Every month I look forward to my National Geographic. It’s one of those simple pleasures in life. Near the end of every month, I’m greeted by that familiar plastic wrapping containing high contrast, high resolution photos and articles of interest covering all aspects of creation from the sub-atmospheric to the inter-stellar.
Recently, an essay was written on wildfires. A wildfire is described as an uncontrolled blaze, fueled by weather, wind, and dry underbrush, which can burn acres and acres of land, consuming everything its path, in as little as a few minutes. Wildfires are all-consuming and extremely powerful. Around 80% of wildfires are caused by humans; the other 20% are started completely by nature herself, especially out west, in those parts of the country where it gets really hot and arid in the summertime. In places like California, Colorado, and Wyoming, when lack of precipitation reaches its peak, and then gives way to thunderstorm season, according to the writers at National Geographic, “Dry weather and drought convert green vegetation into bone-dry, flammable fuel… [and] all that’s needed is a spark…in the form of lightning…to ignite a blaze that could last for weeks and consume tens of thousands of acres.”
Most scientists suggest, however, that wildfires which begin naturally do serve a purpose. Although dangerous and potentially destructive of human life and property, wildfires may actually benefit ecosystems. In some cases, they play an important part in the cycle of nature by destroying decayed matter and returning nutrients to the ground. They also work like a natural sterilizer; they eliminate plants, bacteria, insects and creatures hosting diseases and other potentially harmful things. They burn through thick brush canopies and overgrown areas, allowing sunlight to reach the ground, making it possible for the next generation of seeds to germinate and grow. In these instances, wildfires are actually beneficial. They consume what’s overgrown, they cleanse from what’s harmful, and they refine by clearing room for the Sun to shine down.
The author of Hebrews gives us two powerful images describing God’s mission and work in the history of salvation—two images for two mountains—first, God as just judge and righteous executioner, and second, God as love and forgiveness personified in Jesus Christ. God, we’re told here, is both fiercely righteous and fiercely loving, a God before whom nations have trembled, and a God who embraces us with forgiveness, comfort, and assurance in times of need.
Think with me, just how drastically different these two images are. On the one hand, we see the God of Mount Sinai, of whom it’s said that should the people attempt to approach him, he would see to it that they be stoned to death for their failure to observe his commands. On the other, we see the God of Mount Zion, a God who welcomes all people and nations that call upon his name into fellowship and feasting, a God fully revealed to us in the love and mercy of his Son, a God who invites us to approach him with boldness and confidence as we please.
How do we make sense of these two drastically different images of God, one of law and violence, the other of mercy and love, one of uncompromising holiness showing little sympathy to sinners, and the other, a loving father, who because of his righteousness, stands ready and willing to forgive his children when called upon with faith and thanksgiving?
Frederick Borsch reflects on the contrasting theological images we find in the book of Hebrews and throughout the rest of the Bible.
God, we learn through Scripture is a fierce God of judgment and holiness. God, who is beyond all comprehension, is also a God of nearly incredible mercy and sacrificial love. The coming of the glorious new covenant is contrasted with the old… Through him who ‘when he had made purification for sins,…sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,’ the awesome God of power and glory and judgment—of thunder and lightning and earthquake and supernovae—is revealed as the one whose throne of grace may now be approached ‘with boldness so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.’
Borsch suggests that to worship either of these two images at the expense of the other—to worship God as either the just judge who demands righteousness and punishes sinners, or the God who is revealed to us through the love, forgiveness, and mercy of his Son—is to worship a God created after our own likeness, our own likes and dislikes. Neither one without the other points us to the God of the whole Bible.
God is revealed through the Son’s love. God’s children are welcomed with open arm to feast and fellowship with the divine, but still, the heavens shake with judgment when individuals abandon their faith in disbelief or refuse community with him that made us. For all the revelry and festal imagery we get from the epistle in verses 22-24, those under the New Covenant do well to feast soberly, with reverence and awe, and with the knowledge that God is indeed “like a consuming fire.”
In many ways, this passage in Hebrews, like the wildfire that spreads naturally and is sparked throughout forests overgrown with brush and dead timber across dry and desolate lands marked by decay, lands whose soil cries out for purification, refinement, and the sun’s light, light required in order to achieve future potential, this passage, with its complex theological imagery challenges us to clear away our misguided conceptions which tend to see God as one or the other, and to bask in the light and warmth of a God who mercilessly forgives, while at the same time demanding complete righteousness and re-alignment of self with the love of his Son.
God is indeed a consuming fire who burns up our old self and cleanses us from impurities and who refines our souls for newness and holy living in accordance with the grace and truth embodied in Jesus Christ. For as many who call upon his name, whatever transgressions we’ve committed are forgiven in the life-giving passion and blood of Jesus Christ. Whatever scorch marks remain from who we once were, these become fertile ground as we begin to forgive and to take responsibility for the wrongs we may have committed against others. The God of love and mercy, the God of justice and righteousness, consumes us, purifies us, and refines us by his grace, which both justifies us from sin and empowers us for sanctified living.
But God is also a consuming fire who burns up attempts to reduce his radical justice and love to something meager.
Consider the gospel story in Luke 13:10-17. Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath in one of the Galilean Synagogues. He’d attracted quite a crowd. A woman was present in the congregation who had been living with and illness of some kind for eighteen years. We don’t know the exact nature of her condition. Perhaps it was a physical ailment of some kind, perhaps a psychological condition, maybe she’d suffered from grief, anxiety, or depression at the loss of a loved one from which she never quite recovered; verse 16 of chapter 13 says that Satan had been the one to bind her up; maybe she suffered from some from spiritual possession or enslavement of some kind, or maybe it was all three of these wrapped up into one. In that moment, Jesus saw her. Maybe he saw reluctance, uncertainty, and hope embattled by despair in her eyes. Maybe he saw resilience and deep fortitude—after all, despite 18 years of being beaten down by the world, she’d showed up. She had come to see him, perhaps even to touch him. So he called out to her. Then he reached out to her, and immediately she straightened up and began to glorify and praise God. Lingering doubt was consumed and refined into simple trust and faith. But instead of joining with her as he should have done, the ruler of the synagogue was annoyed. And so he shouted to the crowd, to Jesus, and to the woman who’d just been healed, “There are six days on which to work! Come on those days to be healed!” (Talk about insensitivity. That’s like the chief of surgery walking into an O.R., after a miraculously successful emergency surgery, and chastising both the lead surgeon and the patient for having scheduled the thing during Labor Day, a national holiday where folks are supposed to rest.
To him, Jesus had broken the rules. He’d done what wasn’t supposed to be done according to the Law as it was handed down originally through Moses at Mount Sinai. The law clearly stated that the Sabbath was to be kept holy, that it wasn’t for work but rest; and since healing could be considered a form of work, Jesus hadn’t followed the letter of the law, or so went the religious leader’s logic. In healing the woman, Jesus had crossed a line. And in crossing that line, he defied the religious leader’s narrow perceptions of what God’s holiness entails. God demands complete righteousness. God requires perfect obedience to the law. God doesn’t care about circumstances or situation, only that we do what we’re told, when and how we’re told to do it. But in Jesus, we discover something new. To Jesus, all the law and the prophets hang on one single command, that we love God with our entire heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. And so he shouted back: “You hypocrite! You know-it-all! You un-tie your ox on the Sabbath don’t you? You tend to your livestock and other affairs on the Sabbath don’t you? And this is a daughter of Abraham we’re talking about here! A woman who’s been suffering for 18 years! What possible good would it do for the Sabbath or for her to delay her wellness an extra day? Do you honestly think that’s what God intended when he said to keep the Sabbath holy?” With this, the Bible tells us, the so-called experts were put to shame, and the crowds began to cheer.
Don’t we do this sometimes? Don’t we force God into a particular mold? Don’t we reduce his holiness to a list of dos and don’ts, to a rule book that must be followed with uncompromising rigidness? And don’t we sometimes treat holiness as something static, like manners or being polite, when in fact Jesus teaches us that it’s something much more powerful and transformative, something much more radical, something that demands our whole lives and requires a complete sacrifice of self? What are the boundaries that each one of us places upon God that he so desperately wishes to cross as we share his love with others?
Our God is like a “consuming fire” that swallows up our pasts and our past sins. He purifies all who approach him by faith, and he refines us in love for a new kind of being, a life that walks by faith in Christ. God is both righteous and just as well as fiercely compassionate and forgiving, and his love extends to all people who draw near with faith and thanksgiving. Like a wildfire, God stands ready to burn through whatever narrow boundaries and insecurities shield us from the light of his Son. God invites us to clear away the underbrush, and to let his light in. So lift up your eyes. Feel the Son’s warmth. Let hearts grown over with weariness, heaviness, or fear, find rejuvenation, and may each one of us be nourished unto everlasting life by faith in the Son. Amen.  David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 379.