Into the Fire
(Luke 3:1-18, Malachi 3:1-4)
Sermon date 12/06/2015
John the Baptist is a scary character. He doesn’t fit nicely into our Advent Christmas season. Someone suggested he should be a part of our manger scenes. Of course, chronologically, this doesn’t make sense unless you were going to include another baby. He and Jesus were, according to the tradition, born within months of each other. However, if he were to appear in the manger scenes, as an adult, I picture him as a sort of bouncer – guarding the entrance, making sure no one gets in who shouldn’t!
John the Baptist bursts into Luke’s narrative. He appears as the promised one who would call God’s people to prepare the way. He thunders in the wilderness. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It’s so easy to hear this as a “He sure told them!” story. Don’t we relish it, when someone gets scolded for their bad deeds, their misdeeds? It has become an ingrained attitude in Christian circles, as we speak about the judgment that will be leveled on others. Time and again we hear somebody proclaim that we are in the last days. I heard someone on the radio say that every generation seems to think that it stands on the brink of human destruction and extinction. The emphasis on the last days in Christianity usually includes either a call to physical separation from the outsiders, the bad ones, the sources of evil, or looks forward to God’s separation of the good people from the bad. And, frequently, those who are anticipating these last days are glad to be able to declare to the world who it is who is on God’s side and who is not. The gospels and letters that make up the New Testament came from a time when it seemed that the end was near. So, in Matthew’s gospel, John’s words of warning are directed to the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (He sure told them!)
But Luke is broader. In Luke, John speaks to the crowds that had come out to hear him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” The words are directed to all who came. He doesn’t distinguish. He doesn’t separate the good from the bad, the righteous from the sinner.
Yet, we are highly influenced by the notion that the all-powerful parental God is going to punish evildoers. Isn’t that the way we hear it? And it gives us permission to become those who judge – and, at times, those who inflict great punishment on the ones we perceive to be evildoers. We assume that John was telling them that God’s wrath would soon be unleashed upon the earth. Even if God’s wrath doesn’t seem imminent, we have a sense that it exists. To avoid God’s wrath people need to repent.
I’d like to suggest a very different way of hearing this proclamation. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We assume that the wrath of which John speaks is God’s wrath. But, maybe, he is speaking about the wrath that is engrained in our world – the hatreds, the violence, the fear that erupts in so many ways – all around us. It was true in John’s day. It is true today. In light of all of that “wrath” it is tempting to choose a faith path that isolates us, that protects us from the world’s ills. Somehow, we think that faith is a reasonable way to flee for we will repent and God will keep us safe – from whatever wrath might befall us, the world’s or God’s. The church – of Jesus’ day and of ours—sets itself apart from the world – and seeks its own safety and security. It seeks privilege and protection. Do we not hear that in our own society? The Christians need to be protected from all the evils that surround us. The church’s position of power and influence and relatively safety needs to be upheld. This should be a safe place for Christianity. I heard, just this week, a story about wealthy white citizens who are complaining that the Christians in our country are being persecuted. I didn’t meet these people. But I wondered – have these Christians been forbidden to attend church? Have their Bibles been confiscated? Have they been prevented from caring for the poor, visiting the sick, comforting the grieving? The complaint was in response to the football coach who was told he could not make prayer a regular part of his team’s game.
I think I’ve always heard John’s words about repentance as words about how one was to flee from God’s wrath. But, maybe he was saying that bearing the fruits of repentance meant staying – not fleeing. Maybe John is saying to the crowds that “fleeing from the wrath” is not the proper path. We are, instead, to learn how to bear fruits worthy of repentance in the midst of the world’s wrath. We don’t flee – we find ways of being God’s people as we face the brokenness around us and within us. When and if we are obsessed with our own safety and privilege and security, we are fleeing. The fruits of repentance connect us to the world, connect us to those who are suffering because of the world’s wrath.
The prophet Malachi spoke of God being like the refiner’s fire. That fire destroys, yes – but in process of destroying, it purifies. John spoke of the ax being at the root of the trees, and every tree that bears no fruit being thrown into the fire. So the orchard is, in a sense, purified. Our purification comes, not by avoiding the fires of this world, but by going into them – and letting God shape and reshape us to be more fully the people God lovingly wants and intends us to be. We bear fruit not by fleeing, but by being God’s people in the midst of the world’s wrath.
If we look at the story of Jesus we see, not a God of wrath, but a God who chose, willingly, to enter into the world’s wrath, hatred, violence and fear and be present, fully, in the midst of it. Even God stepped into the refiner’s fire through the son – and worked through the world’s fires to bring us a new hope and a new creation. The example of the Son is not an example of fleeing the wrath – but of facing it and trusting God’s refining presence in its fires.
In Jesus’ life – his words, his witness, his faithfulness, his life in community with those who surrounded him and in conflict with those who rejected him – he lived into the “purity” of what it meant to be God’s child, God’s chosen one, the Messiah. He faced the wrath of his own people and the wrath of a fearful foreign power – but remained faithful to God.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” said John. The fruit is not that which seeks to keep us safe, to retain whatever privilege Christians have had. The fruit is a way of living that seeks to bring the hope, the peace, the healing, and the love of which Jesus spoke.
This season invites us, through many channels, to remember those who suffer the most because of the world’s violence, injustice, because of sickness and disasters. Somehow, in addition to all the trivial ways we get caught up in the season, we are reminded that this season is about something deeper, something more profound. Even if people can’t articulate faith as the reason, I think we should celebrate – ring the bells, blow the trumpets. It’s about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison – the prisons our society builds or prisons of mind of addiction of hopelessness and fear. It’s about the human longing for a different world – a world marked with true peace, not just an absence of war, but the peace where the lion lies down with the lamb and the child plays over the adder’s den.
When the world forgets, when it moves on, leaving the festivities of the season behind, we need to remember to carry on – to bear the good fruit – not fleeing the world, but walking into its fires with good news, with grace, with words and deeds of love and justice, trusting the God who purifies!