The first pastor I remember stayed at my home church for a very un-Methodist sixteen years. When the time finally came for him to leave, naturally the new guy had a tough time filling a pair of shoes that had been worn by one person for so long. For the most part, I was unaffected by this change of leadership; I was off at college at the time, hearing reports second-hand. But there was one thing that affected me, one change I had questions about.
When I visited home and attended church, my eyes would always move from the pastor to just above him – to his left and up about ten feet in the air – to a new object he had introduced:
The eternal flame.
We had never had one of these bad boys before. It looked… old. And like something out of my great-grandfather’s Greek Orthodox Church. Instead of listening to the sermon, I’d sit there and wonder: Is that electric, or is it really lit? Does it ever go out? Is it going to burn the church down one night?
And most of all: What does it mean, and why did the new pastor care enough about it to put it in our church?
Today’s sermon is, in part, for me from seventeen years ago; Leviticus 24 is part of the Scriptural basis for “eternal flames” like that one.
At face value these four verses tell us what it was, and the first main attribute you might notice is “continually” or “regularly” (depending on your translation). Three times that word shows up: keep the light lit continually, burn it from evening to morning continually, let the lampstands before the LORD* continually.
This is like a parent telling a child: “After you go to the bathroom please wash your hands. Hooray, you used the potty! Please wash your hands. Hey – before you start eating your fruit snacks again… did you wash your hands?” Obviously, the hand washing is a crucial step in the bathroom process. The repetition drives home the important point.
In this case: Keep that lamp lit.
But keeping it lit “continually” is not the only instruction here. We begin with pure olive oil contributed by the people. This is not cooking oil, but something collected by a different process. It was special, pure, clear. It would have burned with little to no smoke. Once the people contributed the oil, the priests – Aaron chief among them – are given the job of maintaining it. They keep the lamps in good order on a lampstand of gold; they keep them worthy of the LORD.
That’s the “what” of the continual light. But the “what” alone doesn’t do much by way of explanation. I can read all that and still be left feeling like a twenty-year-old girl staring at an “eternal flame” that has just shown up in her home sanctuary. I mean, lamps and oil are all fine and good… but why have this continually-burning pure oil and gold lampstand?
The best I can tell, the “why” has to do with a series of both/ands.
The continual light was both practical and symbolic. You don’t have to read a Biblical commentary to know that they didn’t have electricity in the ancient near east. Practically speaking, they needed light in the tabernacle – the mobile, tent-like structure where Israel worshipped. The people and the priests needed to see.
But the light wasn’t only so that the people could see. It was also symbolic of God’s presence. Light was the first thing that God spoke into being (Gen 1:3). When God shows up, it often involves light or fire (Exod 10:23, 13:21). The light’s continual presence is a symbol of God’s continual presence with the Israelites.
The continual light was both from the people and from the priests. The people contributed the pure oil; the priests maintained it. It was a team effort by design. Although we might theorize that the priests could go get the oil themselves, I’d venture to guess that this would have been difficult back in the days before Ingles.
Imagine the Israelites coming to the worship and seeing this lamp lit. Would they see it burning and think of their own contribution – the olives each of them chipped in to make the oil to keep it continually lit? In a way, it was a constant reminder of their partnership with the priests.
The light was also for them and for others. The Israelites were obviously the primary beneficiaries of this light. They contributed the oil, they maintained the lampstand, they worshipped in the tabernacle, they worshipped the God whose presence it symbolized. But there is a hint that this is about more than just the Israelites. When Abraham was first called to be a father of many nations, he’s told that “by you, all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). So this lamp is supposed to be lit “for all generations,” more than just for the people present at that moment.
This gets us to one more both/and about the lampstand: It’s now, and it’s also not quite yet. The light shines now; God was already present with the Israelites when it was originally lit; and yet, there’s an anticipation of something more. Zechariah 4 hints at this, when that prophet sees a lampstand like this one except with a bowl on top and lips on each of the candles and two olive trees feeding pure oil into it (visions are always a little weird, right?). I confess to you: after studying Zechariah 4 a bit this week I still don’t totally understand this visionary image. But I can see clearly its message of something more coming: a day when God’s presence is fueled continuously, when God speaks so we can hear, when God is with us in a way that God is not quite with us yet.
As people of the Old and New Testaments, we continue to experience God’s presence as both now and not yet. Jesus Christ was born and called “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23). And yet… Revelation reminds us that there’s still more to come. John’s vision included sevengolden lampstands representing the seven churches he wrote to, and in the middle of them was “one like the Son of Man” walking among them (Revelation 1:12, 2:1). Like Zechariah, this is a glimpse of something more, God’s presence even more present than it is now.
So we light our candles in church to remind ourselves of this now and not yet presence. Every Sunday we light them, right? We don’t have an “eternal flame” at Andrews UMC, but we do have altar candles that burn on oil.
Many of the things we still do in worship have both a practical and a symbolic side. With the candles, the practicality has faded with the invention of electricity but the symbolism is just as strong as ever. Next Sunday begins Advent, after all, and we will light a candle every week to remind us that with Jesus’ arrival on earth, “the light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). Since this is true all the time, not just in December, the acolytes bring the light in every Sunday as a symbol of Jesus Christ, God’s Light present with us.
Notice that the acolytes bring the light in – not me as the pastor. This continues to be a cooperation between the lay people of the church and the leaders. As the pastor, I oversee our liturgical elements, like the altar candles, but it’s not a job I do alone. The word liturgy means literally “the work of the people.” In the case of our altar candles, this is especially true. Young lay people serve to light the candles; adult lay people coordinate those acolytes; lay people maintain the oil inside the candles and the wicks to light them; and we all put the money in the offering plate to pay for those supplies. Every Sunday these lit candles are a reminder that we are doing this together – no one here is a spectator. We are all participants.
And we do all this – candles and music and colors and words and all of it – so that we can experience God when we are here.
But it’s not just for us. It’s for us and for others.
Jesus made this very clear. “You wouldn’t light a lamp just to put it under a basket,” he said (Matthew 5:15). “You put it on the lampstand so it lights the whole house.” This is why it’s so important that, at the end of the service, the acolytes don’t just stuff out our candles; they take some of that light out ahead of us. It’s a reminder that God’s presence isn’t just here, it’s out there. It’s a reminder that we, too, are to carry the light. Whatever we felt of God here is intended to be brought out there, to shine brightly. If we left and acted just the same, kept God’s light and love to ourselves, it would be as ludicrous as lighting a candle and then putting it under a basket.
Back in my college days, when I was spending more time speculating about the eternal flame than listening to the new pastor’s sermons, I wasn’t completely wasting my time; those are good questions to ask. There’s a “why” behind a lot of things we do in church, and many of the answers are meaningful. If I had asked that pastor why he hung that eternal flame, I bet he’d say something like:
To remind us that God is always with us.
God never goes out; God never dies.
Do you know that? Do you believe that?
God is presence with us, all the time. God is Emmanuel – “God is with us.” If you know that, may you go and live that; shine God’s light and love in all you do.
* LORD in all caps in the Old Testament is the translation of God’s name.