18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22 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, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 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! 26 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.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 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; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
The first reaction to hearing this passage in FIRL was a kind of heaviness. It is hard to imagine a loving God who kills animals for trespassing, who even Moses fears and who is characterized as a consuming fire. One of the commentators suggested that this was God’s final warning, believe or be consumed. I would rather view the passage much more pastorally.
I believe the passage is trying to argue the validity of the gospel in a world where secular measures suggest that Christianity was more snake oil than substance. The promises of life, abundant and eternal, were not coming to fruition in any tangible way. Hard questions were being asked. What makes a life, any life, worth living? Why stick with Christianity? If we try to answer the question personally, we are rapidly faced with the knowledge that however we answer, our name will be forgotten in two or three generations. And if we choose the Christian path, we answer knowing that as often as not, loving is exploited by self interest. We are not called fools for Christ for nothing.
In verse 18: “You have not come to something that can be touched….”, we are warned and reminded that the images and things we create cannot be eternal. We are always in the difficult position of using what we know to describe what we don’t know. We know touch, we know fire, we know tempest and storm. In all of history, the physical forces of this world, earthquake, fire and storm threaten and overwhelm. More personally, we know a parent’s expectations, impatience and anger and perhaps even more frighteningly we know the capricious mood changes. The big people of this world must be appeased if we are to survive childhood. After all they do feed us. Our human experience often includes fear and wariness. The human animal is very vulnerable to all kinds of forces. We need protection from that stark reality. It is no wonder that first understandings of God were concrete (literally idols) and worship involved doing whatever it took to get the gods on your side—including sacrificing children.
The God of Mount Sinai, was filled with awe, fear and dangerous consequence. Raw power was needed to protect. But the writer of Hebrews says ‘no’ to that early understanding when he tells the people that God, as revealed in Jesus shows us another way. He points instead to another mountain—-Mount Zion, the new Jerusalem— where the angels gather in celebration and where the new covenant in Jesus is celebrated. The blood of Abel, sacrificed out of human jealousy and fear, is replaced with the blood of Jesus , offered as a voluntary act to show us there is a better way.
We have no choice about being helpless. It is how we cope and react that makes the difference. We can avoid such situations. We can treat them as bad but they will happen. Cancer comes unexpected. Aging is inevitable. People we need and love will sometimes dislike and avoid us (and vice versa). People we need and love will die. We will be unfairly accused. The question is not ’ if’, but’ how often’ such experiences occur. In these situations, we, like the first century church, wonder why. We wonder if is worth it. We imagine a God who protects us from such pain but if that is the expectation, we will be sorely disappointed.
The paradox is that ‘protection’ from helplessness comes from entering it. It doesn’t get any more counter intuitive than that. It is the inversion of the gospel. What we most fear, what we are hardwired to avoid becomes the vehicle of redemption. That is the Jesus story. Accused, he responded, “you say that I am.” He did not bring down fire to protect himself, he did not coerce. Jesus demonstrated the faith that the eternal was not something that can be touched—and that included his body. Our bodies are precious but they are not eternal.
We must be redeemed from our natural assumptions about God and life and unless we are we will be damned by those very assumptions. We will cling to what we know and what we can touch instead of grappling with God’s promises of something different. We will count on a God who preserves what we know instead of listening to God’s new way.
Real life is its own corrective. If we hold on to the idea that God’s power is a force that protects us from pain and helplessness, real life will contradict us. Such a god may be our deepest desire but that is not how God works. Jesus entered suffering. He did not like it. He felt abandoned but he entered suffering in the faith that nothing could separate Him from the love of God.
There is nothing that is created that will be eternal. Even though we are tempted to rely on what we see and touch, the author of Hebrews pushes us to remember that all created things are transient. “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” We must refocus our lives if we are to find the eternal. Whether we rely upon monuments, power, or good deeds, they are all transient. This is both a terrifying and a wonderful promise. The terrifying part is that there is nothing on this earth we get to keep. We cannot keep what we can touch. We joke, ‘You can’t take it with you’ but it is absolutely true. We cannot keep what we love—that includes our money, our possessions, our bodies or the people we love. Real life teaches this lesson. Everyone of us who are aware of our aging knows this. We just hate to have it stated so starkly.
The promise however is that ‘what cannot be shaken may remain.’ The problem, of course, becomes finding words and images that describe this new reality. We say, ‘though he died, yet shall he live’; we will life eternal; we will join our everlasting Father. All are ways to point us beyond created things, beyond what we know–toward what cannot be shaken. To even believe there is such a thing is a huge faith claim. The writer of Hebrews wanted the people to know that God’s love—the way Jesus loved—-would prevail.
We have the choice to join an eternal river of love where every drop counts—where we count and where and how we live our lives counts. We worship such a God. Anything else will be consumed. Anything else is a wasted life.
So it is with awe and reverence that we worship. We can orient our lives toward what will last. We are not protected from pain but trust that we can be sustained through it. This a hard path to follow—especially when we are lost and lonely but we gather to remember who and what we worship. We gather to gather the courage ‘for the facing of this hour.’ We gather to learn how to love. All else will be consumed.
One last note. The consuming fire is no more punitive than gravity. I can say with a good bit of confidence that if I ignore gravity and jump from a ten story building, I will have a great deal of pain and almost certainly will die. Gravity did not punish me. My refusal to acknowledge gravity leads to predictable consequences.
The same is true when we seek to decide what makes life worth living. We have many choices. We can seek safety in our own devices. We can refuse love. We can say “Yes, but…” every time someone compliments or enjoys us. We can ignore what our own experiences teach us. We can pretend that what we build will last. But Christians choose love and to love as Jesus loves. Such a goal is way past our human limitations but we can orient our lives toward the eternal. All else will be consumed.
May we worship, in awe and reverence, what cannot be shaken. Let it be so.