“… 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.
I daresay that’s not a common experience of modern people. Today we build our churches like great carpeted living rooms, bedrooms, where every hard edge is cushioned and little preachers pad around in bathrobes and slippers lest someone be even mildly moved.
And, mostly, we don’t get moved. We come out of church no different from when we entered, once again reassured that God is silent, or, if not silent, at least speaking in a voice that sounds like our own. Our pastors are now relegated to the “helping professions,” chaplains to the occasionally afflicted affluent, reassurers of the status quo, affirmers of things as they are. The earth is not shaken by such secular silliness.
There were those, even in the time of Moses, who made God — the earth-shaking, fire-filled God — into a good friend. While Moses was lost on the mountain, trying to listen to God without being blown away, there were others down in the valley — the flat, cool valley — making up gods more to their liking.
“What good is religion if it doesn’t make you feel better?” they asked. They devised gods in their image, gods cut down to their size, gods speaking in their voices.
“See that you do not refuse the one who speaks,” warns the writer to the Hebrews. “Our God is a consuming fire.”
“Friends, are you lonely? Is there a little something missing in your life? Would you like to have peace, joy, love, self-fulfillment, happiness, good health, good sex, good times? Come to Jesus.” God as good friend. Jesus as cheap therapist.
It comes in more sophisticated versions. Feurbach charged that religion is nothing more than a projection of our own ego needs. We make God because we need gods. I take every virtue I wish I had, every desire I wish to be fulfilled, and project that as God. Feurbach’s charge becomes more difficult to refute as modern Christianity is rendered into therapy, and religion is judged on the basis of its utility. “What will this do for me?”
TV preachers promise to “make Jesus work for you.” But it comes in more sophisticated varieties. Some feminist theologians vote biblical images up or down solely on the basis of their alleged therapeutic value or lack thereof. If the Bible’s word clashes with my experience or my needs (as I define my needs) then so much the worse for the Bible. Not much shaking going on. I don’t need to plug up my ears to the words of a little god who talks just like me.
The foundation of a Christian view of ethics, or politics, or anything else begins in worship, in the sometimes dark, passionate, scary, fiery tempest of God and people colliding on Sunday.
“For our God is a consuming fire.” This God is a real God, not some pale, idolatrous projection of our ego. I’ve seen this God make sophomores sick, cause otherwise rational philosophy majors to lose control. I’ve seen people made to feel guilty about their behavior last weekend even in a world that lives by “if it feels good do it.” I’ve seen this God break apart families, drive people out of graduate school and into the jungles of Honduras. I’ve seen (you won’t believe this), I’ve seen God reduce to tears and confusion someone who was captain of his prep school lacrosse team and a National Merit Scholar. I’ve seen it!
At the base of this pulpit, there is a Christian symbol consisting of three triangles. It’s a symbol for the triune God — Father, Son, Holy Spirit. One of you, on Parents’ Weekend, was heard to ask his old man, “Why have they got the warning symbol for nuclear radiation on the pulpit?” Sure enough, it does look like the international warning symbol for radiation. It’s not a symbol for radiation. It’s a symbol for God, the living God.
But you take care. Don’t come around here unprotected without lead underwear and all your modern, flattened, rational wits at your disposal because I promise you that I (and the choir, the organists, the architect and everybody else who conspires to enable God to get in here) will do everything in my power to expose you to this “consuming fire.” Only thereby will you be enabled to rise above your present situation, to be free from your slavery to what is, to roam, to soar, to be saved, to hear.
When I was in seminary, in preaching classes, they told us, “The task of the preacher is to close the gap between the Bible and the modern world.” The preacher is the one who stands in the pulpit and holds the old Bible in one hand and today’s newspaper in the other. In twenty minutes I’m supposed to close the gap between the old, outmoded, irrelevant world of the Bible and the new, fresh, modern world where you live. The preacher stands with one foot in the old Bible and the other foot planted in the modern world (a recipe for a hernia if ever I heard one!).
No! Whenever we do that, the traffic invariably moves in one direction on that hermeneutical bridge. It’s always the modern world telling the Bible what’s what. We come up with a bunch of modern questions and then go rummage about in the Bible for acceptable answers. Thereby the modern world determines truth rather than the Bible. This is odd. I remind you that the modern world gave us not only Galileo, the telephone and TV, but also Dung Chou Ping, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the murder of millions of Native Americans. This is the modern world that I’m supposed to make the Bible credible to? No!
I’ve decided, since being in this big, dark, beautiful, overpowering place, my task is to make the modern world credible to the Bible, to dare you to listen to this troublesome voice more than to your own, to open up the gap between you and God rather than to close it, because it’s in the gaps — in the great big, threatening, dark, open spaces — that you are free to roam, to envision, to dream dreams, hear a new word, see a new world. It’s in the gaps — stripped of your defenses, modern secular veneer peeled away, naked and unsteady — that your great, loving God can come and shape you. Come to this kingdom that cannot be shaken.
“Thus let us offer God acceptable worship, with fear and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

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