“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29 NIV)
This whole verse seems hopelessly out of date in some ways. It claims that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, when it seems like Christianity is less accepted and more under attack than it has been in years; it talks about reverence and awe when our culture enjoys coffee and flip flops in church (and we better be out of church in time for the big game); and it says that God is a consuming fire in a world full of consumers who buy temporary stuff and want instant gratification. It begs the question: if God is a consuming fire, who is being consumed?
Let’s go shopping in these verses and see what we can take home… 1) First, whenever you see a “Therefore” in Scripture, you should look back in the passage and see what it’s there for. The writer of Hebrews quoted Haggai 2:6, reminding a repressed and skeptical people that no matter what their political circumstances, God still had a covenant with them and was still going to exercise His will: “In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory…” The nations will be shaken, but not God’s plans. Remember what God has promised and take heart.
2) The writer of Hebrews says we should be thankful. All revival begins with thanksgiving, and all thanksgiving begins with the right transaction in your heart. Having a posture of thankfulness assumes humility before the giver and an attitude of gratitude. Do you feel the proper sense of humility before the Lord? Are you grateful for all He has done? Have you given thanks today?
3) Worshiping God should involve reverence and awe. What we wear to church doesn’t really matter, but when was the last time you truly experienced reverence and awe in worship? Step out of your timed church service boundaries and your concerns about where to go for lunch and allow yourself to be steeped in the majesty and splendor of an Almighty God. Remember that He loves you and is jealous for you. The writer of Hebrews quotes Deuteronomy 4:24, “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” He is not a petty suitor jealous of someone else but a passionate lover who is jealous for you and your attention. He wants what is best for you and wants you to experience His love and goodness in an overwhelming way.
4) God is jealous for you in the way a mother is jealous for her child’s safety, and the same way a husband is jealous for his dying wife’s health. He is loving and possessive in the best kinds of ways, and we should remember that in our everyday lives. We should be consumed not because God demands it but because He wants to place us in the security and protection of His love and His presence.
And finally, this: 5) If God is a consuming fire, then why are we not consumed? Is it He that is not hot enough or bright enough? Or is it that we just don’t WANT to be burned? Perhaps we selfishly reserve our passions for ourselves, refusing to be burned and thereby consumed. Consider this: if to avoid consumption, we stay away from the fire, then we also miss the warmth, the illumination, and ultimately the passion in being truly inflamed… Is God not warm enough? Bright enough? Perhaps you are sitting a bit too far from the fire…
Worshiping God assumes we're open to the things he cares for,
And look at what His Word proclaims to see just what it's there for.
Worship presupposes that we come to Him with gratitude,
Allowing Him to shape not just our service, but our attitude.
This Sunday, try to focus not on comfort or attire,
But let yourself be open to the passion and desire
That leads you to repentance as it lifts your spirit higher,
And lose yourself in worship in our God's consuming fire.
Are things going to last forever? It can be a fearful thing to think about how everything will end someday… “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not be abolished.” (Isaiah 51:6, NKJV)
There are a couple of ways to view this verse. It certainly refers to the brevity of life, and reminds us that this current version of earth (and the temporal lifespan of all who live upon it) will not last very long in the infinitely grand scheme of things. As James 4:14 says, “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.”
When you compare our time on earth to eternity, there’s no real comparison—the time we will have with our Father will far out-distance our time here. So instead of focusing on how short our finite lives are, it makes more sense to realize how long our infinite lives are. People have tried to acknowledge the pure scale of infinity, but I’m pretty sure we usually fall short of comprehending how long forever is, no matter how expressive we are.
There’s a song Johnny Mathis recorded in 1957 called “The Twelfth of Never” that says, “I’ll love you ’til the poets run out of rhyme…Until the Twelfth of Never—and that’s a long, long time.” Wikipedia says, “The song’s title comes from the popular expression “the 12th of Never”, which is used as the date of a future occurrence that will never come to pass. In the case of the song, “the 12th of Never” is given as the date on which the singer will stop loving his beloved, thus indicating that he will always love her.”
Never certainly is a long, long time. Michael Herr’s prize winning book about Viet Nam, “Dispatches”, uses it another way to describe how a combat veteran might respond to a new officer on the line… Lieutenant: “Sergeant, run over and check out that bunker.” Sergeant, evaluating the order and giving the Lieutenant the thousand-yard stare: “Never happen, Lieutenant.” In that case, never MEANS never…
And I guess if “never” is a final and irrevocable outcome, then that also gives us some scale about how “forever means forever.” God says that’s how long His salvation will last. In a world full of temporary satisfaction and fleeting moments, the eternal surety of God’s unfailing love is an amazing prospect.
Spend a few moments reflecting on how long eternity will be, and what it will be like. I’m sure it will outlast our earthly version of those majestic mountains and out-distance the endlessness of deep space…
Being in God’s presence will be awesome, exceeding what it’s like seeing the mountains for the first time or hearing an incredible virtuoso perform brilliantly—except that it will be better than that, and it will go on and on without ever being boring or repetitive. We won’t be sitting on clouds playing harps, we will be intimately engaged with the Most High God, unfettered by the earthly limitations that hold us back.
The Bible offers hope that it will continue to be a time of growth, interaction, relationships, and love. Take the best feelings you’ve ever had about being loved, wrap yourself up in them, multiply them by about a billion, and extend that out forever. You’ve taken perhaps your first baby step into heaven.
Michael Martin Murphey’s hit song “What’s Forever For?” has the right idea: “And if love never lasts forever, tell me, what’s forever for?” Isaiah says the earthly heavens will vanish away like smoke, but that the Lord’s salvation is the answer to Michael Martin Murphey’s question: It’s what forever’s for…
Somewhere, out past the deepest space,
The beginning of the deepest grace
Will cleanse our hearts and dry our tears
With the merest start of a million years.
Sometime, deep in eternity
We will stand in awe as we get to see
The Glory of the Risen Lord:
And we won’t get tired, and we won’t be bored!
There will be more than streets of gold,
With an endless love that will not grow cold,
And infinite learning that inspires
The choruses of the heavenly choirs…
Heaven will offer us endless days
To walk with God, to learn His ways,
To find a surprise behind every door,
Always growing, learning more
Of what Our Father has in store:
I think that’s what forever’s for!
In the grand scheme of things, do we get to choose or not? Is where we spend eternity something that just happens to us, or something we get to choose? Peter says this:
“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:8-9, NIV)
Peter quotes Psalm 90:4 here to remind us that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years… (So if you’ve heard that phrase and wondered where it came from, there you go!) The perspective of a thousand-year day reminds me of the man who learned that a million dollars was but a penny to God, and a thousand years was but a day. He asked the Lord, “Father, will you give me a penny?” The Lord said yes. Overjoyed, the man asked, “Father, when can I have it?” The Lord said, “Just wait a day.”
Peter contrasts God’s eternal nature with our finite one. It’s hard to wrap our brains around the difference because we are so used to endings. This short passage highlights two important things: God’s timing is by definition different from our timing, and God’s agenda may be different than we assume.
As an eternal God, His desire is truly for all men to live with Him for all eternity. This might explain why the day of the Lord (which Peter felt could happen at any time) is still yet to come. God is patient, and every passing year allows a new set of people with birthdays to come to Him in repentance. I understand people objecting to that notion, feeling that a loving God would surely choose all men to be saved all the time. He could indeed do that, but He’d have to take away our choice. If He gave us no choice, we wouldn’t have freedom, and He wouldn’t be loving.
Second, Peter says God tarries in executing judgment because His desire is that all men would have an opportunity to choose grace. I don’t think this verse means that all men will be ultimately saved (universalism); but it DOES mean that Christ died for all men, and all have the opportunity to repent. It’s hard to believe, but not everybody chooses repentance, and not everybody wants God. C S Lewis says, of the person who declines to choose God: “He has his wish—to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is hell.” Many people follow their own will, or depend on a finite perspective to accept or reject God when God’s will for us is infinitely better than our own… Man’s will often chooses temporary gratification over long-term benefits. God’s will always sees the bigger picture and provides the opportunity for the greatest benefit. “Instead he is patient, not wanting anyone to perish…” In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to eternity, you really DO have a choice. Choose wisely.
Peter says that God desires all folks to find repentance;
He wants all men to choose Him rather than sin’s deadly sentence.
When you think of eternity and all there is to lose,
Make sure you think of what God says right here before you choose.
Peter offers sage advice; in fact, he says it nicely:
God’s steadfast, loving patience offers you a choice. Choose wisely.
The images of the tornadoes are there, displayed at somebody else’s expense, an unfortunate testimony to the fact that we humans are morbidly curious. The dangerous weather events that caused such devastation in Oklahoma and Texas have left tragedy in their wake, and newspeople can’t quit showing it and talking about it, and we can’t look away. There are a lot of reasons we look at the news coverage when other people are devastated. We are somber over other peoples’ loss, and concerned about survivors. We are curious about people we know in the affected areas, and wonder how they are. We hope for survivors in the wreckage, and grieve over those who didn’t. We see dazed, heartbroken victims, anxious relatives, and aerial views of what must be worse than a war zone. The wreckage from the tornadoes is otherworldly, like something out of a movie, but full of details only reality could provide. Cars have been twisted and tossed like little toys; houses, businesses, street signs and landmarks are all just gone, leaving nothing behind but trash covered slabs and debris-strewn fields that used to be neighborhoods just like ours. Victims have lost possessions, vehicles, photos and heirlooms, personal belongings, shoes, cell phones, computers, homes, everything. As a result, people are glued to television and the internet, listening to stories, looking at images of utter destruction from the deadly tornadoes.
Some just gawk, relieved it wasn’t them. Some try to learn about safety, playing “what if” scenarios in their heads and evaluating potential survival strategies should such a thing happen to them. Some are motivated by the tragic scenes of ground zero to respond, to offer help. People outside the boundaries of the tragedy analyze it, break it down, and speculate about how it happened, and why. Survivors within the tragedy are struck by the randomness of it all, and are grateful for God’s protection and their good fortune. A quick scan of Facebook shows several themes about the deadly tornadoes and the destruction they left in their wake in Moore, in Cleburne, in Granbury… Some thank God for his blessing, because they or their possessions were spared; many express grief or sympathy, or provide what they hope is helpful information; and there are posts saying that schools were damaged as a result of God’s judgment: since we have taken Him out of schools, He has not protected them from natural disaster. Questions arise out of the wreckage. Did God cause this storm? Did he select certain homes for destruction while blessing others by leaving them intact? Did He judge elementary school children for the fact that we have separation of church and state?
How can a loving God allow this to happen? A couple of observations:
1. Under the vast umbrella of God’s sovereignty, in the same place he allows us choice about what house to buy, what food to eat, who to fall in love with, there is a provision for human will, for cause and effect. Solomon said, “I have seen something else under the sun: the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” Because we have the ability to make choices, we live in a world that is subject to the vagaries of cause and effect, of time and chance. Ultimately, yes, God allowed the environment that leaves room for tornadoes, and they fall under His domain; but the storms happen because we live with choices in a fallen world. Wouldn’t a loving God cause such tragedies to cease? He only would if He was going to circumvent our ability to choose, and He loves us too much to do that. I certainly believe in God’s sovereignty, and that all things happen within His will. I might concede that God does intervene in this world to exert His will at times, but I also believe He allows random things to happen because He loves us enough to let us make choices.
2. Is God’s blessing indicated by survival? I want to tread lightly here, because I would not presume to know all about God’s blessing, or to dispute with anyone who felt that they had received blessing from God. But a couple of things: if God blessed those who survived, does that necessarily mean He cursed those who didn’t? It’s hard to have one without the other. Perhaps we need to recalibrate our assumptions about blessing. God’s blessing is not found in material things, it is not found in prosperity, and it may or may not be indicated by survival. What if God’s blessing is just His presence and His peace? What if it comes from His being with us in the midst of tragedy, rather than His protecting us from harmful events? God’s blessing could exist then in every outcome, not just the ones that favor us circumstantially. We could find His blessing everywhere, and encounter His supernatural peace and presence in the wreckage of natural disasters, in difficulty and disease, as well as in seasons of prosperity and good fortune. Don’t hesitate to thank God for blessing us with love, health, and possessions; but don’t fail to thank Him for blessing us within devastation, loss, and grief. Paul wrote to Timothy that he encountered trials and tribulation at Antioch, Iconium, and Derbe, but was delivered out of all of them. Sure enough, in Acts we read that Paul discovered and escaped from plots to execute him in Antioch and Iconium. However, at Derbe he was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead. (yes, he was struck repeatedly by large, heavy rocks until he was battered and bruised and assumed dead) Apparently Paul’s definition of deliverance is different than mine. What he knew, and what he taught is that sometimes God’s deliverance (blessing) is FROM the stones; sometimes, it is THROUGH the stones.
3. Did God judge elementary school kids for the fact that we have taken Him out of schools? This is almost too ignorant an assumption to address, but the short answer is “no, He didn’t.” In Luke 13, Jesus is asked if some Galileans who had been killed by Pilate deserved to die. He asked, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” He extends the example to an accident in which the Tower of Siloam fell on unsuspecting bystanders. Jesus uses tragedy to teach that for every one of us, the harsh lessons of life should call us to evaluate ourselves, to be accountable, and to humbly repent before God. But he clearly says that the victims of these tragic events were not selected because of their sin. When bad things happen, we should turn to God.
4. If God cares about us, why are there tornadoes? Why does He allow such tragedy? I think there are lots of ways to approach this, but I will choose one: God’s concern for us is not contained in the prevention of tragedy, but in His participation in it. He is not some cosmic Being, sitting majestically removed from us in the heavens, He is “god-with-us”, who humbled Himself, suffered the death on the cross, and as God the Father had to experience the loss of His own child when He could have stopped Jesus’ suffering at any time. The fact that Jesus lived on in resurrection does not diminish his pain and anguish on the cross one teeny bit; and God’s own power and glory did not prevent him from feeling every bit as loving and protective towards His son as any parent would. Yet His love for us was such that He did not intervene, and He cared about us enough to absorb personal tragedy of the darkest kind. God’s empathy is not phony, and His ability to walk with us in the dark times is not based on whimsy or fiction. He really does understand, and He knows everything there is to know about loss and pain. He also knows about redemption and peace. I would add that the finite circumstances we see may be outweighed by the glory of the infinite outcomes we don’t see. For those innocent victims we see in tragedy, God may have infinite outcomes we will only see when all ends are revealed. We assume in our grief that loss of life is the worst thing that can happen; it may be perhaps the doorway to the best thing that can happen.
We are praying for you guys in Oklahoma, and for you guys on Facebook, and for whomever has to deal with the tornadoes that come. May you find the blessing of God’s presence no matter what the circumstances.
We are getting ready to go on vacation today– and it’s one of those “once in a lifetime” vacations, to Rome (the eternal city) and Tuscany, the heart of Italian wine country and culture. We have been thinking about and preparing for this vacation for over a year, and it seemed as if this day would never come! We have spent hours thinking about going, looking forward to our sojourn in Italy. But now we are killing time today at home, waiting for our evening flight and in the meantime trying to think of what we might need in Italy, or what we may have forgotten to pack. We are also readying our home for our absence– our dog Abby is at grandma’s, the timers are set on a couple of lights, the potted plants are all near sprinklers now, and the thermostats are programmed. As I walk through our home, I feel strangely disconnected, knowing that I am leaving for even a short while to reside somewhere else. Even though our home is warm and familiar, I am looking forward to the journey ahead– new sights, new places and food, new friends, and new adventures! We have been so looking forward to this trip that it has affected our reading, our conversation, and our priorities. It’s amazing how an upcoming experience like this makes an impact on what we do and how we feel– and today we feel the thrill of anticipation, knowing that we will soon look upon work by Michaelangelo, DaVinci, and see first hand the wonders of ancient Rome… that anticipation is so pervasive that part of me has already left this familiar home and is projecting my thoughts to the trip ahead. I’m ready to go!
Then it struck me… I will also be going on a trip soon, one to the “eternal city”, one that will involve new places and friends, where the work of Michaelangelo and DaVinci will seem insignificant, and where growth, friendship, and revelation will be continuous and inspiring. Anticipation will be endlessly fulfilled and surpassed, conjoined with even more delightful anticipation that will be again fulfilled and surpassed. And I wondered… is THAT trip affecting my reading, my thoughts, my conversation? Has it changed my priorities? Am I looking forward to my ultimate destination with enough connection and assurance that I am preparing to go, taking care of details, and not feeling TOO connected to this familiar home? Peter said that we are aliens and sojourners, people on a journey to a wondrous destination, and that as temporary residents we should take care not to get too wrapped up in temporal pursuits. We are never told to ignore our place on this earth, but we are reminded of its brevity– so we should smell the roses, and appreciate not only where we are going, but we should also enjoy where we are, even when the season is temporary. May our journey enliven and transform us, and may we recognize the wonder in our sojourn, even as we anticipate the joy in our arrival!