“...for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
Year C Proper 16
Isaiah 28: 14-22
Hebrews 12: 18-19; 22-29
August 26, 2007
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
(The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot)
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of living in a seminary community (actually I live in two: Church Divinity School and the School for Deacons) is hearing sermons on a daily basis. Over twenty years I have heard many and preached a few. For most, the theme was some nonjudgmental aspect of the love of God, and in a very few the theme was our love of God. They all meant well, I am sure, but somehow God always came off as being too tame. But on a cold January afternoon I sat in Westminster Abbey at Evensong and heard Canon-in-Residence Collin Semper preach on this very text from the Letter to the Hebrews:
For God is a consuming fire.
No, it was not in any way a “fire and Brimstone” sermon. In fact, Canon Semper’s voice was both quiet and emphatic and his sermon touched me to the core.1 And in case you are wondering--no, you won’t hear a “Fire and Brimstone” sermon from me, either--well, at least not ultimately.
For God is a consuming fire.
Why did you come here? Because you wanted to, or because you felt you had to? Did you come because you love God or because you need to experience the love of God? Did you come because you love the beautiful language of Rite I or the Renaissance music we are doing and hearing today? I do. Did you come because you are searching? Perhaps because you are worried about the present divisions in the Church or in the world (I am) or about the future? Did you come in brokenness and wanting healing? Canon Semper made the surprising statement: that it is “precisely why we have come to church--because our God is a consuming fire.”
Yes, we come searching, broken and--if we come in the right way, wanting to present ourselves as we are and as best we can to God. But then we are startled by the ‘Consuming Fire”! We encounter the presence of God in a prayer, a hymn, a reading or even a sermon and hear our name in it! And that’s only the beginning...
For God is a consuming fire.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Scripture has used Fire as denoting the presence of God. Whether that Presence is benign or not depends upon the circumstances, and upon whether those involved intended a closer relationship to God or were fleeing in fear. Consider these examples:
Moses noticed the bush with flame coming from it and
turned toward it and encountered the living God. “Come no
closer!” said God. “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the
place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses hid
his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3: 4-6)
From this benign yet terrifying meeting came the story of the Exodus--the very story we hear at the Great Vigil of Easter huddled around the Paschal Candle, lighting the room with our little candles... Or consider these:
In Leviticus, God accepts burnt-offerings and sacrifices, and what is left is to be “consumed by fire”. (Lev. 19:6)
In Advent we hear that God will come
“like a refiner’s fire... and he will purify the descendants
of Levi...until they present offerings to the Lord in
Righteousness.” (Malachi 3: 2ff)
Just last week we heard the words of an impatient Jesus:
I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I
wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)
We celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit appeared over the heads of the Apostles as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3)
And in the book of Revelation we hear about the seven flaming torches which surround the throne of God... Rev. (Ch. 4) and of how all evil will one day be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 21: 8) and there will be new heavens and a new earth--the heavenly Jerusalem, where “the glory of God is its light, and the lamp is the Lamb--the final redeeming of fire. (Rev. 21:23)
And saints down through the centuries have encountered God the consuming fire in the experience of contemplative prayer. A Renaissance saint, Teresa of Avila, wrote this:
“The fire of divine love is more quickly enkindled
when we blow a little with our intellects. Since
we are close to the fire, a little spark will ignite
and set everything ablaze. Because there is
no impediment from outside, the soul is alone
with its God; it is well prepared for this enkindling.
[I would like you to understand clearly this manner
of prayer, which, as I have said, is called recollection.]
(The Interior Castle, Chapter 28)
Now if we admit that we come to Church as we are to encounter the living God, we must move on to a harder question: Why do we stay? In the face of the issues of human sexuality dividing our church, some have decided to leave and for the rest of us it could seem a tempting escape. But that issue is, for some, a cover for other issues. Some, on the conservative end, are still arguing still over the ordination of women and the Prayer Book. Others, on the liberal end, argue over inclusive language or the necessity of baptism or the irrelevance of the parts of the Bible they don’t like--perhaps including today’s lesson from Hebrews! We may have no choice, given the possibility (though not likely) that the Episcopal Church in the United States might be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. In the end, these issues--all of them--pale before God the consuming fire. But let us not panic! How can we find the courage to to stay?
Consider the reasons why folks leave. Either the Church is:
1) too conservative (THEM)
2) too liberal (US) OR
3) our spiritual life has gone flat (ALL OF US)
Which brings us back again to our reading from Hebrews. This letter was written very early--before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.--to encourage Jewish Christians not to abandon their new-found faith in Jesus. In addition to arguments from the Hebrew Scriptures they knew, St. Paul (or more probably a student of St. Paul) warns them that they do not come to worship “something that can be touched”, but to nothing less than the “heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering...and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant. ( Hebrews 12: 23-24) The warning continues: See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking to you...
For God is a consuming fire.
The real question is not the whether the Church is too conservative, too liberal, or just not meeting our needs. It is whether we are ready and willing to recognize the presence of God in recollection, as St. Teresa says, and in community. We are in the Church because it is the Body of Christ, and the Word of God is a consuming fire because if we hear it, it either challenges or frightens us. If we don’t hear it, something is blocking it and we need to allow the Holy Spirit’s fire to burn away those things which are blocking it. We must do this because if we flee from it, then the Word of God will indeed consume us in a more destructive way.
But this is not the end of the story. On the other side of for God is a consuming fire, the author of Hebrews goes on to say this:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality
to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels
without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison...Let
marriage be held in honor... Keep your lives free from the
love of money and be content with what you have... Remember
your leaders... [And finally]-- Jesus Christ is the same
yesterday, today and forever.
The surprise is that the author of Hebrews says that the fruits of an encounter with God the consuming fire--for those who intend a closer relationship with God--are not fear and death and destruction, but love, hospitality, intercessory prayer, community life (summarized by, but not limited to marriage)--all the things we do when we come together for worship that prepare us for the moment of Communion--when, as St. Augustine says, in receiving the very life of Jesus, we become who we truly are: the Body of Christ. Here, in the consuming of bread and wine-become-Jesus, is the place where we most closely encounter God the consuming fire.
Where is the Good News in all this? If we come to God honestly, not afraid to bring whatever we have: our searching, our longing, our brokenness, our love--then we can have the courage (by God’s grace) to remain in the presence of God the consuming fire and be transformed by it into the Body of Christ. Therefore, says the Letter to the Hebrews:
... since we are receiving a kingdom which 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.
Let us pray:
Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful people
and kindle in us the fire of your love;
Send forth your breath and we shall be created
and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.