10/24/21 “To Close to the Fire” Is. 6:1-5, Heb. 12:18-29
There is a classic biography of Martin Luther called Here I Stand. It tells of a young Luther in search of peace with God. He entered the priesthood and gave himself over to the discipline of the Augustinian order. After taking his vows, he was allowed to give Mass. The author recalls Luther’s fear in approaching the Lord’s Table for the first time as a priest. He says, “the terror of the Holy, the horror of the Infinitude smote him like a new lightning bolt, and only through a fearful restraint could he hold himself at the altar to the end.”The author observed that the secular idea of God in our age knows nothing of this kind of religion. In a way, Luther’s dread came from his boyhood image of a mean and vengeful God, the enemy of humanity is easily offended if sacred places were violated, or magical formulas were mispronounced. Luther had inherited the fear of the ancient Israel before the Ark of God’s presence; the God who inhabited the storm cloud by day and the fire by night in the story of Exodus. He was the God of Sinai into whose presence Moses could not enter with an unveiled face. Luther was like Moses before the burning bush. He was on holy ground that required acts of submission, like taking off his shoes and having an attitude of listening to the Word of God. Luther debated with Desiderius Erasmus and told him, “Your thoughts of God are too human.” Regardless of our theological background or educational status, we are all like Erasmus. Our thoughts of God are restricted by our own finite faculties. That is why we must always seek the Holy Spirit’s help in expanding our view of God (Jn. 16:13).
The bible tells us we are to worship God in the splendor of holiness. We don’t switch gods when we turn the pages of our Bibles from the OT to the NT. The word of the gospel in every generation is a call to worship the Holy God revealed to us in the word of Scripture, from the Word of God in creation to the Word became flesh in Christ. We dare not forsake the experience of reverence and awe before God, repeated throughout the story of Israel. When Isaiah went to the temple to pray at the death of King Uzziah, his vision of God was accompanied by the chorus of angels singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.” He bowed down because he understood the contrast between his own sinful nature and the holiness of God: he said, “I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Now the entire book of Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians, calling them out of the past and into the new covenant with God in Christ. The problem in Hebrews is with a people who refuse to move forward. It is a call to go with Abraham on the journey of faith, to risk all to follow Christ. Although the contrast between the covenants is real, the connection is also essential. The OT is the foundation for understanding the gospel, and we are at a loss to fathom the depths of faith without an understanding of the journey of the saints who have gone before us—saints like Abraham, Sarah, and Moses. So, we are led to visit two critical mountains in the Jewish journey, those being Sinai and Zion. We are reminded by the text, “You have not come to something that can be touched.” Not only the people but Moses was terrified at the presence of God on the mountain. Whatever else God was to the Jews, God was holy.
This passage of Hebrews to me is a work of an artist. How vivid is the description that is given? “For 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 that made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” These are the symbols of God before he wears a human face. And they still have validity. The God of all creation—how can you conceive him except in terms of awful majesty?
Just stand alone some night under the stars and contemplate their vastness; or think of how the laws of nature work so perfectly; or to be subdued by the fury of a storm; or watch a sunset or be humbled at the sight of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. Can we say like Job: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see you” (Job 42:5)? Seeing with the eyes changes fears into humility and praises.
We are all afraid of something. They say fear is mostly in our mind’s eye. Until we confront our fears, fears hold us. A lot of people are afraid of heights for example. Not me, I’m afraid of widths! A friend of min who lived in New York City had a gazillion locks on her door, actually six. These locks were all in a neat row. She said when she left her apartment to go out, she locked every other one. She figured no matter how long somebody stood there picking her locks, they were always locking three. Fear makes us do odd things and think even odder things.
For example: One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” was the answer. “Didn’t plant none. Fraid of the boll weevil.” “Well, how’s your corn?” “Didn’t plant none. “Fraid of drought.” “How’s your potatoes?” “Ain’t got none. Scart of tater bugs.” The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant.” “Nothin’,” said the farmer. “I just played it safe.”
A homiletics, of preaching professor of mine tried to get across to our class that we were handling fire in the ministry of worship. We are standing on holy ground. We are charged with the responsibility of the Word of God for our time of worship on Sunday morning. I myself, like my professor before me, understands that when we reach for the doorknob to enter the sanctuary of worship there is a certain sense of fear. Why? Because it’s Holy Ground!
We should understand worshipping is also a celebration. In stark contrast with the dread and fear of Sinai, we are called to Mt. Zion, to the festal gathering of the heavenly Jerusalem, to a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The author of Hebrew (4:16) had already issued the call to boldness: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The gospel of grace is an open door before the holy God. Through Christ we are encouraged to approach God not because of our merit or achievement, but because Christ has led the way. We have a high priest who intercedes before this holy God and who has revealed for all time that God’s holiness is wrapped in “love divine, all loves excelling.”
The Hebrew Christians were reminded that the celebration of God is also rooted in Jewish experience. The trip to Jerusalem for the great Jewish festivals was like a family vacation. In the Psalms, approaching the temple, the dwelling place of God, was a call to exuberant joy: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” (100) We are called out of the gloom and darkness of Sinai into a celebration of joy in Jerusalem. Every experience in worship ought to be a call to joy in the God of our salvation. Every prayer ought to contain the word of thanksgiving and praise to the God of every good gift. To be worshipping, our gathering as church must always include praise to God.
As a child, I had trouble with being quiet anytime, especially in church. Can you imagine that? Life was about fun and games, and the serious stuff of church did not meet me where I lived. I was in serious trouble more than once for wiggling when I was supposed to be still or talking when I was supposed to be quiet. Of course, these were problems I had in school as well as the church. Being serious just didn’t fit my agenda, and I welcomed the idea that came to me in my teens that church is a place of joy, and worship and celebration. We never want to communicate to our children that God is all gloom and doom or that worship is terror. Reverence before God is far from a negative spirit. God has my full attention. Does He have yours?
Worship is more than a celebration, too. We are called to “offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” With maturity comes the realization that we do not live on mountaintops of perpetual song and dance. The call of reverence in worship acknowledges that “God is a consuming fire.” The very nature of God calls for reverence. The popular reference in song to “the man upstairs” just does not fit with the holy God of either Sinai or Zion. All worship must recognize the nature of God beyond the stretch of our highest imagination.
There was a pastor in Pensacola, FL who succeeded in providing what many church members cherish most: a guarantee to be dismissed by noon. In fact, you can be home by noon. He created the “Compact Mini 22-minute sermon. In just 1,320 seconds, he delivers and eight-minute sermon, leads in the singing of one hymn, read scripture and has a prayer. His logic is, “Its for people whose parents made them go to church all their lives and they thought they had all the church they could stand. Or, it’s a good entry-level church for people to see if they take religion in smaller doses.” Now this may be a creative way to reach the unchurched, but I fear it is the dream of too many who are already in the church.
If God is God, then we find ourselves, with Moses, removing our shoes before the burning bush and, with Isaiah, acknowledging that we are among the people of unclean lips. Reverence has nothing to do with self-hatred or flight from the presence of God. Reverence is the call to be stunned and awed before the splendor of God’s holy nature.
The text goes on to say, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens…in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.” This principle is as broad as human experience and divine providence. You see all of us grow attached to incidental things; in fact, we get so attached to things and stuff that almost without knowing it, we begin putting first importance to such trivial things. Then the shaking comes. It may be a fire that destroys our church building and all the details go up in flames. Or it may be a sudden demand to have to move or get a new job that leaves you bewildered. Its easy for us to be lulled into a sense of false security. We attach our affections to the wrong places, the temporal. Our scheme of values gets distorted by our resistance to change and our love for comfort. The shaking is no pleasant process. But it seems to be the only way God can loosen us from our confidence of feeble devices and bring us face to face once more with the realities that cannot be shaken.
Therefore, let us be grateful. Thanking is the most complete form of thought. To have faith in God means clearing the mind of lesser attachments, to be willing even to let goods and kindred go, and to be grateful that God has given us a place in a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
The nature of life calls us to reverence. Life is more than a celebration. All of us have been involved in intercessory prayer. Sometimes this can be a roller coaster of emotions as we have prayed for the people left devastated by hurricanes or flood or tornados. Most of you can not forget what the tornado did to Washington and your homes. Before that we could not imagine the sheer terror and the stunned joy experienced by the outreach of other churches and organizations who pledged to help and support until you could get back on your feet. This is what the church is all about. Each time we see the news and images of devastation, we ourselves are moved to an inward sickness of what has happened to humanity there. Yet, when we get a glimpse of the child being rescued, an old man being saved from near drowning, or animals being rescued or the animals left behind, something happens to us far greater than what happened on that day when Katrina hit landfall, or the planes that struck the twin towers. In the middle of all the ugly stuff of ruin God is at work. That’s what it means to be a church. We learn to approach God with reverence and awe of what he had done in our past and what he is doing right now. More than experiencing healing, we can have a life-changing experience of the holy presence of a loving God in the here and now. If you feel you are getting too close to the fire, do not fear, for you are on holy ground.
Our God is a consuming fire. “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” A direct quote from Duet. 4:24. I think it is pretty pathetic that people turn away from this verse but would rather turn to a loving Father of the gospels as if there ever could be a love that was not at the same time a consuming fire. If this fire were to die out, love would die with it. No human love is worth having unless it burns like a flame. If God were not a consuming fire, our salvation would be impossible. When we seek a better world, a more just economic order of things, a more democratic society, a more decent international order then our hope is the consuming fire that is God.
Zion and Sinai are an eternity apart: one is the mountain of the new covenant and the other is the old. Its true, like Sinai, Zion has fire and shaking, but under the new covenant these experiences are transformed. Under the old order fires and earthquakes are destroyers, burning up everything in their paths and shaking down all things that were once stable. Under the new covenant, though, God shakes the heavens and earth like an antique collector shakes the dust off an old statue to get rid of everything that hides and defaces the beauty that the sculptor intended. In Zion, God shakes not to destroy but to preserve, “so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” In Zion God is a consuming fire: not a wildfire burning out of control, but a refiner’s fire, purifying and preserving the righteous, the fire that at the end of the ages burns up all causes of sin. Indeed, God is a consuming fire. He is in the business of restoring.
In a remote Swiss village stood a beautiful church. It was so beautiful in fact, that it was known as the Mountain Valley Cathedral. It was not only beautiful to look at with its magnificent stained-glass windows—but it had the most beautiful pipe organ in the whole region. But there was a problem. The beautiful columns were still there, the window still there, but there was an eerie silence. The mountain valley not long echoed the glorious, fine-tuned music of the pipe organ. Something had gone wrong with it. Musicians and experts from around the world tried to repair it. Every time a new person tried to fix it the village was subjected to sounds of disharmony—awful penetrating noises which polluted the air.
One day an old man appeared at the church door. He spoke with the sexton and after a time he was allowed to try his hand at repairing the organ. For two days the old man worked in almost total silence. The sexton was getting nervous. Then on the third day at high noon—the mountain valley once again was filled with glorious music. Farmers dropped their plows; merchants closed their stores—everyone in town stopped what they were doing and headed for the church.
After the old man had finished his playing, a brave soul asked he how he could have fixed the organ, how could he restore this magnificent instrument when even the world’s experts could not. The old man merely said, “It was an inside job. It was I who built this organ fifty years ago. I created it—and now I have restored it.”
That is what God is like. It is He who created the universe, and it is He who can, and will, and is in the process of restoring it. We may have to take our shoes off and approach the fire, yet we should not be afraid of the Creator and what He can do.
Now, should we sing the doxology or hide under the pews? You must decide whether to shrink back or have faith. Whether to drop fearfully and wearily away from the smoke and noise of the holy mountain, or to hold fast to our confession and approach the throne of grace with boldness. Our God is a consuming fire. These are words of hope and promise of holy and saving grace. All praise and thanksgiving be to God!
Invocation: Spirit of holiness and peace. Search our motives; try the secret places of our souls; lead us in the way of the everlasting. Take possession of our souls that they may be one with you to live in perfect harmony in holiness and health. Inspire us today with new resolve, keep us blameless in body, soul and spirit now and forever and let your light fill our hearts more and more, until we become children of the light of your consuming fire. In Christ we pray. Amen
Morning Prayer: Father of us all, we rejoice that at last we are here in your presence to worship and praise you. We are glad that we are no longer slaves of fear, but come as children trustful and happy, to you the God of love. Today we pray for growth of our spiritual vision, that with the passing years we may enter into the fullness of this our faith. We give you praise and thanksgiving for sustaining our lives thus far, for your leading and mercy. Reveal to us the larger goodness and love that speaks through the unbending laws of your covenant. We praise you for your Son Jesus Christ, whose life has revealed to us an unshakable faith and law, and we rejoice that He is first among us. Today we pray for one another. May we seek out those who are in need and care for them as you would have us to do. For those who are lonely and afraid, may they have a sense of your comforting presence. Comfort those who are sick and hurting and free them from fear in knowing your healing grace. In these days may we grow closer together as a family of God no matter our differences. Teach us to consider the things that are really important in our lives. Consume us with the fire of your love that we might be the people you have called us to be, through Christ Jesus our Lord who taught us to pray, Our Father…