Hebrews 12: 18-29
If ever there was a passage that I really wanted to skip over or not preach from it would be this one, the one that is prescribed in the lectionary for today. It’s confusing, it’s scary, you know it’s not one likely you’d have a cutsy little plaque made to lovingly hang in your living room or kitchen or bedroom. I almost scraped it a couple of times.
I did have a good sermon in the hopper all prepared that I preached a few years ago on one of the other lectionary texts but since I had committed to preaching a mini-series on Hebrews I wanted to keep my end of the bargain. So let’s share this adventure together because the Bible is not an instruction manual but an invitation to dialogue!
The Book of Hebrews is an extended sermon or treatise probably written before the end of the first century. Like I mentioned last week we’re not exactly sure who wrote Hebrews but you can be sure that the author regards the addressee’s as Christians in danger of falling away from their faith. He wants to reenergize them and get them excited again about their salvation in Jesus Christ.
Let’s begin, Hebrews, the 12th chapter….
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. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”)
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, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
When we pull this passage apart we essentially would have two scenes, one from Mount Sinai and the other from Mount Zion. Then you have a third scene, which is a strong warning against losing faith and keeping pure faith.
It’s terrifying. Even Moses, bold leader of the Israelites, says ‘I tremble with fear’. This is an encounter with God on Mount Sinai after they had wandered for a very long time. It was an encounter with the God of righteousness, of holiness, and judgment – thunder and lightning, thick clouds, blasting trumpets. Ei yi yi! Some ancient prophet must have witnessed a volcano erupting or an earthquake shaking their world and attributed this frightening activity to God. After all there was no such thing as a seismograph back then or understanding of natural science. Their cosmological view of the world was small compared to ours. You don’t get too close to Mount Sinai where God resided for fear of perishing. It is a theophany or God-sighting that inspires dread.
Frederick Borsch says “One has to love Annie Dillard’s admonition to the average churchgoer: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke?....It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.” [i][ii] It is this divine might and majesty that the author of Hebrews alludes to.
I told you this passage was an adventure waiting for dialogue! End of scene I.
So now we have a different scene. This scene also inspires a sense of wonder but in a different way. Here our majestic God is gracious, offering hospitality. And rather than Mount Sinai we are at the foot of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. It’s the age of the new covenant in a festal gathering. And present in all of his divine glory is Jesus and the righteous who lived in hope of this heavenly Jerusalem. They are jubilant with angels fluttering all around, it just seems light an airy to me compared to Scene I.
There is so much rejoicing, God is awesome and mighty and it engenders a vibrant promise of hope, of restoration and of trust. All should enthusiastically worship and give thanks. But we cannot ignore the third scene of this passage for in the third scene we understand the connection between the two previous scenes. Just as we are about to go the party on Zion the tone changes and we are given a warning.
Before we move on though one thing we need to be very clear here is that God is not bi-polar. There is not one God of the Old Testament and another God for the New Testament so please do not go down that road of thinking. It is dishonorable to think that the New Testament’s God of grace has replaced a ‘God of wrath’ in the Old Testament. God is God. One God. In the Old Testament you’ll see that God loves and redeems and you’ll see in the New Testament that God loves and redeems. It’s just in different ways. And, the fact is in both Testaments we find a God of consuming fire. So, one God. Moving on.
Here in the final scene we find that indeed God’s justice and judgment must be included in God’s love. The wrongs of our lives are still to be judged by our God of love and mercy and we see the consuming fire return. So the God of the New Testament has some rough edges too and this is what connects the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. Love. Mercy. Judgment. Forgiveness.
But about that consuming fire, for us today we think of it as a means of punishment, we think of it as being scorched by the condemnation of God. If you think of it in those terms then yeah, there is something to be terribly afraid of because who likes to think of God in this way? Sometimes just aren’t exemplary Christians and I’m afraid that is human nature. A consuming fire would burn us to a crisp. And then what good are we? I would have been a burnt piece of toast years ago with no chance of scraping off the burnt part. Inedible for consumption.
But if you understand it in terms of the Biblical worldview a consuming fire is not torture, mayhem and burning but fire is purification. Fire is used to refine metals. Each Christmas when we listen to Handel’s Messiah we sing about refining, “But who may abide the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire and he shall purify the sons of Levi.” The refiners fire while initially is a scorching and desolate place to be in ultimately gives way to purification and wholeness. It readies our path, as Christians, for Christ himself.
A refiners fire does not destroy you, it does not consume you rather it purifies you, it melts down a silver or gold bar and separates out the impurities that are of no value and leaves all that is good. So I say bring on the fire! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every action we took, every thought we have, every word spoken was pure?
How would God’s fire make you different? If the refiner’s fire came today for you what impurities are there that would be separated out and consumed? I think that deep down within each of us we know our impurities, the ways in which we really aren’t the greatest of human beings and do not allow God’s love to guide us in all that we do and who we are. You know we come to church with this façade, that all is ok, that we’ve had a great week and lived up to every expectation that God asks of us. But I know that’s not the case. We know deep within that sometimes we are not at our best. We lie, little white ones, we cheat, just a little, or maybe we deceive with all the ‘best’ of intentions for their own good.
We all fall short. We are all in the same boat. We all come with impurities, with aches and pains, sorrow, sins, and sadness. But the moment when God’s consuming presence breaks into our lives, when that fire separates and consumes all of the impurities of no value then in our new way of being we will know fullness, acceptance and are embraced. WE are loved. This is the real self that God created – not our constructs. In that moment of purification our false self becomes like ashes and we are like a phoenix rising. Leave it to God to purify us for our own sake.
The consuming fire of God is God’s unavoidable mercy so let’s embrace it. Let’s worship our God for refining us, for cleansing us, for forgiving us, for accepting us, for saying you, beloved child of God, are forgiven.