Monday, August 26, 2013

Our God is a Consuming Fire!

Fourteenth Sunday of Pentecost
August 25, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart

(Click Title for Audio)

Once when I was the youth minister at Christ Church, some years back now, I had a visit from a father of one of our students.  The student had had a particularly profound experience of God in one of our meetings and had been "slain in the spirit."  Now that term is really a colloquial Pentecostal term, many here are familiar with.  It describes a biblical experience where the worshipper is no longer able to stand up in the presence of God, falls to the ground or is lain down or sits and is unable to arise for a time.  I've seen it many, many times during prayer for people and its lost its scariness, and its mystery for me.

Our body just gets overwhelmed with the presence of God, the weight of His Glory so to speak, and we need to not stand up anymore.  It really is that simple.  But for this father, it was a cause for great concern - and his child had come home reporting this experience, in a kind of non-chalant way - "What happened at youth group?"   "Oh, we sang and played some games and ate, and I was slain in the spirit.  It was great fun!"  At which point his stomach did a flip and he became my strongest volunteer!

For some time dad came along on almost everything that we did at the church - and I'm a little slow, so I thought he was there to support his daughter and the work that was happening in her life.  Little did I know that God was getting ahold of him in a visceral way too.

So, a year or so into this adventure, he came to my office, because he had had an encounter with God - not in the safety of the youth group, but while driving in stop and go traffic, headed home on I-25!  Not really the time that you expect God to show up and speak to you.  As he was driving, he told me, rather at one of the points where the traffic was mostly stopped, he had an experience of the scene in front of him being pulled apart like a curtain to reveal a scene not unlike a picture from the Hubble telescope -- the universe, the planets in view and a weighty silence.  

Have any of you ever seen the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind?   Dreyfuss' character is out on the road in his work truck and the alien craft comes up from behind him, he waves it around him, and the lights go up in the back window.  Everything become magnetized in the bright light and there is a moment, where the "song" is imprinted in his brain.   Dah  Dah  Dah Dah Dah!
That is the kind of experience that this father had that day on I-25 as the curtain was pulled back - and he heard the Song of the Universe.
And finally he heard a personal word from God that set him on a course toward a healing of his past.

My point in telling this weird story is to illustrate how big God is and how God wants to punch through the layer of our sight and our day-to-day life and help us to experience His Presence and His Power for us who believe - power and presence that is available to us through the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Our reading in Hebrews this morning is the end of a section of scripture that we could spend a full year on.  The whole book is that way really, but this section begins in chapter 10, and forms the conclusion of the arguments that the writer of Hebrews presents throughout the book:

It begins in chapter 10, verse 19 with the word, THEREFORE.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,  and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (ESV)

Friends, we have been given access to God -- into the Holy of Holies -- the place of God's very presence, dwelling with men, by the blood of Jesus -- as the curtain was torn in two from top to bottom, God made a way for us to approach Him in holiness and righteousness - the exchanged righteousness of Jesus - our sin for His righteousness!!  The Great Exchange of 2 Cor 5:21 [For He who knew no sin became sin for us, that IN HIM we might become the righteousness of God.]  It is IN HIM - IN HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS that we are able to come to God today, here at this table and this table is the symbol of all that God has done for us in this transaction - this trans-formation.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to challenge us in the verses following:

LET US DRAW NEAR!
LET US HOLD FAST OUR CONFESSION!
LET US STIR UP ONE ANOTHER!
LET US ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER.

Then the writer of the letter of Hebrews, turns and looks back through the ages - through the history of God's dealings with man, from creation to the present in a sweeping, "hall of faith" look at all those who had lived by faith for millennia past - who all "looked forward in faith to a city whose architect and builder is God:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb 11:13-16  ESV)

And the verses at the beginning of chapter 12, we heard last week:  another "Therefore!"

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 ESV)

The writer is doing the very thing that he told us to do for one another two chapters earlier - spurring us on, encouraging us to persevere in Christ Jesus.  He says we must "consider Him" - "set our eyes on Him" who is the "founder (author) and perfecter (finisher) of our faith - ours that is just like those in the "hall of faith" of the last chapter.  We must, as they were doing, look to Jesus and to the Kingdom that is coming into the world and is found in our midst !!

Now its not all roses and grapes and little naked angels buzzing about.  The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us in the first half of this chapter that there is a discipline that comes with this calling!  We are "called Children of God" - a "right" that God has given us as the result of His grace and our receiving His promise of salvation (Jn 1:12  "For to as many as received Him, to those who believed on His Name, He gave the RIGHT (exousia) to BECOME the Children of God."  So we are the Children of God and as such are subject to His love as a Father, which means discipline, for the sake of our growth and our holiness.  Listen:

"For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."
"For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Heb 12:6, 11-14 ESV)

And thus we come to our reading this morning that ends with "Our God is a Consuming Fire!"  The writer of Hebrews pulls back the curtain for us - the Song of the Ages is sung, in our hearing:   "Bless the Lord, O My Soul!  And ALL that is within me, Bless His Holy Name!"  The Psalms are the Songs of the Ages - pulling back the facade which we live in, the layers of immediacy, the deadness of luxury and ease, the frenetic pace of our busy lives - to reveal the creation and its God, who has rent the curtain through which we peer and invited us to come in - not in a non-chalant, buddy-buddy, let's "hang out with Jesus" way - but as these words convey the weight of these moments we have IN HIS PRESENCE:

For you have not come to what may 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 no further messages be spoken to them.

Imagine the scene at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, with the children of Israel having just come through the Red Sea, escaping the hand of Pharoah and watching the wonders that God did on their behalf.  They are gathered at the base of the mountain, shaking with fear - the mountain itself is shrouded in cloud and darkness and lightening - glowing with fire - the sound of a trumpet and the words of God, dread-full words.

But the author says ours is a different experience - He draws the curtain back, as if this one which is behind our table we parted to see the scene that is behind all this, and that is "surrounding us as a great cloud of witnesses":

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.
(Heb 12: 22-24 ESV)

Friends, this is the picture of what we are doing here, Sunday after Sunday, as we enter this model of the Temple and approach this Table of The Lord.  This Blood and This Body, are not magic, they are real Presence, met by faith filled hearts, who in the midst of discipline as Sons are being made perfect.  (Look as someone and say, YOU... ARE BEING MADE PERFECT!)

My friends, God Himself has come among us in church this morning.  Just like the day Jesus went to church.

Look at your gospel reading and I want to highlight a couple of things:

Jesus was there in Church - in the synagogue on the Sabbath - teaching!

Jesus is here this morning, in the Church on the Sabbath, teaching -  can you feel His presence, can you sense his power?

Jesus healed a woman of an 18 year affliction by Satan - He discerned the root of her arthritis - whatever it was that had bent her over almost in half - He spoke a word of healing, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."  And she was!

It was fantastic!  She stood up straight and began to praise God and dance around!  She had experienced that power of God and His love for her that set her free from the oppression of the devil in this illness.  But that's not the end, its not even the point of the story here.

The pastor of the church is indignant!  He presumes to begin teaching Jesus - GOD - how to do business in His Own House!!
And Jesus, comes uncorked!  Our reading probably didn't capture it, (no offense Edward.)

Let me re-read it:

the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"

YOU HYPOCRITES! 

We can hear the voice of God, of Jesus - parting the curtain and giving the Pharisee leaders of the church, a lesson in the passion of God for His people - His willingness to be known by them -- by US here this morning.

Jesus is no less present with us this morning, urging us to live into the High Calling of God that He has on our lives IN CHRIST - urging us to Live into OUR IDENTITY IN HIM and to move into the DESTINY that is ours IN HIM.

For months I've used the passage from Ephesians as our benediction and I want to pray it now again.  Not as a benediction, but as an invitation - God is pulling back the curtain, friends, now and in the months and years to come, God is pulling back the curtain for us to see Him in our midst, just a surely as Jesus was in the synagogue that day - EMMANUEL - GOD WITH US.

He is here today, present by His Holy Spirit, enthroned on our worship and praise, present in His Word and in these Sacraments on His Table - He is present to us for healing, in the prayers we pray for those among us today and for those far away.

He is not distant, but He is near.  Take ahold of Him as we pray:

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named, grant you to be strengthened with might by his Holy Spirit, that, Christ dwelling in your hearts by faith, you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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