"Fear of the Fire," by Claire Helton
Then God spoke all these words, and said, “I am YHWH who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. “Do not worship any gods except me! “Do not make for yourselves any carved image or likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth, and do not bow down to them or serve them! For I, YHWH, am a jealous God.
“Do not utter the Name of YHWH to misuse it, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who utters God’s Name to misuse it! “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy! For six days you will labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath for YHWH. Do no work on that day, neither you nor your daughter nor your son, nor your workers—women or men—nor your animals, nor the foreigner who lives among you. For in the six days YHWH made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that they hold, but rested on the seventh day; this is why YHWH has blessed the Sabbath day and made it sacred.
“Honor your mother and your father, so that you may have a long life in the land that YHWH has given to you!
“No giving false testimony against your neighbor!
“No desiring your neighbor’s house! No desiring your neighbor’s spouse, or worker—female or male—or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor!”
When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, and heard the sound like blaring trumpets, and saw the smoking mountain, they shook in fear. Keeping their distance, they said to Moses, “Speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or it will surely be our death.” But Moses said, “Don’t be afraid. God’s coming this way was simply a test for you, to give you a sense of awe and reverence, and to keep you from sinning.” The people kept their distance, while Moses went up into the darkness where God was.”
This is one of our sacred stories.
Thanks be to God.
I’ve spent most of my life in church, and one of the places I have encountered the stories, and the presence, of God most deeply was in a children’s Sunday School class where I volunteered as a teacher during seminary. It was essentially a contemplative Bible class for children. We used a curriculum called Godly Play. In that room, when it was time to go, we would extinguish the Christ candle that had been lit to remind us of Christ’s presence among us while we met. But instead of using the word ‘extinguish,’ we would talk with the children about how we weren’t really putting out the light of Christ (because, how could we?), but instead, we were simply “changing the light.” We’d remain still after the flame had been snuffed and watch as the smoke drifted, changed form, and eventually dissipated so that we could imagine it had mingled with the invisible air we breathed, filling the whole room, filling the whole world, as ever-present as the very spirit of Christ. Sometimes, if the sunlight streamed through the window just right, even after the smoke had become invisible to the eye, you could still see its shadows dancing in a flurry on the opposite wall. That class taught me something about taking a contemplative stance toward the world.
So there we were, our family of three at the time, gathered one morning with some friends for communal prayer, something we did every weekday morning for a season. This group, too, would light a candle at the beginning of our time together, and I had mentioned to the group the way the Godly Play class had deepened my experience of this simple act of extinguishing a candle, so for several days we had been appreciating the grace and beauty of the drifting smoke at the end of prayer each morning, enjoying the symbolism of the presence of Christ filling the room and filling our days. On this particular morning, 1.5-yr old James had joined us for prayer. As we closed our prayers and extinguished the candle, the rest of us sat silently in the quiet morning stillness and watched as the smoke danced toward the window, right toward James sitting on my lap. I started turning to look at his face expecting to see the same kind of wonder and awe that he greeted so much of the world with at that age, but before I could even turn my head, he was squirming on my lap, and crying out, “No…no…no…” as the smoke came his way – this look of pure fear covering his tiny face.
We laughed about it, of course, but I think at one year old, though he couldn’t have been aware of it, James was demonstrating a truth about the presence of God that all too often we forget. It’s easy enough to focus in on the ‘sweet, sweet presence of Christ’ or the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding;’ it requires more of us to remember that God is also an all-consuming fire. And most often, we do not enter the peace of God until we have been fully present to the fire.
In the story from Exodus 20, the people of Israel have reached the mountain of God after months of what must have felt like endless wandering through the wilderness. They’ve learned the hard way what it means to trust God to provide food for each day, water for each day. Now, gathered at the mountain of God, Moses has given them instructions for three days of preparation before the encounter with God that will produce the Ten Commandments. He’s set up a perimeter around the mountain – no one was to go up the mountain or even touch the edge of it, or they would surely die. I’m not sure how you determine where exactly the edge of a mountain is, so I imagine they kept a wide berth just to be safe. He’s told them to wash themselves and their clothes, to abstain sexually for three days – in other words, this is serious ritual purification of body, mind, and spirit, because authentic encounter with God touches every part of us. And now, on the morning of the third day, the people have awoken not knowing what to expect, but it won’t take them long to begin to find out.
Thunder shakes the tents and wakes the children in the early, gray morning – but there is no rain in sight. The people make their way toward the meeting place, trembling with each lightning bolt and clap of thunder, some of them transfixed on the peak of the mountain before them wrapped in a thick, smoky haze, others too afraid to look up from the ground, eyes glued to the sandals of the person in front of them. They follow Moses out of the camp until they’ve reached the foot of the mountain, where they take their stand and wait for God to speak. The ground is shaking and so are the people as the trumpet blasts and God begins to speak to Moses, calling him up the mountain.
There, God offers ten words, words of instruction and warning, words of wisdom that are grounded from the start in the story of who God has already been: I am YHWH, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not utter my name in order to misuse it. Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Honor your mother and your father. No murdering, no adultery, no stealing, no false testimony, and no covetous desire that will tear you apart.
There are ten sermons to be preached – and many more – on these ten commandments, these ten words of wisdom and life. For example: What idols have found their way onto our altars as an object of ultimate concern? Or: What does it really mean to utter the name of God in order to misuse it? Or: How will we in our capitalist culture ever learn to remember the blessing of Sabbath rest, and to keep it holy?
But what fascinates me most about this passage is what happens after the commandments are given. When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, and heard the sound like blaring trumpets, and saw the smoking mountain, they shook in fear. Keeping their distance, they said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or it will surely be the death of us.” Moses responds: Don’t be afraid.That age-old wisdom that shows up again and again in the scriptures: Don’t be afraid, he told them, God’s intention was simply to give you enough holy fear that you would take this seriously. But the people kept their distance, while Moses went up into the thick darkness where God was.
It’s that image of the thick darkness where God is that captivates me, that pulls me toward it, and I don’t understand how the people didn’t feel that pull. I realize they weren’t invited to come up the mountain; God had warned Moses again and again that the people were not to break through the perimeter. It’s as if God’s concern is that if they were allowed in, they would treat God like a circus act, or worse, a benevolent grandfather doling out favors. Instead, even the priests who came near had to be consecrated, set apart, prepared.
But even knowing that, I watch this story playing out, I see the people with their posture of fear, and I don’t get it. Why don’t they push back? How could they pass up the opportunity to see behind that curtain of smoke, to press through the swirling darkness to witness the light that produced it? Didn’t they know that where there’s smoke, there’s fire? Hadn’t they heard the story of the bush that burned and was not consumed – and how could they not want to lay eyes on whatever was burning on this mountain? I find myself struggling to get into their heads, to understand why they so complacently accept their passive role, pushing off the real spiritual work on Moses – “You go witness God for us, and we’ll take our cues from you.”
This is so counter to our religious grounding as Baptists, right? We value the priesthood of all believers; God is not only accessible to the one, but to all of us. So where the people tremble, saying, “Such a personal and immediate interaction with God would surely kill us,” my own reaction is completely contrary: If there has to be someone else standing between myself and that personal, immediate interaction with the divine, how will I live?
As I sit with this story, the words that echo most loudly are those of Moses: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to draw near to the thick darkness where God is, because God is for you. Don’t be afraid to push through it, to feel your way toward the fire whose flame is never consumed, for that fire is the light of the world. What will emerge out of this dark, smoky haze on the mountain is the Law, which the psalmist will paint as the lamp for our feet and the light for our path. It isn’t the first time and won’t be the last that darkness and light are inexorably linked in our scriptures: in the first moments of creation, God speaks and the darkness of the void is illuminated, brought to life; in the prophets we read of the people who walked in great darkness but have seen the light of life; and in the gospels the light of the world is born into the deep darkness of a quiet stable one night, and the light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
When the encounter on the mountaintop was over, when the smoke had cleared, the light behind it was not extinguished, but changed, moving on in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. And what was left for the people at the top of Mt. Sinai was more than just ashes. Out of the fiery presence of God, Moses had emerged with instructions, a place to begin – a shared experience around which they could form their identity as a people, a story and a code of ethics that they would carry with them – literally carry with them on tablets of stone – around which they would shape the life of their community.
We, too, live with these stories like so many ashes on a mountaintop. We scoop them up and sift through them, running the stories of the people of God between our fingers over and over again, but we too have more than ashes to guide us. This story, these commandments – they give us something to pick up and carry with us as we move forward through our own wilderness wanderings – a code around which we can shape our own ethical life. And in many ways, ten commandments aren’t nearly enough. Think of the hundreds of sub-clauses and lesser rules and interpretations that have been added on in the intervening centuries by one group or another of the faithful – some of them helpful clarifications, though perhaps more often a misguided micro-managing of the people of God.
Of course, Jesus seemed to fall into the latter camp, summarizing all the law and the prophets, when he was asked, into two commands: to love God with the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Even so, we carry this standard with us, as the compass that guides our living.
As the people of God moved onward from that day at the mountain, now carrying with them the ark of the covenant – inside it, the tablets with God’s commands – they certainly were not finished with experiences of walking through darkness, through days of wondering and wandering, of confusion and brokenness and fear.
But along with those ten “words,” those commands that detailed what it looks like to love God and to love neighbor, I like to think that what echoed in their minds was the tension between the fear that they felt at the mere proximity to the presence of God – the tension between that natural and appropriate fear and Moses’ words: Don’t be afraid. Because the reality is, the presence of God is no light matter. Entering the thickness and deepness of God’s presence is risky business, and it will make demands of us. For God is light and life, yes, but if we really allow that light to illuminate the darkest corners of our lives, of our structures and institutions, what is it that we will see? What is it that God’s presence will ask of us? What will it ask of you?
The fire that burned on the mountain is still burning, has not been consumed, for though its light has changed, in its form, it beckons us still. If we answer its call, what difficult choices will we have to make? The psalmist says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – I think this is true, as long as it isn’t the kind of fear that keeps us from being willing to draw near to God in the first place. As long as it’s the kind of fear that keeps us grounded, that helps us to walk forward with our eyes wide open. May we walk forward with courage and the fear of the Lord, braving the smoke, braving the darkness, carrying with us our ethical compass that grounds us in love, and willing to see where this lamp for our feet, this light for our path, is leading us next.
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
Where did you see yourself in this story of Moses, the people, and God? How are you implicated in it?
What does the image of God as fire wrapped in a thick cloud of smoke bring up for you?
Have you ever experienced the light of God’s presence requiring a change in your life? What was that like?