A Consuming Fire
This past weekend I had a bonfire in my backyard of trash lumber and yard waste. It began with some kindling, but I quickly piled things on until I had a massive pyre built. Before long it was fully ablaze. It was so hot that I could barely stand to get close to it for more than a few second to "stir" it around as it burned. In a matter of a couple of hours, all of that wood was reduced to a pile of ashes. This is what I think of when I read, "our God is a consuming fire."
Besides the multiple references to God as a consuming fire in the scriptures, there are also two accounts of God quite literally consuming people and things with fire (see Leviticus 10, 1 Kings 18:20-40). So, this description of God is not merely metaphorical, rather God can execute his judgement and wrath in the form of an all-consuming flame. These pictures of God as jealous, vengeful, and merciless in the face of transgression are wildly unpopular. We much prefer a tamer picture of God. We want the picture of the lamb in the petting zoo, not the king of beasts, the lion, stalking his prey on the plains of Africa. But God is both the lion and the lamb. By rejecting or distancing ourselves from one, we lose all perspective on the other.
Think of it this way, pretend for a moment that you are enjoying a day at the beach and while out swimming and playing in the waves, you suddenly find yourself being quickly pulled to shore by a lifeguard. Now suppose when you get to shore the lifeguard tells you to have a nice day and goes on about his business with no explanation. You would likely find the whole encounter strange and rather pointless, right? Now, reimagine the same scenario, but this time, when the lifeguard gets you to shore, he directs your attention to the several large sharks that are in a feeding frenzy in the same area you had just been swimming. Suddenly, your perspective completely changes. Not only do you find yourself appreciative for your safety, but also with a profound respect and admiration for the courageous lifeguard who put himself at risk to protect and save you.
Isn't our understanding of the gospel much the same? I can scarcely proclaim the merciful nature of God in Christ and the merits of the cross if my audience has no legitimate fear of the wrath and justice of a holy God. My message would fall on deaf ears. The issue for many today is that they find themselves with no need of salvation because our society has convinced them that the measure of a man is not in his status before a transcendent deity, but rather in his interactions with his fellow man. Sure rapists, murderers, traffickers, pedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers, and the like are in need of a savior, but the average joe who works a 9-5, pays his taxes, and can identify at least one friend of a different skin color or sexual orientation is doing what they can to make the world a decent place to live. We have set the bar increasingly lower in order to puff ourselves up and pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done. We celebrate mediocrity and teach our kids that just showing up is worthy of a trophy. All the while our gospel gets smaller and smaller.
This is nothing new. Human beings have always found ways to convince ourselves we really aren't that bad. Paul's letter to the Romans, which is perhaps his most theologically and doctrinally rich epistle, starts with an in-depth exposition of the plight of mankind, before the apostle turns his attention to the saving work of Christ. We need to know where we've been and where we are in order to see where we need to go. A map is no good if you have no point of reference from which to go forth. The teaching of the Old Testament, and the vivid descriptions of God's just hatred of mankind's sinfulness; as well as the descriptions of his patience, loving-kindness, mercy, and grace, all move the narrative forward towards the incarnate Christ of the New Testament. One does not, indeed it cannot, make sense apart from the other.
This is why the author of Hebrews again reminds his hearers of their position before God, apart from Christ. God doesn't desire that we approach him with dread and terror. If that were the case, non would dare to draw close. Rather, he desires we approach him with the respect, reverence, and awe that he is due. The scriptures implore us not to flee from God, but rather to approach him as penitent, with a humble spirit and a contrite heart.
By God's grace every one of us exists today. A right understanding of the truly despicable nature of our sin would lead any to rightly expect to be consumed by the flames of judgement. And yet, we continue to fumble about as we are; and the Almighty God of Heaven tarries on with us. Proper reflection on this reality should draw us to look inwardly at our own hearts and minds, and to reach outwardly for the hand of our Savior, who desires to pull us out of the tempestuous seas of sorrow, fear, doubt, and shame, and set our feet firmly on dry and solid ground to enjoy a new life in him. This is the hope of the gospel, and a reference point for our weary souls.
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Part 36 - Do Not Refuse Him
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Are there consequences for rejecting God?
2. What is Marcionism?
3. Have you refused Him?
Next week's lesson: Hebrews 13:1-8