GREAT WALLS OF FIRE
Well, we've built the wall. On the wall are written the words that you chose last month...words that represent the ways that we build walls in our lives. The words you wrote are listed in the bulletin insert, so you can have them to remember. The way to God is blocked by the wall, and so it is with the walls that we build in our lives. Walls that separate us from others, walls that separate us from God's Creation in the end all have the same effect. They keep us from intimate relationship with God. Sometimes our faith is like our sanctuary today. We believe there's a God...we even know there's a God. But God is distant, unknowable, and unseeable. God remains behind the wall.
At the moment of Jesus' death, the Bible tells us that the curtain wall which separated God from the people in the Temple was miraculously torn in two from top to bottom. The Christian proclamation is that God does not intend for there to be walls between us. The God we proclaim is the God that can be approached, the God that can be loved and that can love in return, the God that can be known in Jesus. And so we've been saying for a month that the walls have to come down.
But that leaves us with a problem. How can we live without walls? What will protect us, if we give up our walls? Well, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is the news that we learned on September 11. Our walls don't really protect us anyway. They are an illusion. The huge physical walls of the World Trade Center were dust in a matter of minutes. The walls of wealth built by those companies inside could do nothing. The walls of race and class and status did not help some to escape and others not. Restaurant workers, CEOs, firefighters, and terrorists all perished together. Jew and Muslim, Christian and atheist all lay in the same heap; black and white, Asian and European, all peoples and races suffered the same fate; and those on the ground were so covered in ash and united in fear that you couldn't tell one from the other. When you get right down to the heart of the matter–when you stare death and eternity in the face–there are no walls. We are all one. That is the ultimate reality, and we had a glimpse of it one frightful morning, as the walls in which we trusted came tumblin' down.
But the view does not to have to be as frightening as it was that day. The Bible gives us many pictures of life without walls...they are pictures of the Kingdom of God...where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where all will feast together at God's heavenly banquet. Zechariah talks of that day saying, "Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it, declares the Lord, and I will be its glory within.
It is not that God asks us to live without walls. We are simply asked not to make our own walls and to trust in the wall that God has provided. Notice how this works.. God does not build us a wall. God is the wall...a wall of fire around us and the glory within us. We might like to think of a wall of fire existing to destroy any enemy that tries to approach. Certainly if we built a literal wall of fire around a city, that is what we would intend. That is exactly why God does not want us building the walls. Remember that God's fundamental essence is love. God does not act in order to destroy...even to destroy enemies. The wall of fire around us is the fire of God's love, and the same fire that protects us on the outside is the glory of God within us. Zechariah's wall of fire is the same fire that is in Jeremiah's bones and is the same fire that we are to spread to a cold and frozen world.
As we try to sort out what sort of protection God's wall of fire might be, I invite you back a couple of weeks to the story I shared with the children. Yes, it is from Harry Potter. It doesn't trouble me in the least that the story is full of witches and wizards and potions and ghosts. The story of Harry Potter, like the wonderful story of the Lord of the Rings, is, at its heart, a story about the battle between good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good. I don't care a bit how it is framed, the message at its heart is true and I hope that every child fan of either Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins devours the story so completely that its message becomes a part of them.
At the end of the first book, the orphaned Harry Potter learns that the evil wizard Voldemort murdered both his parents. He murdered Harry's father because Voldemort considered him an enemy, and then Voldemort tried to murder Harry, to be sure the father's heir would not be trouble to him. But as he went for little Harry, Harry's mother threw herself in the way, taking the blow and dying at the hands of Voldemort. When Voldemort then tried to kill baby Harry, he could not. All he could do was leave a lightning-bolt scar across Harry's forehead.
The story of Harry Potter is the story of Voldemort's repeated attempts to capture and kill Harry Potter. But he cannot succeed. At last Harry asks the wise Headmaster of his school, Dumbledore, why Voldemort and his minions could not kill him. This is what Dumbledore tells him:
"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign...to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."
Some people are calling that story evil. I call it Zechariah's wall of fire. I call it Gospel. Pure love, love that is willing to die for the lover, is the only true protection from evil. Only love will guard your soul. If that's not the story of Jesus, I don't know what is. No, love is not going to offer some of the protections we might like. It didn't protect Harry from losing his parents. It didn't protect him from being placed as an orphan in an abusive home. It didn't protect him from being the target of evil attacks. But it protected him from becoming evil himself, which would have been his ultimate ruin.
If there is one thing we are learning from September 11th and its aftermath, it's that the world is not about what we have typically thought it was about. Towers of steel and multi-million dollar corporations are dust in the wind. Political power and the highest offices in the land can be brought to nothing with a puff of powder in a simple envelope. When evil shows its face, when Voldemort shows up in the nursery, then we see what matters and what doesn't....then we see where our strength lies...then we see what walls are left standing. In the end, it is only love.
That was my lesson the night my father died. As I saw his body lying there in the bed...47 years old and gone in an instant...it was like God lifted a veil from my eyes and allowed me to see the one blinding truth of the universe. The only thing in this world that matters, the only thing that lasts beyond the grave, the only thing that will protect you from complete destruction is love. Yes, other things will happen to you. Yes, you will hurt at times, and you will cry. I certainly have. But if you can hold yourself back from building walls and allow God's love to be your wall of fire, there is nothing either on earth or in heaven that can harm you. Even death will just be a gateway to everlasting joy.
It's a scary step to take down our walls and rely solely on God's love to protect us. It takes courage, and it takes faith. Will you trust the wall of fire?
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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