Hebrews 12:18-29

A Consuming Fire

By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel


Last October, we had the great privilege, Margit and I, of visiting the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima, Japan. We saw the ruins of the A-Bomb dome, the former Industrial Promotion Hall. It is the building closest to the epicenter of the nuclear bomb and remained at least partially intact. We also visited the Children’s Peace Monument and heard middle school choirs singing and honoring the children killed in the bombing.

There is a statue in the memorial of a girl with outstretched arms and a crane rising above her. The statue is based on the true story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died from radiation. She believed that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes she would be cured. Sadako did not live, but to this day people, mostly children, from around the world fold cranes and send them to Hiroshima where they are placed near the statue. We also visited the Peace Museum which provided information and insight into the events of August 6, 1945, which concluded World War Two. 140,000 people died by the end of that year in Hiroshima.

In 1946, the American author, John Hersey, published a book describing the experiences of six survivors of the blast. One was a Methodist pastor named Kiyoshi Tanimoto. Pastor Tanimoto happened to live through the bombing only because that morning he traveled to Koi, a suburb, about two miles from the center of the explosion.

All that day and for many days after, Mr. Tanimoto provided care and assistance to less fortunate victims of the bomb. He helped by ferrying people in a small flat-bottomed boat, across the Ota River away from the terrible fires caused by the blast. Here is an excerpt of Hersey’s account of Pastor Tanimoko’s experience:

Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit.
He drove the boat onto the bank and urged them to get aboard.
They did not move
and he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves.
He reached down and took a woman by the hands,
but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.
He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment.

Then he got out of the water and though a small man,
lifted several of the men and women who were naked into the boat.
He remembered their burns: yellow at first,
then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off,

and finally by evening, coated with puss and smelly.
With the tide risen , his bamboo pole was not too short
and he had to paddle his way across the river.

On the other sit, at a higher spit,
he lifted the slimy living bodies out

and carried them up the slope away from the tide.
He had to keep consciously repeating to himself,
‘These are human beings ‘.”

We are human beings. We are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We are created in the image of God but we are fallen creatures, sinful. Some even use the term total depravity. As theologians tell us, original sin, is really this: Non possible non peccare, it is impossible for us not to sin. It is not just dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima —ending the war and saving thousands of lives of American and Japanese warriors and civilians but also taking the lives of thousands of people going about their everyday lives. We are caught in a web of sin. It is not possible for us not to sin, in our work or at school, in our relationships with family and friends, even in our religious life.

The Bible explains the human predicament very simply but profoundly—God is righteous and holy; we are unrighteous and sinful. God is all powerful and we just keep making the wrong choices and are unable to do the right thing. In Genesis God looked at the humans he created and repented of the creation. We are by nature sinful and unclean but we are also precious in God’s sight. Almighty God will judge us by our deeds and no one will be able to withstand the judgment; but God is also our Savior who through Christ does not condemn but blesses us. Almighty God took our sin and died for it. What we could never do, God has done for us.

Fire has always been a friend and enemy. Without the invention of fire, we could not eat so many diverse foods, sterilize instruments or make it through the winter. Some have suggested that fire was the great protector of our prehistoric forbears from predators, wintry winds, and fearful things in the night. I know when I watch “Survivor” on television, the first challenge for these people in the jungle wilderness is to make fire. But fire also burns and consumes. It was the firestorm of Hiroshima that killed so many. Fire can destroy as well as provide heat and light. And God is described in our Hebrews text as just this: Indeed our God is a consuming fire.

I would like to look at this text with you—it is difficult. The writer is talking about two mountains. Look at verses 18-21. The mountain here is Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The story of the Israelites at Mt. Sinai is awe inspiring but also fearful. The people fear God who comes in a blazing fire; darkness and gloom, a tempest and the sound of a trumpet, with a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

God had appeared to Moses before in the burning bush, in the fire and voice that commanded the prophet to take off his sandals because he was walking on holy ground. Moses was afraid at the burning bush and Moses was afraid at Mt. Sinai. It was so terrifying that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” Moses was so afraid of this God who spoke to him in thunder and revealed himself in lightning; God allowed Moses to look only on God’s backside because looking upon God’s face, Moses would have died.

The people were so afraid that they begged Moses to veil himself when he spoke to them. The shine of Moses’ face was terrifying. The people could not stand to hear the voice of God and because of God’s holiness they could not approach the mountain. Our text quotes, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Why stoned? Because it was a way to kill the animal without having to touch it and incur God’s wrath. Mount Sinai in our text represents God’s power and might, God’s righteous anger and giving the Law that human beings might fear God and obey God. We should fear God. Mt. Sinai represents salvation through keeping God’s Law.

But there is a second mountain in our passage, Mount Zion. Look at verses 22-24. Mt. Zion is the place where God was present with God’s people, first as the tabernacle was brought to this mountain and then where the Temple was built. The Temple priests made sacrifice for sin because no one could perfectly keep the Law. It was in the Temple that once a year on the Day of Atonement; the high priest would confer the sin of the people on a scapegoat drive out into the wilderness and enter the Holy of Holies.

Again the presence of God was so fearsome that the priest would have a rope tied around his ankle. If the bells of his robe fell silent, the priests would drag the body of the high priest out of the Holy Presence of God. Likely he would have died beholding God’s glory.

But Mt. Zion represents God’s mercy. Through the sacrifices of the priests, and the offerings of the people, sin was forgiven. Through the blood of the victim, the people were made clean. And here the writer of Hebrews notes that Jesus is the great high priest, the mediator of a new covenant. His sprinkled blood was better than that of Abel; the innocent brother killed whose blood cried out from the ground. Once and for all people, God Himself atoned for our sin. Jesus, the Son of God, was both the priest and the victim.

We as human beings do not save ourselves. We can not. But God can and did. We should love God because of the sacrifice of Jesus. We should praise and thank God with “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” We should love our brothers and sisters no matter where they are or who they are. We are all saved by Christ alone; Japanese or American, people of Hiroshima or Pearl Harbor. We are men and women of great value and worth. We are loved and saved by the Living God.

James Baldwin wrote a novel called, The Fire Next Time. It refers to the end of the age when God has promised, “Yet once more, I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” The terrible fire of God that came upon Mt. Sinai will yet come to all the earth and even the heavens. If the people feared the presence God of Sinai how much more will they fear at the Great Judgment.

But the next time is also the time of God’s salvation. We look to Mt. Zion, the sign of God’s mercy, to Jesus who died to take away our guilt and shame to make us men of righteousness and women of holiness. The fire will burn sin but not us. The fire will consume evil but save the righteous. God is a consuming fire but we will be safe. God has promised us, “When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy of Israel; I am your Savior.” Amen.

Copyright 2007, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.