Proper 16: Isaiah 58.9b-end; Hebrews 12.18-end; Luke 13.10-17
BLAISE PASCAL died at one o’clock in the morning of Saturday 19 August 1662. Shortly after his death, a servant noticed what appeared to be padding sewn into the dead man’s doublet. The padding proved to be a piece of parchment, and, wrapped inside the parchment, a faded piece of paper.
Upon both the parchment and the paper was written, in Pascal’s hand, an account of an intense experience that had overwhelmed him one night some eight years previously. The words on the paper are scribbled in agitation, a torrent poured out in the immediate aftermath of that experience. The parchment, with some alterations, is written calmly and carefully, as a confirmation of his original testimony.
The scrawled words on the scrap of paper are often quoted — “Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals.” Henceforth, for Pascal, God ceases to be merely a concept, a subject of dispassionate rational enquiry. Like Moses, he has seen the burning bush.
The words that Pascal wore on his heart for the rest of his days recall the tremendous text that ends Sunday’s New Testament reading, the great affirmation that concludes what has been described as “the longest sustained argument in the Bible” — the first 12 chapters of the letter to the Hebrews. “Our God is a consuming fire.”
The image of the deity as a consuming fire is taken from the Old Testament, where it speaks of a wrathful and avenging God. When the children of Israel pass over Jordan, God will be a “devouring fire” to destroy the tall and terrible Anakim (Deuteronomy 9.3). “Sinners in Zion”, too, will tremble. “Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire?” they will ask. “Who among us can dwell with the everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33.14).
The description of God as a consuming fire disturbs most of us. Such language makes us think of the lake of fire (Revelation 21), of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25.41), and of tormented Dives begging for a drop of water to cool his parched tongue (Luke 16.24). The picture of an angry and pitiless God, annihilating the sinful — or, still worse, preserving them alive — in the agonies of hell, is repellent.
We do well to be troubled by the picture of God as a consuming fire. We would do better still if we were terrified by it. For we, too, we who languidly turn the pages of the Church Times Friday by Friday, are “sinners in Zion”. Isaiah’s warnings about those everlasting burnings are for us as well.
Lurid accounts of the flames of hell (not to speak of the unpleasant properties of sulphurous brimstone) may well have to be demythologised. But the moral reality behind the metaphors — the truth that what we used to call “sin” has to be dealt with — is not to be disposed of so readily. And it is for our salvation that it is so.
It is all to do with how we understand the love of God. For George MacDonald, the love of God is inexorable. It will not admit defeat. That is how he could understand God as a God of fire. The circle of fire about the Almighty is not there to prevent us, sinners that we are, from approaching him. On the contrary, the wall of fire around him is about us, too. It encircles us in order to drive us back to him, should we stray too far from his heart of love.
So MacDonald prays:
But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake of Fire — even into thine own consuming self? For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one — O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire — shall have been burnt clean and brought home . . . As for us, now will we come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us. And although thou seem to slay us, yet will we trust thee.
For T. S. Eliot, too, there is no escaping the fire.
Who then devised the torment?
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
“Not the God of the philosophers and intellectuals,” wrote Pascal, incandescent with the love of God. He might have added, in the light of our Old Testament reading and our Gospel, “Not the God of religion, either.” For the anonymous prophet whom we hear on Sunday, whose oracles are later attributed to Isaiah, the only fast God delights in is the liberation of the oppressed.
For Jesus — confronting yet again an indignant ecclesiastic, incensed that he has ignored canon law — holy days are not for adding to the weight of human bondage, but for setting the imprisoned free.
9You shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
18You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, 19and 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. 20(For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.‘) 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! 26At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ 27This phrase, ‘Yet once more,‘ indicates the removal of what is shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28Therefore, 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; 29for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.