Awe and Terror

Proper 21    August 21, 2016

Hebrews 12:18-29

What a powerful passage from today’s epistle reading. Of course I had heard it before, but it still seemed unfamiliar. I don’t know if I had ever really “heard” it before.

It is a tale of two mountains. On the one hand, it speaks of Mt Sinai, where Moses encountered God and received the law:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and 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. (For they could not endure the order that was given,
‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’
Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’)

On the other hand, there is Mount Zion, the holy city:

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, 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

In the contrast between these two mountains we find a powerful description of one very ancient and fundamental aspect of religious experience: the experience of awe. There is a terrifying irrational primitiveness about the description of Mount Sinai. Think of the command that if even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.

And in this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, there is another between two aspects of our faith tradition, between an experience of God as terror and judgment and an experience of God as grace and mercy.

Like much of the letter to the Hebrews, it is easy to hear this passage as a wholesale condemnation of the Old Testament, or even of Jewish faith, as something that has been set aside by the New Testament. As though they were a religion of wrath and judgement, and we were the religion of grace. That is not a helpful or particularly truthful way of understanding the contrast – us and them thinking generally isn’t! It just makes us smug. And it is simply untrue. Certainly the God of grace and mercy is abundantly present in the Old Testament, and it is Judaism’s final word on God. And with equal certainty, the God of judgment and wrath has been very present in the New Testament and in much later Christian tradition.

I would suggest that it is more productive to think of these two aspects, Μount Sinai and Mount Zion, as running through all religion.

Perhaps even more tempting to us is to think of the way in which our own Christian faith has progressed in the past several generations to proclaim more strongly and unequivocally the God of grace and mercy.

We have moved away from the abusive sense of God as a unpredictable authority figure we have to be afraid of, a source of absolute power that calls forth terror, to a basic trust that love and mercy are God’s fundamental relationship to us. Thank God for that!

We have moved away from a sense of our own unworthiness as the most important thing about us, an obsessive harping on our sinfulness, to an understanding that we are children of God, that God’s love for us marks us as fundamentally precious and valued. Thank God for that!

We have moved from an irrationality in religion, from governing our religious behaviour by inexplicable taboos and a blind acceptance of tradition, to a conviction that our intellect has a place in church, that God wants us to root our Christian life in understanding. Thank God for that!

We have moved from the worship of a jealous God, from the conviction that only our religious tradition is true and can please God, to an appreciation that no one faith has the monopoly on truth, that God can be honoured in many different religious traditions. Thank God for that too!

Thank God for all of these things that define us, I suppose, as a “liberal” church. I would not want any of them undone, I would not for a moment want to go back to the God of wrath and ambivalence.

And yet, somehow, this passage does not just leave me smug and vindicated, as though it were just there to congratulate us for our progressive attitudes. I can’t help feeling there is a challenge for us in here. I can’t help wondering if there is something we have lost as well, if we couldn’t use a dash of Mount Sinai in our faith once in a while.

Perhaps the word I am looking for is awe. We have – rightly – rejected the fear of God, God made in the image of an unpredictable human tyrant, the angry father. That biblical phrase, the fear of the Lord, gives us an allergic reaction. But the danger is: have we become so afraid of being afraid of God, that we have reduced God to our size? Has God has become so predictable, safe, so completely controlled by our understanding, that we have lost the experience of awe, of being confronted with a power greater than ourselves, a power that displaces us from the centre of our little world?

In the tales of Narnia, C. S. Lewis writes of the moment the children first hear about Aslan, the great lion who stands as Christ in Lewis’s fantasy world. The children are alarmed that they have to meet a lion, and ask “Is he quite safe?” To which the beavers answer: “Safe? Of course he’s not safe. But he is good.” And that distinction goes right to the centre of who God is. They go on to add “He’s not a tame lion.”

Or take our attitudes towards sin. We have rightly turned our backs on a church that put sin at the centre of our faith, constantly running ourselves and others down by a judgmental attitude. But we have come so far that it is difficult to name or speak of sin at all. We are left with an “I’m okay you’re okay” optimism that doesn’t fool anyone, and doesn’t give us any way of naming and healing the deep ways in which we are broken people.

Similarly, we have rejected the jealous God, and rightly so. How much richer our world is for learning to appreciate other religious traditions. How much more becoming of Christian humility is it that we have come to appreciate that we don’t possess all truth, and can learn and be enriched by other faiths. And yet: the danger is that everything just becomes a bit more relative. Our faith convictions are reduced to mere opinions, to be picked up or abandoned as a matter of personal choice. Do we still have the conviction that this stuff matters, that there is a word of life in the Christian gospel that we cannot live without?

When I look at other traditions – Islam perhaps, or more conservative Christian churches – I don’t for a moment want to be them. I don’t want their theology, though it may work for them. But I do envy them their passionate conviction. I do envy them their zeal. I do envy them their sense that their faith matters to them intensely, that their God is a consuming fire.

And I fear that we Anglicans may not always have the clarity and conviction we need to be strong in this world – that our faith is not always real and solid enough to be part of this real and solid world.

There is a line by the poet Federico Garcia Lorca that continues to haunt me: “Life is not a dream. Careful, careful, careful.”

I fear that we sometimes find ourselves adrift on the virtual reality of modern life, where nothing matters much, where our convictions and our actions are just relatively meaningless personal choices, where the only thing that counts is comfort. I long for a faith that has the power to lift me out of that soup, to give me something that is real and solid to hold onto, to give solid meaning in the morass of unreality that makes up our world.

God grant us the grace of a Sinai experience: that we may know God as wild, and real, and other!