The Burning Question
By John Lancaster (Leeds, EnglandAnnie Dillard, an American writer, in a devastating analysis of contemporary church life in the United States of America, describes the average congregation as being like "cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute."
"Does anyone," she asks, "have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are like children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church: we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. Explorers unmindful of ‘conditions’ died. Why don’t unprepared worshippers perish on the spot?"
And though most of us no longer wear straw hats or even sit in pews, the "old order" having passed away, these words, quoted by Eugene Peterson (he of "The Message") in his splendid book about Christian ministry, "The Gift," still have an uncomfortable ring of relevance.
If we are honest, Dillard’s picture of the modern church "playing with chemistry sets" on Sunday mornings is nearer the mark than we would like to admit. We want our churches to be thought "progressive," but often all we do is conduct little experiments in forms of worship and church activities, following the latest formulae but using the diluted chemicals of safety-first churchianity. We want our churches to be manageable, comfortable, user friendly, not too demanding in terms of times, money, effort and commitment; yet all the time, if only we realized it, we are living within striking distance of the volcanic fires of Divine holiness.
Sometimes it takes the awesome spectacle of an Ananias and Sapphira coming under Divine discipline to make us realize that "our God is a consuming fire."
It was the sudden shock of this realization that evoked the startled cry of Isaiah: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?"(Isaiah 33:14 ).
At first glance, it seems as though Isaiah is talking about hell; in fact, he is talking about the presence of God. Moreover, his question is not addressed to the God-defying Assyrians who at this moment are besieging Jerusalem, but to the inhabitants of Zion!!
"Who among us . . . ?"
The situation is desperate. The sun glints on the helmets and spears of an encircling army, brave men break down and cry, the roads are deserted, no one can be trusted, and the early falling leaves herald a coming "winter of discontent" (verses 7-9).
Against this background of utter despair has come a cry for Divine help - "O Lord be gracious to us . . . " (v. 2), and God has answered with a promise of deliverance (v. 10-13). He will come. He will exalt His own name, the fires of Divine judgment will consume all that is offensive to Him, and then, when judgment has done its strange work, peace will come to Zion, the King will be seen in His beauty, the city will become truly Jerusalem - the city of peace - whose inhabitants will know the wholeness of forgiveness and restoration (v. 17-24).
But in between the cry for help and the promise of ultimate salvation is this disturbing picture of the "consuming fire and everlasting burning." Again, we must remind ourselves, it is not the rapacious Assyrian soldiery that is addressed, but the "sinners in Zion." Yes, the godless world outside will face the fires of Divine judgment - but we, too, must never become complacent. Our God is a consuming fire. To be in His presence is to be within the ambience of a holy love which will not tolerate sin and which commands our utter reverence. We must takes the shoes from off our feet because we are standing on holy ground.
God first revealed His Covenant Name out of the bush that burned with fire (Exodus 3:2 ); He issued the laws of His earthly kingdom from a blazing mountain (Deuteronomy 4:13 , 24; Hebrews 12:18-21 ), and led His people through the desert by a pillar of fire. In fire He came into Solon’s temple (2 Chronicles 7:1-3 ), and to a nation "halting between two opinions," He made Himself known as the "God who answers by fire" (1 Kings 18 ). Fire, too, became the symbol of Pentecostal blessing (Matthew 3:11 ; Acts 2:1-4 ). Fire was the visible symbol of the presence of the God of dynamic energy, purity and power.
But this is not "cosy" fire! It is not the quiet hearth around which we stretch out in comfortable armchairs and toast crumpets; it is consuming fire. Yes, God is "the God of all comfort" - and bless His name for that - but He is also the God who says, "Be holy, for I am holy."
Who "among us" can live within reach of this incandescent blaze?
We may feel a certain moral satisfaction as we watch the smoke rising from an unrepentant Sodom and Gomorrah, but what of our own flammability?
Are we, too, in danger of playing with fire?
Do we, too, take risks with the holiness of God?
This is the burning question.
Biblical history is punctuated by heart-stopping moments when people played with fire and were badly burned. Sodom, the Egyptians at the Red Sea, the arrogant captains who tried to arrest Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-10 ). Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome, all came under Divine judgment, and a succession of modern nations have likewise suffered, within the flames of Divine wrath - and there is more to come (2 Thessalonians 1:7 ). God sweeps the armies of the nations from the arena of history like a man removing a collection of toy soldiers from a table top.
But that is not in view here! Not the Assyrians, but "the sinners in Zion"! The question is, "who among us" can dwell in these fires of Divine holiness? We cannot be complacent, for the fires of Divine holiness also flamed out against men who thought they were God’s servants. God hates sin inside Zion as much as He does outside of her. Nadab and Abihu died for offering "strange fire" (Leviticus 10:1-3 ); the "grumblers" in the camp likewise perished (Numbers 11:1 ); Korah and his "power-seeking" colleagues also died (Numbers 16:31-35 ); Miriam is smitten with leprosy for criticizing Moses (Numbers 12 ); Uzzah dies for "touching the ark" (2 Samuel 6:6-7 ); Uzziah is banished for attempting to go beyond his remit as king (2 Chronicles 26:16-23 ). And if it be argued that these are all Old Testament incidents, "under the Law," then we must remember that Ananias and Sapphira were cut down for "merely" fiddling their finances (Acts 5:1-13 ). Moreover, the New Testament warns us about our personal state at Communion (1 Corinthians 11:27-32 ), and local churches about apathy, compromise, complacency and tolerated sin (Revelation 2 & 3).
The "burning question" is answered in Isaiah 33:15-16 . The prophet describes the "anatomy" of holiness; feet that walk in righteousness, mouths that tell the truth, hands that actually shake at being offered anything that is not "above board," ears that refuse to listen to the insidious voices that strangle truth and assassinate characters, and eyes that refuse to "surf" the satanic internet of lust, proud ambition and godless materialism that sets up its websites in the midst of "a wicked and adulterous generation." Never was Proverbs 17:24 more appropriate: "a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth." But it is the roving eye that becomes blinded by the desert glare.
Only fire can live in fire; only holiness can live comfortably with God. That is why the modern church is so restless. As Wordsworth wrote, "The world is too much with us." In our reaction against the "closed shop" of old fashioned notions of "separation" we have swung to the other extreme. In the name of "relevance" we have compromised with the world’s values, its life-style and its broad-mindedness.
To use a modern expression, we have "dumbed-down" the uncompromising nature of New Testament Christianity in order to make it attractive and easily acceptable to the consumerism of an age which is more concerned with personal satisfaction than taking up the Cross. We are in danger of losing our sense of awe in the presence of a holy God. Much of what we call "praise and worship" is actually aimed at ourselves rather than God. As long as we have enjoyed ourselves we have succeeded.
"Worship," said James Packer, "has largely been replaced, at least in the West, by a form of entertainment calculated to give worshippers the equivalent of a sauna or jacuzzi experience, and send them away relaxed and tuned up at the same time" (introduction to "God the Evangelist").
In the same book, David F. Wells has written searching words about the modern Church."Success," he says, "is the sacrament of the secular age. Its outward and visible signs are affluence, prestige, power, the ascent of the corporate ladder, the bigger church, the biggest audience. Its inward and invisible grace is its sense of having arrived, of being somebody - somebody who counts, someone with clout, somebody who has to be reckoned with."
But this is worldliness; it is the "proud look" which is an abomination to the Lord. Yet so often we regard it as quite normal. It is the spin-off of our quest for success. But as Wells puts it, "the Spirit’s power comes only in conjunction with His work of truth and holiness." He goes on to say, "Our obsession with His power is really an obsession with results. At its basest level it is an admission that we will solicit converts on almost any terms and that Gospel preaching can be legitimately carried on by almost anyone, regardless of how he or she lives."
That is the spirit of the age, but it is foreign to the heart of God. Sadly, we seem more anxious about impressing the world than pleasing God, more concerned, even in our praise and worship, in keeping congregations happy than offering a "sweet savour" unto the Lord, sometimes more desirous of our own reputations than the glory of the Lord. The light-heartedness of much we call worship has robbed us of our sense of awe: we "picnic" on the mountain of the Lord but never get anywhere near the summit, and it is just as well, for if we got too near the heat would kill us.
But who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who can "ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place"? Who of us can survive the "everlasting burnings" of the holy presence of God? Only men and women with clean hands and pure hearts, people who have not gone after idols and have not lost their personal integrity (Psalm 24:3-6 ). Only those, that is, who know their own unworthiness and come for cleansing through the atoning blood of Jesus. Only those who have abandoned their confidence in the flesh and seek continually for the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is only through the unchanging character and mercy of God that we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22 ; Malachi 3:6 ), but that gives us no excuse for complacency. The consuming fire of God’s holiness demands that we lay aside all self-confidence, all crowd-pleasing, all moral carelessness, all flippancy of speech and conduct and come humbly and reverently before Him in thankfulness of heart, worshipping Him "acceptably with reverence and awe" (Hebrews 12:29 ).
It requires us to take the shoes from off our feet because the place whereon we stand is holy ground. But it also tells us that the Divine fire consumes only that which is unholy. Like the bush in the desert we shall not be consumed if we are fully open to His holiness (Exodus 3:2 ).
But how "open" are we?
That is the "burning question"!