Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please read: Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-20
According to a New York Times article published earlier this month, “there are rumors the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012 when a 5,125-year cycle known as the Long Count in the Mayan calendar supposedly comes to a close.” Apparently this has caused quite a disturbance in Russia, and the patriarch of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church issued a statement assuring the faithful that “doomsday is sure to come,” but that it will be provoked by the moral decline of mankind, not the “so-called parade of planets or the end of the Mayan calendar.”
After a quick read through the news, whether of the continuing violence in Syria or the DRC, the recent launch of a North Korean rocket, or Friday’s horrifying murder of 20 innocent children and 6 adults in a Connecticut elementary school, there may be times when we are tempted to believe the world is coming to an end… Or at least in the face of such dismal news, we can more easily stomach the strong words of John the Baptist when he interrupts our cozy holiday preparations yelling, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make God's paths straight! You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
I’ve always been afraid of John’s message. Wrath to come makes me feel that dread when as a boy I did something naughty and mom would send me to my room with the warning, “Your father will deal with you later.” Waiting as fear! But the fire described in our texts today is not the fire of damnification or destruction. When Malachi and John speak of fire, rather, they are talking about the fire of redemption and purification.
Malachi talks about the “refiner’s fire” and “fuller’s soap.” The fire here is to burn away any impurities in gold or silver. Interestingly, a refiner has to be watching the metals very carefully, to make sure that the temperature is just right and the metal is not under or overheated. And a fuller literally makes a woolen fabric more full through washing, bleaching, rinsing and then beating it into a consistent texture. Luke writes that the “unquenchable fire” to which John compared the coming Messiah is “good news.” In other words, the fire here is something that will not destroy us, but will make us more the women and men God intended for us to be. Forgiveness of sins is all about freedom!
The desired outcome of the coming fire is fruit worthy of repentance… "What then should we do?" That's what all those people were really asking him out there in the region of the Jordan. Tell us what we are supposed to do so we can dismiss your strange ranting and raving as impractical and impossible for sophisticated and refined people like us. We know how to manage people with strange ideas about spirituality and religion, don't we? I mean, here we are: a Parisian international community as multi-cultural and urbane as they come, and we love to talk about diversity and tolerance and smile at one another with often total and complete incomprehension!
So, then John, what shall we do? We assume we know what the answer will be. After all, this man has just hiked out of the wilderness, and you can still smell that disastrous trail mix of locusts and honey on his breath. He'll probably tell us "Be like me..." Isn't that what all the popular peddlers of prophecy say? Be like me! Do it my way! or else... Isn't John the Baptist one of those crazy religious zealots who demand that we bind up our lives into tight, mean little balls and pare human life down until it fits the contours of his own eccentric ideology?
Surprise! That's not what John is all about at all. After howling at the crowd, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance" he goes on to clarify what worthy fruit might be: If you have clothes and food to share, share them with those who have not. Do your work honestly. Do not give others reason to look upon your work with suspicion, the way people in Galilee looked upon tax collectors and soldiers. Do your work with honesty and integrity and without violence to those whom you serve.
In the simplest, most practical way John the Baptist addresses the inequities of his society and the greed that feeds these inequities. Nothing fancy. Nothing exotic. Nothing strange, really. If you have food and clothing to share, share them. Do your work with integrity, without exploiting people. It all sounds so perfectly ordinary that it frightens us. Or if it doesn't frighten us, we may dismiss it: Is that all there is to faith?
The Gospel according to Luke locates John's ministry in the historical, political, social, and cultural events of the day: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius," and so on. Faith does not begin in some Spiritual never-never land, and it does not begin in some secluded warm and fuzzy corner of our lives. It begins right here in the mix of events, both sacred and secular, hopeful and horrific, that shapes our lives. Faith begins where we live, or it is not faith at all. "Prepare the way of the Lord," cries John, because God is invading ordinary human life.
Wouldn't you agree that most people shy away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ because they fear that faith will make them somehow less than fully human? I'll never forget my best friend, who at the time was a complete and total heathen, asking me when I told him I was going into the ministry, "Man, Scott, what's going to happen to you? Can you still have, well, you know... Can you get married?" He was scared that religion would twist and distort life into something strange, and ill-suited for living a full life.
However appealing the story of Christmas may be to people, however true Jesus’ words may ring, do we dare to follow him? What shall we do?
In this season of Advent anticipation, something within us cries out to respond to God's invitation, but we are unsure, timid, afraid of where our surrender, our repentance might take us. Fred Craddock has it right: there is no one among us who will not raise up on one elbow to ask the surgeon, "But what am I going to be like after the operation?"
Friends, as Enuma wrote in her book, Silence, “We can be certain of one thing: transformation into God’s image and God’s purpose requires that we pass through God’s refining fire.” The surprising truth is that this fire is God’s love, the only thing that will last forever, the only thing that is unquenchable, that can hold fast to us through the unspeakable tragedies, losses and disappointments of this life. The question is not whether this fire of God’s love is coming to us or not, the question is whether we will receive him when he comes to burn away the chaff in our lives… Here is a time and place to begin again. Share what you have. Work honestly without harming others. Surely, that isn't all there is to faith, but it's a good beginning! I pray that this day we may all repent and believe we are God’s beloved children, and so live to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.