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. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 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. See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that 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.
You might have heard that the old Cokesbury book store down the road closed a few months ago. Cokesbury is the denominational bookstore for us Methodists, of course, and like most other bookstores and most other denominations, they weren’t as profitable as they would like, so they closed the brick and mortar stores and went online. I wonder what would happen if the church did that.
Anyway, as a book person, I was not happy about the Cokesbury store closing. I mean, just before the bishop sends me to Decatur, they close my favorite bookstore. But there are other bookstores, and I will tell you that while I love being surrounded by all kinds of books, I always find myself drawn to the religious section of the bookstore.
I mean, if you want to know what you have to do to be a successful Christian, believe me, there is a book that will tell you! Are you looking for seven easy steps to a life of faithfulness, prosperity, and happiness? Do I have the book for you! If you will read this book, take on this spiritual practice, buy into this philosophy, add this spiritual tenet, put one more thing on your Christian plate, well, everything is going to be all right. Just one more thing and everything will be hunky dory. God will smile on you and pat your head and tell you “Well done, good and faithful servant” if you will only do one . . . more . . . thing.
I don’t know where we got the idea that follow Jesus was about adding one more practice, doing just one more thing, putting something else on your plate on top of everything else you’ve got to juggle. You know, as if the writer of Hebrews said, “Our God is a consuming calendar, and if you want to go to Heaven, you have to go to committee meetings twice a month.” As if being on a committee at the church were the same thing as following Jesus.
No, the writer of Hebrews did not say our God is a consuming calendar, although some days, I will be honest, my calendar is the most consuming force in my life. Has that ever happened to you? It is the end of the month and you look back over the calendar and you realize that you have been so busy you’ve nearly forgotten to breathe? I knew things were getting out of hand one month when I started to schedule sleep. Not a nap, but sleep, so that I wouldn’t add anything on top of what I was planning to do between 11pm and 6am.
Sometimes, I feel like the things we do to try to be faithful just make God break out in a belly laugh. The Bible does not say, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotton son, that whosoever added belief in him to everything they already had going on would not perish, but have eternal life.” Believing in Jesus, really believing, means letting some things go.
Just adding on is no way to be faithful, and it isn’t sustainable, anyhow. When you take everything you’ve already got going on, your family and hobbies and work and political beliefs and plans for the weekend, and you add God on top of that, you end up with God perched perilously atop a wobbling, teetering tower of Very Important Things, and you cannot support that kind of weight on top of that kind of pile.
And so, in order to keep up appearances, we come to church wearing the very best mask we can find, one that shows almost no emotion whatsoever, so that nobody can see that underneath we are just a big mess, a teetering tower just about to collapse under its own weight.
I hope I’m not hitting too close to home here, but it is human nature, and when you’ve got Christian book stores selling this nonsense, it is no surprise. You can’t add one more thing and discover your best life now. If you are like me, adding one more thing is terrifying, because it means I will come that much closer to having my tower topple and finding myself trapped beneath the rubble.
The writer of Hebrews says that when you come into the presence of God, you have not come to something that can be touched. You cannot simply add God to your life on top of everything else. That is not how God works, which, if I am honest with myself, is completely fine with me because the idea of adding one more thing on top of everything else sounds awful. God works differently. God is more like a blazing fire, a voice, the sound of a trumpet. These are things we can speak of, but not things we can do. You cannot add the sound of a trumpet to your life. You cannot contain a voice.
And wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment, to add a blazing fire to the tower of your life and see what happens. I mean, we know what will happen, it will catch fire, of course, all of those blocks of time, all of those appointments and priorities and everything else. But wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to allow God the chance to burn away everything that gets in the way, everything that keeps you from authentically bearing the image of God.
You know, when you think about fire, you probably don’t think about God. We much more understand Hellfire than we do Godfire, but I am not sure why, because of all the images of God in the Bible, all the names for the ways in which God works, “Refiner’s fire” is near the top. This is the kind of thing that the writer of Hebrews is talking about when he calls God a consuming fire, when he talks about the removal of all that can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. And this is how God works, of course. Material things get in the way, other priorities get in the way; these are things that can be shaken. But God, who sits at the core of your very being, cannot be shaken. And what comes from God cannot be burned away.
When a metal refiner refines gold, she melts the metal down and scoop off the things that get in the way of purity. She would heat everything up and remove the impurities.
Now, calling them impurities is not quite fair, because some of the stuff that was removed from the gold was good stuff, not awful stuff, but just not gold. And when you are purifying gold, it doesn’t matter what you’re removing—it could be silver—but if it is in the way of pure gold, it has to go.
So when we talk about God being like a consuming fire, we are not saying that what is burned off is necessarily bad in and of itself. Everybody knows you shouldn’t sin or whatever. That’s easy, at least compared to making difficult decisions between priorities that both seem good. But life is not that easy, church is not that easy, and neither is following Jesus, because so often, we are not dealing with a choice between good and evil, but a choice between good and good, or between bad and worse.
And so, the next time you find yourself in one of those situations, when you have something on the left and something on the right and you know that when you drop one, it is going to land directly on your foot, but that they are both so heavy you can’t hold onto them both, here’s the standard. Here’s how you know: you light the whole thing on fire and see what is left. Things of your own creation will burn to ash, and what cannot be shaken will remain. For, truly, our God is a consuming fire.
This is all well and good, of course, until you actually have to do it, and you are suddenly reminded that fire is hot! It is a nice idea that God is a consuming fire, until you find yourself being consumed! But there are blessings in this kind of thing, for the way in which the refiner knew that she had completed her work was that she could look into the molten metal and see a perfect reflection of her face.
Here’s the thing. You can’t just add Jesus on top of everything else you’ve got going. Heck, if you are like me, you’d topple if a feather lighted on top of your tower. I don’t care how many books are sold on this subject. You can’t just add one more thing to your life and expect to be right with God. That’s not how it works.
To enter into the life of faith, to follow Jesus, means that there are some things in your life you’re going to have to burn away, to give up, and these aren’t necessarily bad things in and of themselves. But if it keeps you from following Jesus, it’s got to go. Maybe it is a relationship, maybe it is a job, maybe it is some other commitment that might actually be deeply good. This kind of decision can be painful, for it may hurt you, it may hurt people you love. But the bottom line is that if it keeps you from following Jesus, you’ve got to place it upon the altar and offer it as a burnt sacrifice unto the Lord your God.
And it is not easy, because it may be the case that you’re much more familiar with those other commitments than you are with following Jesus. Maybe this is new to you. Or maybe you just like the known quantity of your life. I’m not immune to that sort of thing, and neither was the writer of Hebrews. He says that “you have not come to something that can be touched,” as if he knows that it is much less anxiety-producing to see and touch something before you declare your ultimate allegiance to it. Following God and being a part of the church scare me in many ways, because they force me to get outside of that which makes me comfortable do the deeply fulfilling—but sometimes terrifying—work of following wherever the Holt Spirit leads.
It is not easy, but should you decide to go this route, to put your ultimate trust—I mean your ULTIMATE trust—in God, I can share with you two pieces of good news. I’ll end with this.
The first piece of good news is that your tower was not structurally sound from the beginning. I don’t know where we got the idea that doing more is being better, that adding more things to your calendar shows everybody that you are a more fulfilled person, but it is my experience that in many ways, I can judge a person’s sense of self-understanding and peace by analyzing the white space on his calendar. The tower of obligations you carry around is not sustainable anyway. You’re just one huff and one puff away from the whole thing being blown down. To allow yourself to rest upon God’s promises is to acknowledge that doing more is not the same thing as being more faithful, and thank goodness, because there are days when doing more feels like it is going to kill us.
The second piece of good news is even better, because when you allow God’s consuming fire into your life, when you find yourself caught up in that fire, and you let God burn away the things that get in the way of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, you will find deep within yourself a reflection of the very God who created you, a spot in the kingdom that cannot be shaken. It will not be easy, and you will have to give up things that are otherwise deeply good and worthwhile.
But what a gift! What a gift to be able to be your true self in front of God, to reflect the image of the refiner, to stand in front of God and everybody and say, this is who I am, this is who God created me to be, for all my impurities put together are no match for the God who is a consuming fire. What a gift. And what a witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ.
Having faith is not easy. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But what a gift to reflect the living God. Thanks be to God. Amen.