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.