December 1, 2009
A Timely Textual Tremor
You are probably not going to believe what I am about to tell you. But it’s absolutely true and unembellished.
It happened Labor Day Sunday 2007, when I was preaching. At precisely 10:29 a.m. according to the National Seismographic Agency, an earthquake, magnitude 4.7 on the Richter Scale, struck Southern California. It was centered a few miles east of Lake Elsinore, which is about seventy miles from my church in Downey, California.
Our service begins at 10 a.m. We were smack in the middle of the service. In fact, I was smack in the middle of my sermon. The first thing you will not believe is that I did not notice the earthquake. Honest, I have three good reasons. I am a very intense preacher. Not much distracts me. (One time a gentleman fainted in the back of the church and until someone came up and told me I did not notice!) Also, the distance and magnitude of the earthquake meant that Downey experienced it as a very small and very brief tremor—probably less than two or three seconds. Finally, due to renovation, we are not in our sanctuary but in a temporary space where the temporary platform creeks and bounces normally. So I did not notice.
Right in the middle of a sentence of my sermon several people said, “Earthquake.” I said, “You’re kidding!” “No, we’re not.” Now, you may be thinking, What is so unbelievable about that? After all, Southern California is synonymous with earthquakes, and so experiencing one during a worship service is not all that surprising. But—my text for the morning was Hebrews 12:14-29, a text that warns us about paying attention to God’s speaking through the ages and now in Christ. The text ends with the reminder that God at one time shook the mountain (Sinai) but one day will shake both the heavens and the earth so that what cannot be shaken (eternal life and eternal reign of God with God’s people) will remain. Smack dab in the middle of that sermon, the congregation felt an earthquake.
What does a preacher say to that? At least I knew I had their attention. Or at least the tremor had their attention. But there was no denying that the timing was remarkable. The warning is so clear. God once shook Mt. Sinai in order to get the people’s attention in hopes that they might believe and obey. One day he will shake all the universe, but the purpose will not be to get people’s attention, hoping they will obey. The shaking of the universe will be to close human history as we know it and to inaugurate the eternal kingdom. There will be no more opportunity to listen and obey. Only a terrible danger for those who have rejected God’s message in Christ. It states clearly: God is a consuming fire. This is not a sermon for every Sunday. But it is true to the text. It follows the repeated warnings of the book of Hebrews where the main message is that Christ is better. He is God’s final “word” to humankind.
Preaching this sermon shook me. Not because of the earthquake tremor. Remember? I did not feel it. It shook me because it reminded me how important it is to preach the gospel in all of its fullness. That fullness means there is hope for those who in faith believe and obey. It also means there is danger for those who reject God’s best Word—Christ. Oh for a sermon illustration like that every Sunday!