The All-Consuming Fire
“…let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb.12:28-29)
After last week’s warning from Jesus that he came not to bring peace, but a sword, you might be wishing for a bit of comfort this week; but maybe church is not the place to feel comfortable, especially in light of today’s text from Hebrews. Not heard it before? I’m not surprised. Back in Sunday school they told you about the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd and how kind and good Jesus was. But today you get to hear a rather dark, threatening text like this one:
“You have not come to what may be touched; a blazing fire, darkness and gloom, a tempest, the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg it to be silent.” (Heb.12:18-19)
Not exactly something to feed the tots in Sunday School, heh?
“For they couldn’t endure the order, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it will die.’” It was so scary that even a big man like Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” (Heb.12:20-21)
The reference is, of course, to Mt. Sinai, the holy mountain of God where, the Bible tells us, Moses went to meet God and receive the commandments. We are told that “God’s voice shook the earth then,” so we might be wise to pay attention now.
I daresay an earth-shaking God is not a common experience of modern people. We build our churches like great carpeted lounge rooms where every hard edge is cushioned, including the sharp edges of Scripture. Earth-moving is left to construction workers, not timid little preachers, and so, mostly, we don’t get moved. As I have said before, Church is where people come to hide from God.
So effectively do we hide from God here that usually we go out of church no different than when we entered, once again assured that God is silent or, if not silent, at least speaking in a voice that sounds like our own. These days clergy are relegated to the ‘helping professions,’ chaplains to the occasionally-afflicted affluent, reassurers of the status quo, affirmers of things as they are. The earth is not shaken.
This is nothing new, of course. Even in the time of Moses, there were those who made God – the earth-shaking, fire-filled God – into a neighbourhood pal. While Moses was lost on the mountain, trying to listen to God without being blown away, there were others down in the valley, constructing a God of their own liking.
“What’s the use of religion if it doesn’t make you feel better?” they reasoned. They devised gods in their own image; gods cut down to their own size, speaking in their voices.
How different to the warning from the writer to the Hebrews: “See that you do not refuse the one who speaks. Our God is a consuming fire.”
Yet in so many churches today, you get a message that goes something like this: “Friends, are you lonely? Is there a little something missing in your life? Would you like to have peace, joy, love, self-fulfilment, happiness, good health, good times? Then come to Jesus.”
God as a good friend; Jesus as a handy therapist. Philosopher Ernst Feurbach charged that religion is nothing more than a projection of our own ego needs, i.e., we make God , because we need gods. So we take every virtue we wish we had, every desire we wish to be fulfilled, and project that as God. Feurbach’s charge becomes more difficult to refute as Christianity is rendered into therapy, and religion is judged on the basis of its utility.
TV preachers promise to ‘make Jesus work for you,’ and some theologians have been known to rate biblical images up or down solely on the basis of their alleged therapeutic value or lack thereof. In other words, if the Bible’s word clashes with my experience or my needs (as I define my needs), then so much worse for the Bible. Not much shaking going on there. I don’t need to plug my ears to the words of a little god who talks just like me.
The foundation of a ‘Christian’ view of ethics or politics or anything else begins in worship; where the sometimes dark, passionate, scary, fiery, tempest of God collides with us mere mortals on a Sunday morning.
Some of the words we like to use, and can justly use to define the faith we follow are: loving, peaceful, caring, compassionate, forgiving, accepting. And these words are accurate much of the time, but today we hear about the darker side of the faith: the God who challenges, the God of the refining fire, the God who does not bear looking at, the God who shakes the very foundations of the earth and all who live upon it; the God who is not content with the status quo and who will not allow us to be content either.
“Our God is a consuming fire,” says the writer to the Hebrews. This God is a real God, not some pale, idolatrous projection of our ego. This is the God who, as in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, breaks apart families. This is the God who reduces people to tears, who drives some of them out of comfortable life styles into the jungles of Africa or the hills of New Guinea, who makes people feel guilty about their behaviour in a world that lives by the slogan, ’If it feels good, do it.’
When I was training for ministry, I was told that the task of the preacher is to close the gap between the Bible and modern world. The preacher is the one who stands in the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Some would say that, in 15 – 20 minutes, I’m supposed to close the gap between the old, outmoded, irrelevant world of the Bible and new, fresh modern world where you live, standing with one foot in the old Bible and the other foot planted in the modern world.
But whenever we do that, the traffic inevitably moves in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It’s always the modern world telling the Bible what The Word means. We take out modern questions and then search the Bible for acceptable answers. Sure, the modern world gave us Einsteir, modern telecommunications and computers, but it also gave us Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Rawanda. This is the modern world to which I am supposed to make the Bible credible? Hardly!
No, my job is to make the modern world credible to the Bible; to dare you to listen to this troublesome voice more than to your own; to open up the gap between you and God, rather than to close it, because it’s in the gaps, in the great big, threatening, dark, open spaces that you can be free to roam and envision, dream dreams, hear a new word, see a new world. Come to the kingdom that cannot be shaken. (Heb.12:28)
There is a story about a seminary student who approached the great theologian, Paul Tillich, after Tillich had just lectured on the authority of Scripture. The student, clutching a large, black, leather-bound Bible, shouted, “Do you believe this is the Word of God?” Tillich looked at the student’s fingers tightly gripping the book. “Not if you think you can grasp it,” answered the theologian. “Only when the Bible grasps you.”
“Thus let us offer God acceptable worship, with fear and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”