ADOTS MORNING PRAYER: Friday, 12 March 2021
Fr. John A. Roop
Burst Into Flames
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some years ago, a friend was ordained to the diaconate in a small Oriental Orthodox jurisdiction. No one had mentioned it to him, but he had noticed that the local priest always paused to say a prayer just before coming to the altar. Thinking he might need to do the same, he asked the priest what prayer he prayed, expecting to be pointed to a particular place in the liturgy. The priest said, “Mostly, I just pray not to burst into flames.”
I’ve always liked that answer; it’s always felt right to me. Those of us who serve at the altar know that it’s holy ground, know that we have no inherent right to be there, know that unless God has indeed called us there, we just might burst into flame.
There is some sense of this in our liturgy, when the priest prays on his own behalf and on behalf of the people:
And although we are unworthy, because of our many sins, to offer you any sacrifice, yet we ask you to accept this duty and service we owe, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And, there is the Prayer of Humble Access — as if any other kind of access were appropriate:
We do not presume to come to this your table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness…
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table….
There is a vast “no man’s land” between God’s righteousness and our sinfulness, between God’s glory and our shame, and we know it. To step into that space unadvisedly, uninvited, is to step into a fiery furnace.
Fifty days after Passover — on the Old Testament Pentecost — Israel arrives at Sinai, the Mountain of God. While the people make camp, Moses goes up to God, and God speaks:
Exodus 19:4–6 (ESV): 5 “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
A kingdom of priests and a holy nation: but Israel is not yet that. They must be formed. They must be purified. They must learn covenant faithfulness. There is still a vast “no man’s land” between God’s righteousness and their sinfulness, between God’s holiness and Israel’s faithlessness. And though God has called them to the mountain, they dare not come too near, and this by God’s own warning:
Exodus 19:10–13 (ESV): “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments 11 and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.”
Israel may come to the mountain, but not up the mountain. Sinai will be made holy ground by the presence of God, and Israel may not so much as touch it on pain of death.
Exodus 19:16–20 (ESV): 16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
Thunder, lightning, cloud, trumpet blast, smoke, fire: the presence of God. The people did not want to go up the mountain; they knew better. They trembled and stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (cf Ex 20:18-21).
This “no man’s land” between God and Israel manifests throughout Scripture: instantiated in architecture, in the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in Tabernacle and Temple where the people might not come; in relationships, in the need for judges and priests and prophets to mediate between God and Israel; and not least in the exile itself, God’s faithless people cast out of God’s holy land. In some real sense, the entire Old Testament narrative is a people’s lived experience of the Prayer of Humble Access: we do not presume to come; we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But, Israel’s story — which is the story of all of us — does not end there, does not end with separation. Because neither Israel nor we could enter into God’s presence without bursting into flame, God came to us: not in thunder and lightning and smoke and fire, but in the Word made flesh, in emptiness, in the form of a servant (cf Phil 2:5ff), in Jesus Christ, in the one who perfectly unites divinity and humanity in his person, who draws up human nature into the divine presence without the destruction of that human nature. Jesus steps boldly into the “no man’s land” and there plants the standard of God — the cross — and he invites all men to come to it. Come now to God. Yes, you will burst into flame, but come anyway. It will be the transforming, purifying flame of the burning bush where you will burn with the fire of God but not be consumed, where you will be refined but not be destroyed. Come into the presence of God. Come into the fire.
In reflecting on this invitation we now have to come into the presence of God in and through Christ Jesus, the writer of Hebrews looks back to Israel gathered at Sinai and writes:
Hebrews 12:18–24 (ESV): 18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Stop a moment to ponder this mystery. As we gather here and now in the name of Jesus, gather even remotely and virtually, and most especially as we gather for the Eucharist on the Lord’s day, we come to Mount Zion, not just to the city of the living God, but to the living God himself, to Jesus who makes this gathering possible through the sprinkling of his blood. We are surrounded by innumerable angels dressed for the great feast — the Marriage Supper of the Lamb — and to the assembly of the Church on earth and in heaven. The presence of God that terrified Israel now beckons the Church, beckons us:
to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:19b-22, ESV).
We come into the presence of God humbly and fearfully in ourselves, yes, but boldly in and through our Lord Jesus Christ, having our bodies washed with the pure waters of baptism and having our hearts sprinkled clean by his blood. We come into the presence of God as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, what God promised Israel and fulfilled in the Church. The “no man’s land” of separation is no more, and the thunder from the mountain is the voice of God’s invitation: Come. Amen.