of Moses and the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). Later, I realized a more apt analogy would have been the pillar of fire that led the people of Israel by night, along with the pillar of cloud that led them by day (Exod. 13:21-22 ESV).
God used the burning bush to get Moses’ attention. Later, God used the pillars of fire and cloud to keep the Israelites’ attention. The fire burning in the stranger’s driveway got my attention and I was glad it did. I firmly believe God spends a great deal of time getting and maintaining our attention, especially mine. The Israelites followed God for forty years (Deut. 8:2), although it’s not clear whether the pillars of cloud and fire were present for the entire time. The psalmist wrote, “. . . tell the next generation / that this is God, / our God forever and ever. / He will guide us forever.” (Psa. 48:13b-14 ESV). In the New Testament, the wise men “. . . saw his star when it rose and [came] to worship him.” (Matt. 2:2b ESV). Stars are like fire in the sky. The wise men followed the star to Jerusalem (vs. 1b) and asked where the new king had been born (vs. 2a). The star led them to Christ. Let’s look at some of the things that lead us to God.
The late evangelist, author, and associate of Dwight L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, wrote that God guides in various ways: God guides by His Word, by His Spirit, by enlightening our judgment, by visions and dreams (Torrey doesn’t think much of that one), and by His providence. In the Methodist tradition, we have the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. These are all things that can lead us to Christ.
After John the Baptist had been executed, Jesus said, “‘[John] was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.’” (John 5:35 ESV). John was a great prophet but beyond his words, he spoke by example. Jesus expects the same from us. “‘You are the light of the world. . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’” (Matt. 5:14a; 16b ESV).
I have no doubt that there was a friendly, helpful stranger with a fire in front of his garage just when we needed him because God put him there. There are times when God puts us where we can be guides, pillars of fire, for others. Isaiah wrote that “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, / and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet, / until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, / and her salvation as a burning torch.” (Isa. 62:1 ESV). God wants our salvation to shine forth like a burning torch too. How can we let it shine forth today?
“. . . God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. . . . And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exod. 13:21-22 ESV.)