Dr. Austin is Theologian-in-Residence for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
The feast of Saint Michael and All Angels brings much joy to many of us, for all sorts of reasons. May I begin with a personal reason? Susan, my late wife, and I deliberately chose this feast as the date for our marriage, some 41 years ago in Santa Fe. It fell on a Friday that year. Many people asked us, Why don’t you get married on Saturday? We replied, But that wouldn’t be the feast of St Michael! People named Michael, not to mention angels, were important to us.
I suppose we were putting our marriage under the protection of St Michael. Protection is an important role that angels play—Jesus refers to guardian angels—and the protection provided by angels is nothing to sneeze at. Sneeze at the devil if you wish; indeed, the devil has a smell that should bring to all healthy nostrils a violent sneeze. But don’t sneeze at angels. There are spiritual forces for good in this vast universe of God’s creating.
Our first child was named Michael. We often told him that his name, Mi-cha-el, means the question “Who is like God?” The name Michael thus points to the defending role that angels play, in particular, their protection against any who would claim to displace God. Who claims to be like God?—that’s Michael’s challenge, for no one can be like God. My wife and I would often remind our son about that question mark on his name. A “Michael” is not someone who is like God; a “Michael” is rather one who takes up God’s cause against anyone who would claim to be like God!
It is near impossible to understand why anyone would want to go against God, to usurp God’s place, to want to be like God, to be in the place of God, to be God—and yet it is the case, some people—and some angels—have opposed God from the beginning. Opposition to God goes back as far as we can see. The serpent, the snake in the garden, tempted our first parents with the thought that they could be “like God.” Some have suggested that he, the serpent, was upset by God’s infatuation with this bungling human being that he had made. He, the serpent, was the subtlest creature of God, he was the one who ought to be God’s favorite. And so to prove his importance, he insinuated to Eve (and through her, Adam) that they had in themselves the autonomy to declare what’s good and what’s evil. This is the usurpation of God: to take upon oneself to decide the meaning of things, to say: I can declare what’s good and what’s evil, I can define what’s right and wrong. This, of course, remains a live temptation today, for groups as well as for individuals. Many social practices and trends of thought presume to take God’s place, to define for themselves what’s good and evil.
But whenever we would try to push God aside and define for ourselves what’s right and wrong, we end up hurting people, ourselves and others. It is the job of angels to oppose all this; when angels battle God’s enemies they at the same time defend the goodness and dignity of every human being.
So angels protect; we could call that the guardian function, indeed, the “Michael” function. But they do much more. They also reveal things, and this is the “Gabriel” function. Gabriel appears to the virgin Mary and reveals to her that utterly unexpected thing God was prepared to do—to take human flesh in her womb. And more than that: he reveals to her that she can freely participate in that unexpected thing.
This revelatory role for angels, like everything about angels, goes back long before the New Testament. Here’s a case from the year, oh, about 1800 B.C., a story told in the book of Genesis.
A man is escaping from a messy situation; his brother has reason to take his life and the brute force to do so. The man comes to a certain place for the night, and in his sleep he dreams. In his dream the sky opens, and there’s a ladder, propped up from the earth into that opening in the sky. A connection exists, in this place, in his dream, between his life on this earth and the place where God dwells (which is what “heaven” means: heaven is a created “place” that God has made so that he can be close to his creation). In this dream God is up there in his place, heaven, but the communication between God and man is made visible: there is that ladder with the angels of God going up and down upon it. God speaks to this man in his dream, and confirms that he has a future. God will be “with” him and “keep” him into that future; despite the messiness and danger and forthcoming troubles and struggles, his life will never be cut off from the life of God.
It is an angelic revelation, and it shows how God is always close to us. There is that ladder, there are those angels: no matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, we have access to communication with God. We will never be cut off.
This is true for us—it’s not merely an ancient picture that might make us feel a little better—because Jesus is that ladder. This we know from the New Testament, from Saint John’s gospel. There is a man named Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree. His friend Philip finds him there, and urges him to come meet Jesus. When Nathaniel arrives, Jesus recognizes him, and calls him a man without guile. Nathaniel is perhaps flattered (who wouldn’t be?), but he doesn’t know how Jesus knows him. Jesus tells him: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” And Nathaniel believes. He calls Jesus the son of God and the king of Israel.
This, however, is not the end of it. Jesus then says, Thou shalt see greater things than these. . . . Ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
Jesus deliberately references Jacob’s dream. And the “you” in what he says—“ye shall see . . . angels . . . ascending and descending”—that “you” is plural. It starts out singular—thou, Nathaniel—then it turns plural. In Texas we say “y’all.” It means all the disciples. It means all those who hear this Gospel read through the centuries. It means you who are sitting here in pews on Beacon Hill in the city of Boston. For you to see: angels ascend and descend upon Jesus, who is Jacob’s ladder but not confined to that place where Jacob had his dream but is wherever the Holy Spirit is. Since Jesus’ gift to all who would receive him is the Holy Spirit, wherever you are there is this ladder, there is this communication; wherever you are, you are not cut off from God.
But don’t forget the preamble: “Thou shalt see greater things than these.”
This is the final role of angels that I will speak about today. Beyond protection (guardian, Michael), beyond revelation and communication with God (Gabriel, ladder), angels are God’s assurance to us our future is in his hands. I’m referring to things like this: We often look to the past with regret and to the present with fear of losing what we have. People we have loved dearly have died, and those we love dearly right now may be slipping away. The leaves here in Boston (and how glad I am to visit your fair city at this fine time!)—the leaves are just on the edge of turning; next month they will become brilliant colors, then they will fall, and after that, the darkness. You may be a baby with your whole life ahead of you: but what will that life be? You may be young and in the fullness of your life, but times are difficult and you wonder if you’ll get opportunities. Or you’re like me, a widower who with good health might still have a productive decade or two or even three. Or your own summer is coming to an end, and winter is closing in.
Friends! All these thoughts, these pictures, these worries—they are deceptions. They are wrong and delusional because they leave angels out of the picture! Remember Jesus’ words: Thou shalt see greater things than these. “Thou”—you individually, you Nathaniel, you, whatever your name is, you individually will see greater things. Each of us shall see—all of us shall see. Of course, cities pass away. We know empires fall. We’ve seen buildings crumble. And while we have time, we do our best to shore them up and perhaps improve them a bit. But when Boston (or Dallas) is as much an ancient memory as the Roman Empire, you, a creature of God made for eternity, you will still be alive; and if you are God’s friend, you will still be a creative, communicative creature, in love with God, in love with all those who love God, in that place of true communications, the angels continually ascending and descending.
Angels: they bring God’s protection to us, they are God’s communication with us, and they assure us that, for each one of us, there are still greater things to come.
The most profound spiritual truths are often best described in the simplest terms —something Jesus was very good at. He has a way with words. Losing or being lost, finding or being found — these common experiences resonate and touch on the deep human hunger for connection.
In my chaplaincy days, I often encountered “Betty,” a patient in her late 50s who could best be described as a lost soul. She had been raised in immense privilege, surrounded by material comfort. But she struggled, even as a young child, feeling lost, unloved. The complexities of her family life combined with her own unmanageable deep-seated sorrow and anger led to her regular admissions to the hospital, where skilled clinicians would attempt to help her sort things out, learn to value her life, and find healthy ways to engage with others.
On our visits, she would pour out her soul: all the ways she had been abandoned, or wronged, or betrayed, or disappointed, or mistreated, or misunderstood. It was pretty grim. Usually I could find a way to listen empathetically, although it was challenging. But one time — perhaps it was the end of the day, perhaps I was tired — I had reached my limit on hearing her seemingly endless litany of misfortune. I had reached some internal tipping point and for whatever reason wasn’t able to detach myself from her pain in the way I needed to, to be an effective support to her. Something had to change.
“Betty,” I asked. “What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you?”
Oh, she said. It’s when I was confirmed — and here she named the church where this took place (and this was probably at least four decades earlier), and the bishop who officiated. Even the few phrases she used to talk about the event seemed to brighten her eyes, and lift her voice from its usual sad monotone.
I don’t know exactly what response I was expecting when I asked the question, but her answer did surprise me.
What was it about being confirmed, I asked, that made it such a good experience?
She paused — then said, Well, I really felt that I was part of something larger than myself.
Betty had been trapped inside herself, unable to escape. But on that day, she not only saw but walked through an opening to something larger, brighter, more loving, more open, than she had ever experienced before. And just as her own heart was lifted, I suspect there was rejoicing in heaven.
St Augustine of Hippo understood and articulated the “deep-calling-to-deep” nature of the relationship between mortals and God, between God and mortals. “You made us for yourself,” he wrote, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The timeless themes of being lost, being found, are tied together with another timeless theme: that of desire. Think of God’s question to Adam, early on in the Garden; “Where are you?” Now we can be pretty sure that God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were, and exactly what had gone down with the snake and the tree and the fruit — but God gave Adam the chance to answer for himself. God’s desire was for Adam to speak, to recognize where he was, who he was, and what he had done. It’s a fairly simple transaction, and one whose outcome we know well.
Then there’s Moses, engaging in complex negotiations with God on more than one occasion. “Turn from thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against thy people.” Whoa. God should repent?! But in the end mercy prevails. And if God can repent, certainly each one of us can learn to repent.
Then there’s the shepherd and the lost sheep; the woman and the lost silver coin. Sheep (as far as we know) don’t repent, nor do coins. But it’s not about them, it’s about God. “God’s mercy breaks through all human restrictions of how God should act toward sinners. God’s mercy, indeed, is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons 99 sheep to save one, as a woman who turns her house upside down to retrieve a paltry sum.”
God searches for us abundantly, loves us abundantly, forgives us abundantly, without expectation. The forgiveness is already and only when we realize this, then we repent, then our hearts and lives change.
Scratch the surface of this divine desire, of deep-calling-to-deep, and what do you find? Love. To quote that esteemed theologian, Woody Guthrie: “The books of the holy bible never say but one time just exactly what God is, and in those three little words it pours out a hundred million college educations and says, God Is Love.”
Paul knows this when he confesses to Timothy, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
If you are lost, welcome! God’s been looking for you. If you are a sinner, welcome! Receive God’s mercy. If you labor and are heavy laden, welcome! God will refresh you. If your soul is hungry, welcome! God has prepared a meal for you. As Paul himself would later say to his fellow shipwrecked sailors, “I beg you to take some food, for this is the beginning of your rescue.”
From the Letter of Saint Paul to Philemon, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
To love Christ means being His disciple and that means every aspect of life will be given to Him and made new. The joy of discipleship.
The Gospel lessons throughout the summer introduced us to a Jesus who was a teacher, a healer, and a man who seemed to be a purveyor of love and peace. What happened to Him? All of a sudden, in this morning’s Gospel lesson, it seems Jesus has become a hate-monger. Didn’t we just hear, If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple? It’s a little bit of a jolt. After all, we have heard the Gospel lessons through these summer months. In those passages the Bible shows us a Jesus is strong and direct, but not showing us how to hate. The passages through June, July, and August have included parables of how to love our neighbors, as in the Good Samaritan. In others, Jesus taught us how to pray the Our Father. He revealed that our treasure is truly in heaven and not here. He explained that humility is really the way to a life with Him in His Kingdom. To have gone from these lessons to a lesson on whom to hate is jarring. He even teaches us to include ourselves in the list of those to hate. …and even his own life, is included in the list of those who are near and dear to us.
Do not fret. We Christians have not tied ourselves to a teacher and founder of our Faith who wants us to reject those we love in order to follow Him. In closer examination of the way “hate” is used in the passage, we find that the Greek word “hate” translates is “miseo”. That word for hate is used in three ways in the New Testament. It can mean the kind of awful hate that is an unjustified feeling of utter disgust and rejection of a thing or a person. In the case of today’s passage on discipleship, it means more of a preference for one thing or person over another. Jesus will use “hate” in the same way in just a couple of chapters later. This other example of Jesus using “hate” to show preference is when He teaches that we cannot serve two masters like God and mammon. No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
The truth about today’s Gospel passage is how imperative it is to make the choice of following Him. Included in making that choice is weighing the cost of being His disciple. As if to say, “Please love me enough to follow me and in choosing to follow me, carefully weigh what it will take to follow me. Do you love your father, your mother, your wife and children, or brothers or sisters? If you know how much you love them, then it is to that degree and more that you ought to love me. We are to be bound to Him above all others. It is that kind of discipleship Jesus desires. He desires this out of love for us because He knows that joy, peace and freedom will be the result. The end of loving Jesus and following Him as a disciple, giving ourselves over to Him completely, is complete freedom.
It does not sound possible that discipline can be equated with love, peace, joy and freedom. Discipline, when we hear it, conjures up thoughts of unpleasantness, punishment, bearing a burden, drudgery. Jesus tells the great multitudes accompanying him, whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. He instructs the crowd to weigh carefully the cost before deciding to follow Him. Jesus uses the parables of the cost of the tower and the king entering into battle to emphasize the importance of the deep and heart-wrenching decision it may take to follow Him. The cost is the bearing the Cross. At the same time this kind of discipleship is true love, joy, peace, and freedom and those are available even now.
Love is ultimately the root of all sacrifice. It’s true in being a disciple of Jesus. We choose to love Him and follow Him. It was true for the nation of Israel. God loves Israel and asks Israel to love Him back by following His Commandments. I think that’s why we have the example from The Book of Deuteronomy in our lections for today. In this passage, toward the end of Moses’ life, he reminds Israel that God loves them so much that, He showed them all the Commandments. All of Israel is reminded that when they cannot give themselves over to the Commandments they are still loved so much that they can repent and come back under the Commandments. God will not only continue to love them, He will forgive them and they will prosper in the land that He gave them. Coming under God’s love through obeying His Commandments is choosing life, choosing goodness. Israel is free to grow and prosper by coming under God.
Israel knew this from the first time Moses revealed the Commandments to them. Go back and read the Commandments from the first time they were given to Israel in Exodus 20. Commandment Five which, appropriately enough for our purposes today, also addresses our nearest relations of mother and father, does not just enjoin us to honor our father and our mother. If you read the whole of the Commandment, it’s Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. Their lives will be “long in the land”. This implication is that a long life is a blessed life, a flourishing life, a good life. Submitting to a given law, that was given out of love and then obeyed out of love, will result in joy, fulfillment, and prosperity. Moses is repeating this practice of the love of God by obeying His Commandments. He reminds the people of Israel this is the way of God for them and it is ultimately the way of love.
This principle of giving oneself over to a law in obedience and discipline that leads to love, harmony, peace and freedom can be recognized even in our daily lives. A simple example of this is punctuality. Showing up on time for something. As part of training in pastoral care beginning back in the 1960’s, it was necessary for many seminarians and divinity school students to be trained to visit in a prison, hospital, or nursing home. The training was usually under the guidance of a counselor trained in the Jungian method of psychoanalysis. The method required that each student take a turn having his or her responses in pastoral situations analyzed. This would enable better responses to those needing pastoral care. Each student would each take a turn being dissected psychologically, as painful as that was, to explain why we did what we did and said what we said.
One of the seminarians in my group had to take his turn being grilled by the Jungian analyst, himself a Congregationalist minister. The question the seminarian had to address was why he was perpetually late. He would always be a few minutes late in visiting hospital rooms, for chapel services, for these group sessions, and would hand in papers a few days late. Why is that and what is the solution? It was a productive session, I think. The seminarian revealed how he felt about being late and it was explained to him how everyone else felt about his tardiness. The seminarian recognized what a burden he was bringing on himself and the others around him by his tardiness. Without going into the deeper psychological reasons of why some persons are perpetually late, we found that the solution is really simple. Show up on time. When that happens there is a freedom from the burden of all the negative results of tardiness. Taking on, or giving himself over to the limits of time and a schedule, is really a means, for this particular seminarian, to joy, peace, and harmony. It generates peace with his other group members. It’s a sign of caring and concern for those with whom he’s meeting. He will free himself from the burden of tardiness. Simplistic? Yes. True? Yes.
Discipleship, and the discipline it requires, is the Christian path of love, freedom, and indeed new life even in this fallen and imperfect world. Discipleship, or following and learning from Jesus, is more than an intellectual exercise or following some warm feelings about loving Jesus our Brother. It is more than attempting to copy some of Jesus’ behavior. True discipleship, we find out today, has sacrificial love at its core. True discipleship will have to involve giving of oneself; one’s whole self. As Jesus says, If any one comes to me and does not hate…even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. True discipleship is a matter of learning, but not learning only as students in an academic setting. This is learning that is life changing.
When one is a student in the form of a disciple then one has given oneself completely to a discipline. Remember when subjects like music, or medicine, or mathematics, or logic and rhetoric were called disciplines? This means they were not simply subjects that you injected into your brain through study and memorization. They were considered ways of life and if you wanted to learn that way of life you would have to give your life to it. You gave yourself over to the discipline of music. You made a life of the study and practice of medicine. Your discipleship was actually being a student of the discipline. You gave away the other parts of your life. That is the sacrifice. You sacrificed your life for the good of taking on the discipline. A disciple of Christ does the same. He or she gives up the old life and takes on being such a good student of Jesus that the likeness of Christ comes through the new life.
We can know the benefits of a life following Jesus now. To love Jesus enough to give ourselves over to Him will mean bearing not the Cross, but bearing a number of crosses. It is not easy to be a Christian sometimes. We know that from Jesus’ parables today. In giving ourselves to Him, though, we can know what real love is. We can know the joy of sharing His life with others. We can be released and freed by asking for His forgiveness from the sins that hinder us even now. That is the joy of taking the steps to be one more of His disciples.
What better way to walk through this world than as a disciple of Christ. This new life in Christ, born out of His love for us and our love for Him, makes all things new. Bearing our crosses and following Him as disciples becomes “a privilege and a joy”. According to our meditations on The Stations of the Cross in Lent, that’s what Simon of Cyrene came to know as he bore the Cross for Jesus on the way to Mount Calvary. For him it was “a privilege and a joy”. Yes, even in the midst and among the unpleasant, nasty, wicked, and sinful parts dealt to us. Even the awful parts of our lives visited on us by chafing under the consequences of our own sins, we can know the joy of having our lives buried with Christ.
A life buried with Christ as His disciple will include the freedom of forgiveness. The grace of forgiveness can be known to us in two ways. We can confess our sins to God, to each other, to our priests in the confessional. The freedom from the burden of those sins is lifted. Also, we can take on the difficult spiritual work of forgiving others. If you have ever truly forgiven another who has sinned against you, you will know the good will and even happiness that grace of forgiveness provides.
If our lives are buried with Christ then they are not buried unto death and an awful end. Our lives are brought to a new beginning. They are remade so we can now know the ease and relief of forgiveness. The grace of forgiveness that is available to us now. We can know the thanksgiving that results from healing and healing in every possible way; mind, body, and Spirit. What a sign of love that God made us in such a way to be healed. We can know how pleasing it is to reach out in the Name of Christ and help those who need a hand because their lives are in a difficult period. We do not have to wait to know and enjoy this rebirth and refreshment. Every aspect of our lives in this world as a disciple is made new and refreshed by love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It was pointed out to us a couple of weeks ago by Fr. Welch that it is vulgar to have a favorite book of the Bible, but like him, if pressed, I would have some strong preference for Hebrews. So I can’t resist preaching on today’s epistle reading.
Because the lectionary finds us today at what is indisputably the rhetorical apex of this document, which is more sermon than letter in my opinion.
The unknown author of Hebrews has throughout skillfully embroidered warning and promise, artfully combining meditations on the old covenant and new, and this passage is no exception, but here these themes come to a tremendous climax.
The author of Hebrews actually has very little interest in the details of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. His interest is in the present reality of who Jesus is, the victorious Son of God, who has triumphed over evil and death and is right now alive and enthroned at his Father’s right hand. Given that reality, the author of Hebrews exhorts his reader to offer God acceptable worship and to be grateful for the gift of salvation, which nothing can take away. That’s the promise I referred to a moment ago. The warning is that we must also have reverence and awe, because God is (as the author so memorably puts it) is a consuming fire.
That image, which the author of Hebrews is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, refers back to the beginning of today’s reading, which sketches the scene of Moses receiving the law from God on Mount Sinai.
The unnerving quality of this sketchy portrait is enhanced by the fact that the author of Hebrews does not actually mention God at all or the word Sinai or even a mountain. Yet to contemporary readers of this document the allusions would have been unmistakable. At Sinai the Israelites had come to a literal, tangible place, one that “may be touched” as Hebrews puts it and yet was forbidden to them to touch because God’s holy presence had descended upon the mountain. Accompanying God on Mount Sinai were threatening signs of his presence: fire, darkness, tempest and gloom, and the loud blast of the trumpet to signal the divine presence. God himself again is not named and remains inaccessible behind the alarming sights and deafening sounds that accompanied his hidden presence.
How different is the picture we immediately get of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. In a series of point-for-point contrasts, the author of Hebrews conjures a completely different joyful atmosphere that stands in direct opposition to the obscurity and holy terror of Sinai.
On Sinai, access to God was severely restricted. Here on Zion all faithful people are gathered together, celebrating with the angels.
On Sinai it was Moses who mediated between God and the people of Israel, who were so stunned by the events of Sinai that they begged God not to speak to them directly anymore but only to Moses their leader and lawgiver.
On Zion it is Jesus who is the mediator between God and the faithful, whose sprinkled blood, like the blood of animals sprinkled for the atonement of Israel on the ark of the covenant, makes it possible for us all to live together in the city of the living God.
Now let me correct a potential mistaken impression. The author of Hebrews I don’t think is contrasting past and future or contrasting Judaism and Christianity. The author of Hebrews is interested in present realities. When he contrasts Sinai and Zion he is contrasting two ways of relating to God, ways of being present before God that are both true right here, right now.
Once again the author of Hebrews combines promise and warning. The promise is that life on Zion in the festal enjoyment of God’s presence in the company of the saints and the angels is available to us today. That’s what we partake in right here at the altar. The warning is that we must not refuse to hear the words of Jesus Christ, the one who is speaking to us today in the shedding of his own blood.
For it is the holy God’s voice that speaks in the shed blood of Christ, and it was the holy God’s voice that spoke the law given to Israel. Even on Zion God is the God of all, and that God is a judge.
And a judge judges. Once God shook the earth with his thunderous voice, and now he promises to shake the heavens and earth alike, leaving only what cannot be shaken.
The promise is that for those who believe in Jesus Christ theirs shall be a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The gift of God to us is a home that survives the destruction of all that is worthless and opposed to the purposes of God. There will come a day when the heavenly Jerusalem is not just a city among others available for us to live in; it will be the only city available for us to live in.
The reality of life on Zion is ours now to enjoy. But it is also a reality to come. At the end of all things, there will remain only what survives divine judgment, what is worthy to last, and we will live in Zion for all eternity.
For earthly kingdoms, no matter how apparently powerful, rise and fall. But the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, can never be shaken. And for that we can and should give thanks, and offer God our worship and service. Here at the Advent we offer God our worship in the very way that the author of Hebrews would have us, “with reverence and awe.” I think we do a pretty good job of that here. I remember a young friend of this parish who was born in New Zealand and came to Boston for college who attended here during those years. He told me some years ago that when he set foot in the Advent he realized, truly realized, for the first time what the Bible meant when it called God “holy.”
But why do we worship with reverence and awe, especially when the rest of our culture is increasingly irreverent, and nothing is regarded as sacred? According to Hebrews, we worship in awe and reverence because “our God is a consuming fire.”
We have seen how differently the author of Hebrews depicts Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. But this final, powerful image of God as a consuming fire is a potent reminder that it is the same God on both mountains.
And it is the same God who gives us an unshakeable kingdom but also shakes all that is worthless, all that is passing away, all that is impure, all that has become defiled, right down to the ground.
I read a very impressive book once called A Consuming Fire. It is a work of history, by Prof. Eugene Genovese, who taught at a variety of universities in the American South. The book obviously takes its title from this passage in Hebrews and the one that inspired it from Deuteronomy.
A Consuming Fire is about the end of the Confederacy, the Southern States that broke with the United States over their perceived right to maintain the institution of slavery. The Civil War literally tore apart our country from 1861 to 1865, four years of brutal war that pitted brother against brother. Prof. Genovese’s book documents the shameful truth that white Southern theologians and preachers, the pillars of the church in the slave-holding states, were largely convinced that God approved of the institution of slavery and that God would take their part in the war against the North.
At the same time, Prof. Genovese shows that some Southern theologians and preachers realized—to their credit—that the judgment of God against their way of life was also a very real possibility. Those who owned slaves in the American South were by and large Christian men, and some among them had sufficient reverence and awe to worry about whether they had been in the right and whether God would really deliver them from the terrors of war or hand them over to those very terrors. As Prof. Genovese writes, “We should not presume to know the mind of the Lord who proclaimed Himself ‘a consuming fire.’ We cannot know what prayers He chooses to favor or how He chooses to direct the affairs of men. But certain things we do know. The slaveholders did pray for a manly resolution. And they did go down in fire and blood.”
The Southern Confederates thought that they had a kingdom that could not be shaken; but it was shaken. And a terrible price was paid for our nation’s sin. Six hundred thousand soldiers died, a third from the most appalling combat the world had yet known and two-thirds ingloriously—from disease. Fifty thousand civilians were killed. The theologians and preachers who defended slavery made a terrible mistake. It’s easy to see that now. What’s harder to see is what mistakes we are making. What injustices are we blind to? What sins do we excuse? What part of Jesus Christ’s speaking to us today are we refusing to hear? I shudder to think, because I include myself in these questions.
Our God is a consuming fire; He is not to be trifled with. He will burn away all that is warped and defective in us, all our sins and shortcomings. And that’s a frightening thought. But hold fast to the image of the joy of Mount Zion. That reality should remind us that we can pass through that holy fire to the other side. And on the other side is the kingdom that cannot be shaken, the festal gathering where we are all—finally—made perfect. Amen.