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Encounter with God: Consuming Fire (Hebrews 12:18-29)

By William H. Willimon
"... let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Some of you are new here. If you are -- welcome! If you are a new student, a particular welcome to you. After all, this is your Chapel. I want you to feel.... what is it I want you to feel?

I almost said "This is your Chapel and I want you all to feel right at home." That's what I almost said. "I want you to make yourself at home, comfortable."

But it's hard to feel that way in Duke Chapel. The place is big, real big, and dark, real dark, and the organ plays loud, real loud, and the preacher is up, way up.

Makes you feel small, doesn't it? The space dominates you, overwhelms you, overpowers sight and sense. Big Duke Chapel, little you, even smaller me. That's right, even though I work here, have been here for a while, the place still steps on me, overpowers me, even on Mondays, but especially on Sundays. I get up the courage to climb into this pulpit, tell myself that I've only got to hang on up here about twenty minutes, that the choir behind me really is nice, average people, and that this really isn't all that big a deal. It doesn't work.

I still get chills, still get the shakes, still keep stomach medicine in my Gothic washroom. The place is big, dark, threatening. And you will find that there are Sundays when -- even though we've got it all planned, nailed down, and the order of worship all worked out -- God almighty still manages to reach in here and grab us by the neck and shake us. Then this isn't anymore a pulpit but a rocket into unknown space and you aren't just bright boys and girls who made 1350 on your SAT's, who always did what your mother told you and came to church -- you're a wild, spirit-filled, cut-loose mob set free to roam.

Doesn't happen often. But it does happen. Knowing that it can happen keeps me reaching for Maalox. The place is big, dark, threatening.

So is today's text from Hebrews. I bet that you never heard it before. Back home, in Sunday School, they tell you about the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son; they tell you about how kind and good Jesus was. But you've got to wait until you're old enough to go to college to hear a strange, big, dark, threatening text like this one:

"You have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, darkness and gloom, a tempest, the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg it to be silent."

This isn't kid's stuff, pablum to be spoon fed by pet preachers to house-broken congregations who have lost their teeth. This is a dark, threatening word.

"For they couldn't endure the order, 'If even an animal touches the mountain, it will die'." It was so scary that even a big man like Moses said, "I tremble with fear."

He's talking Mt. Sinai, the holy mountain of God where Moses went to meet God, listen, receive the commands. God's voice "shook the earth" then, so you better listen now. It can still shake.

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