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08.25.13 Courage in Following God’s Calling, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

by on August 26, 2013

Some people don’t follow God out of fear of where God may lead them. These passages confirm, and then confront, those fears.

Summary Points

  • Various perspectives on God’s “judgment”—divine frustration, religion acting badly, purification
  • How God’s presence give us courage to follow God
  • A faithful perspective on life and living—gratitude and courage
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

Today’s reading from Hebrews appears ambivalent with regards to how we are to respond to the new revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It begins with the revelation of God to Moses and the ancient Israelites on Mt. Sinai. That first revelation, Hebrews says, was accompanied with warnings and dangers such that the people were terrified. By contrast, the revelation in Christ includes a festive, triumphant, welcoming, inclusive assembly. Hebrews then asks, “If God wants to have this relationship with us, why don’t we respond?” It then closes with a warning that appears to reintroduce the fear characteristic of Mt. Sinai. What’s going on here?

Think about this scene from Luke. Here Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and a woman who has been suffering for 18 years comes in and he heals her. Can you imagine what the other people might have thought? Maybe there’s something to this religion thing. Maybe my own hurts can be healed. Maybe God cares also about me. And they might have been summoning the courage to follow this hope and maybe they might have started praying again. Maybe they would trust Jesus to heal them.

But it was a Sabbath and the local religious authority jumps in and tells the rest of the people to come back later in the week. This infuriates Jesus. What could possibly be wrong with offering God’s grace to this hurting woman? How could any religion prohibit the healing of one of God’s children? What kind of religion would that be that proclaims God’s grace and healing but restricts it to certain days or prescribed means?

The God that Jesus knew was interested in healing the hurting, seeking the lost, feeding the hungry. So when religion gets in the way of God’s passion and God’s values, then that religion has to change. “You are hypocrites!” Jesus exclaims. “You say you love God, but you withhold love from this woman.” “Anyone who says he loves God but does not love his sister is a liar.”

It is this kind of judgment that Hebrews is warning us to avoid. God desires to be known. God desires a relationship with us.  God has made himself available to us, and our neglect is astounding to God. What is worse, our hypocrisy frustrates God. We have the appearance of people who should know God—we go to worship, we offer prayers, we financially support the ministry, we read the Bible—but when it comes to a decision between our religious habits and welcoming others, Jesus wants us to choose welcoming others.

So Hebrews reminds that God is a consuming fire. Here in Colorado we know something about consuming fires. We have witnessed forests, homes, and entire neighborhoods consumed by fire. All that is left in some cases are the nails that once held the house together. In most cases, thank God, lives were preserved also. Lives that go on. People who realize more than the rest of us what it means to be alive. Who know what is truly important. Who have a better chance of understanding God’s passion and values than others. Who have had an experience with God’s kingdom that cannot be shaken.

That’s what the image of the fire is in scripture. It is means to an end. It isn’t pleasant, but it purifies. And that’s the image from Hebrews. It’s a promising image, a haunting but hopeful image. “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, for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”

It was God’s purification that Jeremiah warned the ancient Israelites about. God was preparing to use Babylon to come and purify Israel. They used the words of God’s kingdom but were not living according to it. They were exploiting the poor and powerless and found religious justification. Like the ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13, they were content to observe religious ritual without listening and following what the ritual taught. And for their own good, because they were God’s own people, God was going to purify them. And Jeremiah was the voice God chose to proclaim this message.

The images of Jeremiah’s message allude to a massive relandscaping. God told Jeremiah in his message would uproot weeds and pull down overgrown shrubs, he would destroy walls and overthrow systems, and he would build and he would plant. That’s a 2:1 ratio between bad things and good things. “Jeremiah,” God says, “you’ll spend your career taking two steps back before taking one step forward.”

Apparently Jeremiah was young, or at least he felt too young to do it. That was his excuse for not doing it. Or perhaps he was trying to find a way out, because he knew that such an unpopular message would result in rejection, mocking, beating, and threats against his life—which it did.

But God assured Jeremiah that he would be with him through this hard calling. Just as God had been with Jeremiah since before childbirth, he would be with Jeremiah into his old age. Of course Jeremiah didn’t remember God delivering him from the womb, to use the words of the Psalm. But God was there. So when Jeremiah peered into his future, not knowing exactly what to expect, he had faith God would be there also.

We may hear about God’s purifying presence in Hebrews and walk away with a sense of fear. After all, Hebrews warns us not to ignore this presence, but to worship God with reverence and awe. But it was this same presence that drove out Jeremiah’s fear. So he followed God despite the hardship.

God’s presence is a consuming fire that purifies us. God’s presence is a fire that also consumes everything that we would be afraid of.

The Confession of 1967 says, “Life is a gift to be received with gratitude, and a task to be pursued with courage.” (Book of Confessions 9.17) Think about your own life. What are the gifts unique to you, that you can receive with gratitude? Think especially about the dreams you had in childhood—remembering Jeremiah was young when he received his call. My childhood dreams included building things, being a fireman, and being a commercial airline pilot. Sometimes I think about my pastoral ministry in these images. That is how I receive this gift with gratitude, and how I now pursue my pastoral tasks with courage.

What tasks has God given you to be pursued with courage? Some may  not be easy, as in Jeremiah’s case. Or maybe you say with Jeremiah and Samuel, “I’m too young.” Or with Abraham and Sarah, “I’m too old.” Or with Moses, “I’m inept.” But God called all of them, and God is calling you. All that is required is that we listen and that we depend on God.

What is God calling you to do?

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • When you come to the Lord’s Supper, which from ancient times has been called “eucharist” which is Greek for “thanksgiving,” do you have an appropriate reverence and awe, as Hebrews describes as the acceptable worship we offer to God? What could you do to increase your sense of reverence and awe in Christ’s presence?
  • In what ways does religion get in the way of, instead of serve as a vehicle for, God’ grace? How does your religion get in the way of God’s grace?
  • What things in your life can you bring to God to burn off, to purify you, to make you more ready to be a part of his kingdom?
  • What things are you afraid of, that you can offer to God in the image of a consuming fire?
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