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The Devouring Fire of God’s Grace

Sunday, February 23, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

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Our texts today from Exodus and Matthew are strange, somewhat unsettling, passages.  They are not passages that fit our intellectual categories very well, which is to say that many people will find them ridiculous or absurd. Both of these texts take place on a mountain, which is itself a bit of a clue that something odd is about to happen.  In the Bible, nothing normal happens on a mountain.  These are passages that ponder the presence of God, the overwhelming radiance of God.  They ponder that quality of God which our tradition has come to refer to as God’s glory

In our liturgy, especially at the time of communion, we will regularly sing a response that is referred to as a Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might; heaven and earth are full of your glory, hosanna in the highest.”  The sanctus announces that the earth is filled with the glory of the Lord right now.

Many other parts of the Bible pray for this to be the case in the future.  Psalm 57 prays, “Let your glory be over all the earth,” which implies that it is not yet the case.  Psalm 72 prays, “May God’s glory fill the whole earth.”  The prophets of the Old Testament promise that one day, the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  So some parts of the biblical tradition pray earnestly for this to be the case at some point in the future, while other parts announce that it is already the case, even now. There is an “already-not yet” quality to God’s glory. God’s overwhelming glory fills the heavens and the earth.

In the Scriptures, ‘glory’ also has an almost-tangible quality.  In our reading this morning from Exodus, we read that “Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days.”  The glory of the Lord is mysterious, like a cloud, but you can almost see it. The Hebrew word for ‘glory’ is chabod, a term that actually means ‘heavy,’ so we’re talking here about something that is weighty and substantial and commanding, something that can fill a room.

All of this comes to a head in our text this morning from Matthew, when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain.  Jesus is transfigured transformed before their eyes. The word Matthew uses for ‘transfigured’ here is metamorphos, so that Jesus undergoes a kind of metamorphosis and begins to shine like the sun.  The glory of God radiates forth from Jesus, as he stands right in front of Peter, James, and John.  Peter, James, and John are actually living out the opening verses of the gospel of John where it says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Peter, James, and John are seeing his glory right in front of their eyes.

We may think, “Boy, those guys were lucky to get to see that! I wish I could have been with them!”  But we ought to observe their reaction. Matthew tells us that when the disciples took in the full glory of God in the person of Jesus, they did not give each other high-fives. They fell to the ground, overcome by fear.  They were terrified.  In the presence of the glory of God, the disciples tremble with fear.

Here we have arrived at one of the deep paradoxes of biblical faith. God’s grace and God’s glory are the most wondrous, beautiful things. And there is a tremendous, numinous, terrifying aspect to them. In our reading from Exodus, the narrative says that as Moses and Joshua went up into the mountain of God, the “appearance of the glory of Lord was like a devouring fire.” There was a group of elders at the base camp at the bottom of the mountain, who watched Moses and Joshua go up the mountain into this devouring fire. I’m thinking that they could be forgiven for thinking that they’d seen the last of Moses and Joshua. What is fascinating is that the adjective Exodus uses to describe the fire of the glory of the Lord as “devouring” is the same adjective used to describe the burning bush in Exodus 3, which was on fire but was not consumed. The bush was not devoured. God’s gracious, devouring glory is beautiful, and powerful, and it evokes a kind of fear.

I wonder if you have ever experienced this kind of fear.  This is very different from being threatened by a bully, someone who swaggers about, trying to intimidate other people.  Bullies are actually full of fear themselves, and the way they deal with their own fear is by projecting it onto other people.  The fear of the Lord is much closer to trembling awe, in which you suddenly realize that you are in the presence of someone or something much greater and much larger than yourself.  It is the kind of experience that leaves you breathless, even as you realize that you have never been so alive.  Being on a raft on a white-water rapid left me this way.  Scared to death, but fully alive.  I have also felt this, sitting at the bedside of a man who was dying.  We’ve been talking about them as thin places, but we should not think that they are flimsy. You know you’re in the presence of something much larger than you are.  That’s what the glory of the Lord is like.

This past weekend, I was with my dad in North Carolina, and we were talking about what I would be preaching this morning. When I mentioned that the title of the sermon was “the devouring fire of the grace of God,” he immediately began to speak about the Southern author Flannery O’Connor, whom he has spent a lot of time studying. O’Connor was consumed with writing about the reality of grace. But it was not a smooth, gentle grace that many of us might prefer. There was often a violent aspect to the grace that she wrote about, because she understood that our modern minds and our desires for control keep us from letting the transformative reality of grace in. “In my own stories,” she wrote, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work..”[1] O’Connor is also known for having said that “all human nature vigorously resists grace, because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

Many of us would prefer that grace and glory not be so heavy, so demanding, so disruptive. We would like for grace to be a smooth add-on to the rest of our lives, leaving our lives unchanged. We would like to keep the “devouring fire” separate from the “grace of God.” We would like to keep “grace” separate from any “change” that it requires of us. But that would be what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has famously referred to as “cheap grace,” which is not worth that much.

The grace of God in Scripture, which brings us into the presence of the glory of God, is not like that. It is tremendous, and it shakes us out of our apathy and complacency and cynicism, which is, of course, to say that it saves us.

The glory of God shatters all of our tightly controlled categories, overrides space and time, overwhelms and rearranges our understanding of reality. It is no surprise that most of us resist this greatly. We would much prefer to stay safe and in our comfort zones, even when those comfort zones can be stifling. But then, by the grace of God, something happens to us – a diagnosis, a disruptive experience, a great loss of some kind, a transcendent, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing encounter that shatters us and finally opens us up in some way. That is the kind of experience that Moses had on the mountain, and it is the kind of experience that Peter, James, and John had, and it terrified them. In the midst of their fear, Jesus comes to them, he touches them, and tells them, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” Jesus could have said, ‘You’re darn right to be scared.  You better be scared.”  But he doesn’t.  God is not a bully. He says, “Get up.  Stand before me.  Do not be afraid to be with me.”

Friends, as we prepare to enter the season of Lent this week, let us remember that God’s glory is not confined to some mountain in ancient Palestine, long ago.  Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, which means that we may encounter the glory of God at any moment.  The glory of the Lord is filling the entire earth. We may encounter God’s radiant beauty, God’s light in the face of another person, in a sunset, or in some other scene of wonder.  But we may also expect to encounter the glory of God in ordinary places, in unexpected places, even in places of suffering and loss.  The glory of the Lord is filling the entire earth, overwhelming us, shattering our tight control, and opening us up to God’s saving grace. To God alone be all the glory, now and forever.  Amen.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” edited and with an introduction by Frederick Asals (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993) 58-59, italics added.