All Saints by the Lake, Dorval
August 21, 2022
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. … 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.
This passage from the letter to the Hebrews follows on from those we heard over the past two weeks, which are some of my favourite parts of Scripture: beginning “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” and continuing with the long list of all the faithful people of ages past, and summarized in verses 13-16 of chapter 11:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
And in today’s passage, we have the writer of Hebrews’ vision of that city. She contrasts the terror of the encounter with God on Mount Sinai (which is never named, but the description clearly echoes that scene in Exodus), with the joys that await the faithful in the new Zion, revealed by the resurrection of Jesus. (Please note that this is not intended to denigrate Jews by comparison with Christians; the writer of Hebrews was almost certainly Jewish, and I use the pronoun “she” for her because I’m charmed by the suggestion that the writer was Priscilla, Paul’s coworker in Corinth and Rome.)
This vision of God’s city is compelling: angels in festal gathering, the spirits of the righteous made perfect, the very presence of Jesus. Yet there is still a double consciousness present here. Throughout the larger passage, the writer has both lauded the faithful acts of faithful people throughout history, and warned her audience not to fail in their duty to claim that inheritance. Here, she warns of terrible consequences “if we reject the one who warns from heaven.” The promise is sure, and yet it is still possible to lose hold of it. And the passage concludes with the alarming words, “indeed, our God is a consuming fire.” Apparently, even in the glorious vision of the new Jerusalem, there is still an element of the terrifying God of Sinai.
How can God be loving and merciful, and also be a consuming fire? Well, in the same way that fire itself can warm and light, as well as kill and destroy – and also purify, which is often the principal meaning when fire is referenced in the Bible. (Think of the passage from Malachi, familiar to most of us from Handel’s “Messiah” – “For he is like a refiner’s fire.”) The consuming fire of God is also a purifying fire, purging away everything in our lives that does not bring us closer to God. If we cooperate with that effort, then the fire is welcome – even if the purging is painful, we know that we will come out of it cleaner and stronger. If we resist – if we don’t actually want to work with God to draw closer to God, to get rid of everything holding us back? Well, to use the words of Judas Iscariot in The Man Born to Be King: “Do you know what hell-fire is? It is the light of God’s unbearable innocence that sears and shrivels you like flame. It shows you what you are.”
All the people of faith whom the letter to the Hebrews praises in chapters 11 and 12 – Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets – were people of faith precisely because they engaged, with God, in this process of stripping away everything other than God’s purposes for their lives. They did it incompletely and imperfectly, because they were human. They were probably scared a lot of the time. But they did it, and they came through the consuming fire strengthened and purified.
I can’t help thinking that we are all, collectively, in the middle of an episode of consuming fire right now. The trials and tragedies of the last two and a half (!!) years are certainly revealing to us not only a lot of things about ourselves, but a lot of things about our communities, our societies, and our world. How we respond to stress; how we relate to each other; whose lives are valued and whose needs are ignored; what actually gets prioritized when the chips are down.
When we think of God as a consuming fire, we probably, like Judas, first think of hellfire (or purgatory, if that’s your thing) – a purification that takes place after this life in an otherworldly realm. But the best place to begin that purification, to start letting go of the stuff that’s not useful or helpful for you, is right here.
Many of our experiences in life have the potential to make us bitter, hardened people. But they don’t have to. We can choose instead to see those time of challenge and suffering as part of God’s consuming – and refining – fire, inviting us to sit with our own pain, welcome it, understand it, breathe through it, and let it go, taking with it those things that separate us from God.
We can experience God as “blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest” or we can experience God as the joyful Jerusalem. God is the same regardless, and always desires every possible blessing for us, culminating in that “better country” that awaits us, the heavenly Jerusalem.
And yet, if we accept and embrace the consuming fire, if we let it purge away our dross and bring us closer to God, we don’t have to wait for the heavenly Jerusalem to begin to see God’s kingdom of healing and blessing and love breaking out all around us. We will see foretastes of the heavenly country right here on earth.
If something is hurting for you right now, does it change anything to see that hurt as part of a consuming fire that will cleanse you of what needs to be cleansed and make you stronger and more whole?
And if you see glimpses around you – not just in the world to come – of the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and innumerable angels in festal gathering, and … the spirits of the righteous made perfect – how can you share that joy and vision with the rest of the world that lives in fear of the consuming fire?
It’s good to be back, my friends. Let’s figure it out together.
Leave a Reply