Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2013

Way back when I was a Girl Scout, I discovered the delights of S’mores. For the uninitiated, S’mores are made by taking a graham cracker half, putting a layer of a Hershey’s chocolate candy bar on top of it and then putting a marshmallow on top, covering it with another half a graham cracker. It is then put on a forked stick and roasted over a fire. Mmm, are they good! The fire we cooked the S’mores on also provided us with light to see what we were doing after the woods darkened in the evening. It provided warmth when we had been out hiking in the cold weather. And it provided a way to cook our supper. The fire also gave us a place of community to gather around and sing and tell stories. Fire was a good thing for us, as long as we were careful about fire safety.

Fire can also be a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Every year in the west, they do controlled burns of land so that the plants that are left can grow and flourish with the extra space they have. But sometimes those controlled burns can get out of control and start raging forest fires, which destroy everything in their paths. Firefighters can lose their lives attempting to put them out.

And we all know that fire can be a very bad thing – a destructive thing. Right now, inEgypt, unknown people are burning Christian churches following a raid by Egyptian security forces on two Islamist protest camps inCairo. Arson is purposeful fire starting used for revenge or to get insurance money or just because the arsonist likes fire. Any bomb that is detonated is mostly a mass of fire.

Fire is an ambiguous thing – sometimes good and sometimes bad. It is frightening, yet we are drawn to it for the help it offers, too.

Fire has an ambiguous image in the Bible as well. It can be a way in which God appears –  a theophany. Moses’ first encounter with God is with a burning bush. He is not afraid, but turns aside to look at this unusual sight. Only when God speaks does Moses fear. God also leads the Israelites in the desert by a pillar of fire at night. At Pentecost, tongues of flame appear over the disciples head. As the Holy Spirit does big things, a friend of mine notes, it might be well not to imagine this fire as tiny candle flames, but as much larger blazes. God makes Godself known through fire.

Fire can also be scary. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace when they refused to worship the way Nebuchadnezzar wanted them to. Even though they had faith in God, it had to be scary for them to enter the fire chamber. Deuteronomy 4:24 says that God is a devouring fire. And in today’s reading God created blazing fire aroundMount Sinaiso that none would go up on the mountain except Moses. The last line of the passage says that God is a consuming fire.

It is the consuming fire we need to examine today. Where does it fit into thekingdomofGodthat we belong to? What is it about a consuming fire that could possibly be loving? Before we can explore the loving fire, we need to know about God’s kingdom of love from whence the fire comes.

The author of Hebrews is writing to a group of Jewish Christians with “drooping hands” and “weak knees”. In other words, they are scared and tired. They are second generation Christians who have been persecuted. They also know that thekingdomofGoddid not come quickly as Jesus said it would and that they could be waiting a long time for perfection on earth. Some of them might even be thinking about going back to Judaism. At least this religion was protected by the Romans and they would not face persecution.

The author takes pains to show that the New Covenant, initiated by the grace of God through Christ, is much better than the Old Covenant by which they lived only by the law. The author describes two pilgrimages – one to the earthly Mount Sinai and one to the heavenlyMountZion. He or she paints a picture of God’s theophany atMount Sinaias one inciting terror, complete with darkness, gloom and that blazing fire that kept people away from God. In addition God’s words made the hearers beg that God not speak to them again because they could not stand it. Even Moses was terrified. To be fair, the author of Hebrews is making the worst possible case by using an Old Covenant introduced by fear. There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where the people joy in the law and do their best to keep it. There are also places where God’s revelation of Godself is not as frightening as this one, but the author wants to keep the contrast strong.

On the very opposite end is the kingdom Christians have inherited. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice of his blood on the cross, the access to God that was not possible even through sacrifices because still none could be perfect, is now available. The people in the kingdom have come to the city of the living God, where there are angels and the firstborn enrolled in heaven and the spirits of the righteous finally made perfect. God is there, and Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant. It could not be a more ideal place to be. God is love, and we all experience the radiance of that love.

But wait. If God is the same God in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, and Hebrews asserts that God is, God’s love must include judgment. The passage even calls God the judge. God’s mercy is amply available in the Hebrew Scriptures, along with the wrath of God when we are disobedient, and God’s judgment is present in the New Testament if we do not continue to have faith in the kingdom and follow God’s ways of service to others. As God has shaken the earth before, God will shake earth and heaven again, but the kingdom we inherit as Christians is unshakeable and therefore the safe place to be. Again, the author is exhorting the Jewish Christians to remain faithful or face the judgment of God.

So God’s kingdom is love. What is that love like? That’s where the fire comes in. For the people of the exodus, God shows God’s love in wanting them to keep their distance lest they touch the mountain and die. For the people of the New Covenant, love is a fiery embrace. The consuming fire is not a destructive fire but rather a refiner’s fire for purification. In a refiner’s fire, the smelter melts gold or silver and skims off the dross until he can see his own face reflected in it (Gray Temple). In God’s version, God’s love embraces us and God’s judgment burns away all that is not part of who God made us to be. God wants us to be close to God, and the more we allow this fiery embrace, the nearer we draw to God and God’s kingdom.

What do we do with a fiery embrace? The very words, it seems, are an oxymoron. God’s embraces are supposed to be gentle, saying we are loved and accepted, or bear hugs to tell us we did a good job or compassionate touching to dry our tears or heal our infirmities. They are not supposed to burn. We are frightened of a burning embrace, of getting so close to God that we experience that stripping away of our masks, of being vulnerable.

But we make a beginning with that every time we confess our sins and ask God to make us better people. We do it when we do as Hebrews tells us and give thanks in worship as we will do in the Eucharist in just a few minutes because we have the reality and the promise of God’s kingdom. We need to offer ourselves to God for refining at other times too: during our daily rounds when we feel uncertain about our next move, during prayer, when we are reflecting on our spiritual journey, and when we serve our neighbor.

One of God’s favorite ways of showing Godself is in fire and light. We need fire and light in our spiritual lives as much as we do in our physical lives. Take the risk. Go to God and ask for God’s love. That fiery embrace is what we need to be healed and saved and enter the kingdom so graciously prepared for us by God through Christ.

AMEN

   - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Gray Temple, Feasting on the Word Year C, Proper 16, Theological Perspective (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press), p. 378