Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
The Consuming Fire
Christ Episcopal Church and Trinity Lutheran Church, Sheffield, Massachusetts
THE CONSUMING FIRE
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge August 22, 2010
Text: Hebrews 12:18-29
A couple of years ago, when I was teaching homiletics in Toronto during the Advent season, I was invited to preach a series of Advent sermons in a local church. One of my students asked me what my theme would be. I said, “Wrath and judgment!” He laughed. He thought I was kidding.
In the reading today from the Epistle to the Hebrews, there are two word-pictures. One is from the Old Covenant and one from the New. The first scene shows the children of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. The mountaintop is blazing with volcanic fire, so that even the redoubtable Moses is fearful of the manifestation of the power, majesty, wrath, and judgment of God. The celebrated American writer Annie Dillard loved passages like this. She wrote one like it herself:
Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful…tourists on a package tour of the Absolute?....On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible [aware] of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.
The second word-picture painted by the biblical writer shows us a different mountain, Mount Zion, the coming Kingdom of God. He envisions the celestial city where “the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” are gathered around the throne of the Son of God:
You have come to Mount Zion…the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, [with] innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…
At first glance these two pictures might seem to be contrasting the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. A lot of good church members make that mistake. But notice how the author of Hebrews links the two visions, first, by referring to God as “the judge who is God of all” and then by the last sentence of the passage: “Our God is a consuming fire.” It’s the same God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the God of the Old Testament) and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (the God of the New Testament) are not two gods, but one God. There are not two gods, one wrathful and one loving, but one God who is Judge of all. “Therefore,” says Hebrews, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” The writer wants his readers to know “what sort of power they so blithely invoke.” That’s really the thrust of the passage; we are to understand that the God who has promised to gather his people into a great “cloud of witnesses” through the blood of Jesus is the same God whose judgment upon sin and death is felt as a consuming fire.
You see, the world is not supposed to be the way it is. We are not supposed to be reading and hearing bad news every day. The world is not supposed to be filled with earthquake, fire, and flood, with plague, pestilence and famine (to use the language of the older Book of Common Prayer). Oil spills were not part of our Creator’s plan for our planet. Cancer was not part of his plan for humanity. It was not God’s plan that humanitarian aid workers should be shot point-blank by the Taliban. Murderous drug cartels were not part of his plan, and the rapacious American appetite for cocaine that keeps the cartels in business were not part of his plan. Is it not good news that God will judge all of this?
One of my favorite cousins died a month ago. She was only 54. It will give you an idea of how respected and loved she was when I tell you that there were 900 people at her funeral. She had a melanoma that spread to her brain. There was nothing her doctors could do. What do we make of this? It is one sign among a trillion others that the creation is bent out of shape. Melanoma was not part of God’s good creation.
Not long before he died, the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth wrote a letter to a friend:
Somewhere within me there lives a bacillus with the name proteus mirabilis which has an inclination to enter my kidneys—which would then mean my finish. I am certain that this monstrosity does not belong to God’s good creation, but rather has come in as a result of the Fall. Like sin and with the demons, it cannot simply be done away with but can only be despised, combated, and suppressed. That [is] the task of the doctors [and] good nurses…Apart from this, however, I am getting along remarkably well. The main thing is the knowledge that God makes no mistakes and that proteus mirabilis has no chance against him.
Karl Barth’s proteus mirabilis, my cousin’s melanoma, the afflictions of our own parishioners, of which we have seen a great many in recent years—none of this is part of God’s good creation. Like sin and all the other manifestations of the demonic, it can only be despised and resisted.
But the Hebrews passage gives us a more complete picture of the wrongs that need to be made right. On Mount Zion, we see Jesus, now reigning from heaven, “the mediator of a new covenant, [with his] sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Let’s look at that. What’s Abel got to do with this? This reference to Abel reminds us of what happened immediately after the Fall of Adam and Eve, the “first disobedience.” Just in case we might think that being kicked out of the garden of Eden wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, we are told that Cain killed his own brother, Abel, for no reason except jealousy. Rembrandt made a drawing of this murder, and an art critic wrote, “The drawing establishes that murder requires concentration, a sure method, and sudden energy, and that it hurts. Of course, this isn’t just any homicide. It’s the first—a cosmic disaster...” Ever since that cosmic disaster, the blood of Abel has cried out for justice. The blood of the martyrs of Afghanistan just two weeks ago cries out for justice.
But where is that justice to come from? Where is the power that can not only defeat cancer, heal the planet, and overcome our murderous instincts but is also able to make everything right again and restore what was lost?
Let’s take a look at the Psalm we just read, the first two verses:
In thee, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame!
In thy righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline thy ear to me, and save me!
Throughout the Psalms it is continually repeated: God is the one who saves, the one who is powerful to deliver. God alone can make right what is wrong. God alone can overcome death and the demons.
It’s typical of human beings to think of the demonic in terms of something external to oneself, something that afflicts others but not us. I was reading a review of a new reassessment of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It noted Niebuhr’s insight that humans become self-destructive when they define themselves as sinless and manifest arrogance toward others. That’s the danger of losing sight of the theme of divine judgment. Part of being a Christian is understanding that we are all in need of the divine judgment. Look again at the Hebrews passage. It says that the City of God will contain “the souls of the righteous made perfect.” That’s suggestive. If someone is righteous, then why does he need to be made perfect? Maybe it means that good people need just a little fixing up to be perfect, just a little nip and tuck here and there. But that isn’t what the biblical story tells us. As the firebreathing writer Robert Farrar Capon says, God did not come to improve the improveable, but to raise the dead. Every one of us, every single one of us in church this morning including the person in the pulpit, is far gone in unrighteousness; but God is able to create something that does not yet exist—a perfected humanity. He will judge and destroy those aspects of ourselves that, if we are repentant Christians, we want never to see again.
Listen further to Hebrews:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem...and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.
The blood of Abel has been crying out for justice and righteousness from the first day until now, but that cry has been answered. It has been answered by the blood of Christ.
The Psalmist says, “In thee, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame!” I don’t think people experience shame today in the same way they used to. I don’t think many parents tell children they ought to be ashamed of themselves when they do something wrong, the way my parents did. Today, shame seems to mean something more like being humiliated or embarrassed or disgraced. Either way, however, the letter to the Hebrews makes an essential connection. We have to go back a few verses to see it. Here is what it says:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside…sin which clings so closely, and let us run…the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus… the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who…endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Can you see how this all hangs together? The Bible interprets itself. Jesus is the one who took our shame upon himself on the cross, on our behalf and in our place. He is the pioneer who has run the race ahead of us, who perfects our faith, and—from his seat at the right hand of God—will come in glory to be the Judge of this whole world of sin and death. It is his blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of the martyrs—more graciously because God alone is able, through Christ, to make everything that was wrong right again.
The third part of today’s reading brings us back to our theme of God’s wrath and judgment. The God who shook the mountain with his mere voice has promised to give a kingdom that cannot be shaken. God is an awesome God. He is not awesome in the way my grandchildren say that movies and fashions and soccer games are “awesome,” but in the real sense of the word—causing fear and awe by power. Only a truly awe-inspiring God is able to shake the earth and the heavens in order to defeat evil and cause a new kingdom to come into being, a domain that cannot be shaken. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving [this unshakeable] kingdom… and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
And so our great and unconquerable hope is this: sin and the demons will be judged and consumed by the Lord himself. That will happen in his time, which is not ours to know. But in the meantime, the powers of death will be judged a little bit at a time as God works through the deeds of love and mercy done by his people, not only doctors and nurses but also by all of those who stand alongside others in suffering and who work for justice and righteousness.
And so we close in confident hope with the great words of the ancient canticle called the Te Deum:
Thou art the King of glory, O Christ,
thou art the everlasting son of the Father…
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God….
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants
whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood. Amen.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper and Row, Perennial Library paperback version, 1988), p. 40.
 The reference is to an event of recent days in Afghanistan.
 Letter to John D. Godsey, January 25, 1966. I have simplified the syntax somewhat in a couple of places.
 Peter Schjedahl, “Story Line: Rembrandt in Boston,” The New Yorker, 11/10/03.
 I forgot which of Capon’s many books this comes from.
 It’s so important to read biblical passages in their context. The little printed sheets used by many churches have the effect of disconnecting the readings from their place in the Bible, and people are not learning how to handle the Bible and find passages.
 Book of Common Prayer, p. 52-3.