Kingdom of Fire & Earthquakes
During the Covid-19 downtime, I finally read an author I’d always wondered about, when I dove into a collection of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. If you don’t know him, Lovecraft was a pioneer of the horror genre in the early 1900s, famous for novels like Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth. What makes Lovecraft’s horror unique is the terror doesn’t come from his monsters per se but rather from the realization that there are things out in the universe far beyond our mortal scale, entities too awesomely different to gaze upon, creatures whose existence defies rational understanding. You get fish monsters from depths no man will ever see, gelatinous aliens all around us all the time which we simply lack the sensory organs to detect, terrible fey creatures from a primeval era whose whims we cannot understand. Most Lovecraft stories end with the narrator turned insane when confronted by beings so other, so alien, so unlike our world that—unable to process what they see—their mind simply snaps.
What's funny is... that's kind of how Christians talk about God. Now I'm not saying the Almighty is a fish monster. But most of the Bible and nearly every Christian theologian describe God as wholly other in his perfection, holiness, glory, and power. Or as Hebrews says today, “You have not come to something that can be touched.” Scrambling for words to describe God's cosmic otherness, how utterly different the Lord is from us creatures, Hebrews unleashes an avalanche of metaphors: “a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” Or consider angels in the Old Testament: there's a reason most Biblical heroes react with abject terror when they meet one, overcome by the angels utter holiness, other-worldliness, and glory. This stark difference between the Holy God in heaven and us ordinary people here below is why, as Hebrews cites, when Moses at Mt. Sinai received the Ten Commandments, he ordered that “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” In both the Old Testament and the New, God is awesomely different. And therefore, as Hebrews warns over and over, God is not a Being to be treated casually. Meeting God is like handling fire or a live wire: utmost respect and careful separation is required lest you be overwhelmed by the intrinsic power.
Where I disagree from H.P. Lovecraft, however, is that I am not disturbed by the idea that I am a small creature in an infinitely large universe surrounded by things I do not comprehend. I think we all have times when we feel small. When we each feel insignificant. When we feel too imperfect or guilty or foolish. When we feel feeble and weak. Again, there's a new disease outbreak that's killed hundreds of thousands already and may kill millions before it's done. But then there's all the problems and worries from before all this happened that are still going on: the shrinking US middle class, the climate increasingly inching towards disaster, Americans' growing distrust of and inability to talk with each other, the shrinking of the Church in the West. So often for so many things, I want to make a difference... but I feel so small. All I can control is my little corner of the world, and it feels so tiny. The sheer scale of the world’s problems can terrify me just as much as Lovecraft’s monsters. Add atop this the usual spiritual challenges: guilt and shame making us feel unworthy to go near God... or temptation and distraction keeping us from nurturing our spirits... or anger and grief leaving us unwilling to pray. It is easy to feel like lost in the grand scheme, like tiny specks of dust on a little blue rock... and that God is too big, too far, too perfect to understand or bother with us. It's easy to feel hopeless in those times… or angrily rebellious… as if our decisions don’t matter or have consequences.
And that sense of inadequacy and smallness which we all feel at times is why Hebrews then reveals this good news: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem...” Hebrews notes with irony that Mount Sinai at Exodus was a place that could be seen but never touched... but now because of Jesus we are drawn into Mount Zion, a place we do not yet see but will indeed touch. It's why Hebrews warns of Esau in Genesis 25, who traded away the promised birthright he could not see for the measly soup right before his eyes. Hebrews' lesson is that Mount Sinai, though tangible and visible, was forbidden to the people in Exodus, because nothing could bridge the gap between its divine holiness and the people's sinful imperfections. But Mount Zion, unseen and far off still yet known, opens its gates wide to us because now at last there is a way for us to ascend God's holy mountaintop. That is why Hebrews calls Jesus “the pioneer,” “the trailblazer of faith,” for he opened up a new path to God. That is why Hebrews here calls Jesus “the mediator of a new covenant,” that is to say the middleman in our new way of having relationship with God.
What kept the Israelites from going up Mount Sinai was that God was holy, fiercely perfect in glory and power: no mortal could stand before the fullness of God and live. That still has not changed. Humans still aren't perfectly holy and good yet. But what has changed is that, thanks to Jesus, our entrance into God's kingdom no longer depends on our personal holiness... but rather relies on Jesus' holiness, as a kind of borrowed righteousness Jesus grants us so we may ascend the heavenly mountain safely. We ourselves are still not worthy to ascend. But Jesus cloaks us in his own worthiness and holiness, so that we can draw near God's utter majesty and power and grace, safe in the arms and love of Christ. And there in the presence of God, on Mount Zion in the city of the Lord, we find ourselves daily growing into that divine holiness which for so long we lacked and yearned for, find ourselves daily growing in the knowledge that little ones to Jesus belong, we may be weak, but he is strong.
Today's reading ends with a warning. “Now God has promised, 'Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.'” That key phrase “once more” can also translate as “once and for all,” which is why Hebrews then continues: “This phrase 'Yet once more'—or rather once and for all—indicates the removal of what is shaken... so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks.” Remember why Hebrews was first written: to reassure Christians who were burning out, discouraged, uncertain about their future, close to giving up. After comforting us that, even though we are not as holy as we could be still God reaches out to us in Jesus, after giving that comfort, Hebrews shifts to its final comfort here. Heaven will one day crumble. The Earth will one day fade. This sanctuary which we spent so much time and energy rebuilding, which we are so grateful to be back inside once again... this too shall pass. Hebrews reminds us that all created things come and go... but our Lord is forever, God's kingdom shall not end, that Christ is the sure foundation. Because Christ draws us to himself, we too can have shelter from the storm, comfort amid the consuming fire, because we know that God does not abandon or forsake his people. Hebrews urges us to hold on and persevere in faith... because God will help us endure, because yes this world trembles and shakes at times such as this but God is still with us, and God promises to give us final rest just as he gave to all our ancestors who likewise endured.
Today's scripture is one of fire and earthquakes. But my home state is a land of fire and earthquakes. But its those powerful, unconquerable forces are what give California much of its natural beauty. Today in our lives—amid fear and disease, amid grief and uncertainty—Hebrews invites us to see our cosmic, untouchable God at work... to trust that the Lord has not forgotten us... to know that we are promised a paradise rest that cannot be shaken or burned... to trust that through Jesus—though we are imperfect, broken and small—through Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith we may boldly ascend Mount Zion. For in Christ the unknowable and untouchable... became flesh and lived among us, that we might live with God forever. Amen.