THE BOOK OF HEBREWS: CONSUMING FIRE
Hebrews 12: 18-29
People in the Old Testament, people in the New Testament, people through the ages, and people in our days have often wanted to get close to God. They have different ways for trying to achieve it, but each way is driven by a desire to connect with the Holy One. Around the time I felt called to the ministry, I, like Jeremiah the prophet, “was only a youth.” I was not quite 19 years old, and Mary Ann and I were on the campus of our college, DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, a small Methodist college. Mary Ann had a sorority sister who was deeply committed to Campus Crusade for Christ. During the spring of my freshman year, she suggested that one Friday night that we get up early the next morning, meet in the college chapel (which was left open and unlocked in those days) and have a morning prayer and praise service, just the three of us. We agreed. They went back to their sorority and I went back to my fraternity. Saturday morning came much too soon, and on top of it being Saturday, it was raining-the kind of morning when you just want to stay in bed! But I had promised to join them so I threw on my clothes and grabbed my umbrella. The chapel was about 4 blocks away, and certainly as God saw our campus that morning, not another creature was stirring outdoors; just three umbrellas moved along the sidewalks toward the chapel. We arrived around the same time, took off our jackets, and sat in the silence. Perhaps we could have felt the presence of God if we met somewhere else, but the chapel was conducive to a holy connection. There was a table, and there were pews; there were hymnbooks and song sheets and Bibles and candles; and there were windows where we could see the rain striking them and running down the glass. At times we held hands; at times we prayed for one another; and at times we sang; we enjoyed the singing especially. We were in the chapel to start our Saturday with God (even though we each also went to church on Sundays). As we uttered our last prayer, we had failed to notice the quiet that had set in. The rain had stopped. Have most of you seen the MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz?” You will probably never forget your delight when the black and white or sepia tone of the movie up until the time that the cyclone drops Dorothy’s house back to the ground, dramatically changed to glorious Technicolor as Dorothy opens the door and sees Munchkin land! Well, when we opened the door of the chapel, the rain had stopped, and the grey morning had changed. Somewhere in the distance it must have still have been raining, because framed in the doorway was a glorious Technicolor rainbow! It seemed like God showed some Heavenly gladness for what we had just done! I’ll never forget it! The prophet Isaiah implored his listeners to “Seek ye that Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55) Seeking the Lord is not just a first Century or a 4th century event. People in our day, some of whom say they are “spiritual” instead of “religious,” seek the Lord. They have been burnt, or hurt, or jaded by a church leader or church member at some place or time and have forgotten that a church is not a shrine for saints it’s a hospital for sinners. We are all trying to get better in some way. But even “spiritual” people try Christian rituals and or non-Christian tools like crystals, psychics, Eastern Religions, Transcendental Meditation, and to try to find that special Holy presence. I believe, in this world of technology, that sometimes people are looking for a place that invites them to hear the voice of or feel the presence of God. To that end during office hours beginning in September if you want to stop into the sanctuary or the chapel to move into prayer with God for a few minutes, you will be welcome. We hope this facility may help people grow in their connection with God.
Today the writer of Hebrews reminds us first how Jews traditionally came closer to God; then second, the writer describes how Christians try to get closer to God as well. Perhaps one or both of the ways will invite you to also seek the Lord.
We know that for the Jewish way of thinking, God was found on mountains covered with smoke and/or fire. Such encounters with God were called “Theophanies” and in such times there was awe, wonder, and even fear. For Jews there were two pinnacle mountains: One was Mount Sinai, also called Mount Horeb. It was on top of that mountain that Moses got the Ten Commandments from God. Like the brightness of the sun I described to the children, Moses was not allowed to look into the face of God; the sheer brightness might have blinded him, and to disobey God’s order not to look at the holy face would have had catastrophic consequences. This is the first primary mountain of God for Jews. A second primary mountain for Jews was Mount Moriah where Abraham passed God’s faithfulness test. By Abraham’s faithfulness, that place became so cherished that the Temple of God was erected on that spot that, later became Jerusalem. So when Matthew, in his gospel, wanted the people to believe that what Jesus was about to say was a new message from God (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven) Matthew introduced the sermon with these words:”Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them.” The place where Jesus said those words is no mountain geographically! We’ll see it next summer on our Holy Land trip. It is a gentle sloping shoreline. But theologically it was a mountain! God was doing a new thing through Jesus!
In John’s gospel, he interpreted Jesus’ words as being theological as well, not literal. Jesus said: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was moving people away from believing they could only worship God in one place. Instead, he believed that places conducive to prayer let us get in touch with God who now lived in the temples of their hearts. While we believe God is everywhere, when invited, God will make a p
articular home in your heart. You will not find God in this sanctuary or in our chapel or anywhere else unless you are willing to invite the Lord Jesus into your heart and be open to hearing God speak to you, even in a still small voice. In our Letter to the Hebrews, the readers were being reminded of the awe, the wonder, and even the fear that they once had when they approached God. This letter, contained in our New Testament as a Christian document, implores us to hold fast to reverence and awe when it comes to God, rather than treating the Almighty as some friend who just kicks a can down the roads of life with us. In Jesus, God certainly knows mortality and gets close to us, but God is more than mortality. So the writer says, remembering Sinai; “You have not come to what may be touched; a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom.” That is what surrounded Mount Sinai when Moses got the Commandments. And whenever royalty is in our midst, a trumpet or shofar sounds, so the writer describes hearing a trumpet in chapter 12, verse 18. To create even more awe, there is a warning to that any living creature not directed by God to climb up and meet the holy presence, should keep away. There is a difference between ground, and holy ground. Even a burning bush was holy ground at one point. Youth who have tried to honor God’s holiness in a retreat might place candles up in a front area or in the center of a circle; additionally they might take off their shoes and even kneel. It is good to feel holy ground now and then, to differentiate it from common ground.
In verse 21: Moses, a spiritual leader, said as he approached the top of the mountain of God: “I tremble with fear.” If you have been in the presence of holiness, you will know it. You might get chills, you might speak in tongues, you might tremble with fear, or you might bow your head. Holiness is a good balance to humanness. The writer of Hebrews then takes us to a theological mountain: this time it is Mount Zion, and to the city of the Living God. Some say that Mount Zion is Jerusalem, but it is clear that this writer is peering behind a curtain at a vision of the “New Jerusalem.” He offers homage to “The Heavenly Jerusalem and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of first born (another name for angels) who are enrolled in heaven, and to the judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the just who have been made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. (Abel’s blood cried for vengeance, and some in the world still shed blood for vengeance. Jesus had a different way, by his blood we are part of a new promise that this writer calls the New Covenant.) A Jew would understand the symbolism of these words; after all, it is a Christian letter to Hebrews. But we, if we have the eyes to see and the lexicon to understand the connections, can understand the message too.
Today we are invited to return not to a vengeful God, but to an awesome God. The writer concludes this section by saying: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” Yes, even Jesus believed the kingdom was not later; the kingdom was breaking in now, and it was part of the role of his followers to demonstrate kingdom ways and to honor God with them. Then the writer concludes not with a threat, but with a remembrance in a world filled with many false gods, many false belief systems, and many false prophets: he theologically returns his readers to the mountain, the holy mountain where both Moses came close to God and Jesus manifested God. The writer concludes with these words: “Thus, let us offer to God acceptable worship (how many gatherings pass for worship in our day?) with reverence and awe (that’s the feeling of being at the mountain and then he says words that judge sins and comforts faith sojourners like us: “for our God is a consuming fire.” Those are protective words to the faithful, and only fearful words to the faithless. If I’m going through any valleys of the shadow of death or evil, I want to know that I have a God like that beside me, within me, and ever pulling for me. May our immortal and invisible God protect and defend you on your darkest days as well.
Jeffrey A. SumnerAugust 25, 2013