“Remove the Fuel”
Isaiah 11:1-12 and Matthew 3:1-12
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Second Sunday of Advent
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, 2 “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” 3 He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
4 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.
5 People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. 6 As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. 7 Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. 9 And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” (Matthew 3:1-12 — CEB)
A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse;
a branch will sprout[a] from his roots.
2 The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of planning and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in fearing the Lord.
He won’t judge by appearances,
nor decide by hearsay.
4 He will judge the needy with righteousness,
and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.
He will strike the violent[b] with the rod of his mouth;
by the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be the belt around his hips,
and faithfulness the belt around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed[c]together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow and the bear will graze.
Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.
8 A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
9 They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea. (Isaiah 11”1-9 — CEB)
The last thing I want to be as a preacher is a purveyor of hellfire and brimstone. I think that brand of theology is manipulative, violent, and, ultimately, unfaithful to the gospel. So, when John the Baptist ignites the early chapters of the synoptic gospels with images of fire, I wince a little.
Over the centuries, many preachers seem to have taken their homiletical and pastoral cues from John’s firestorm more than from Jesus’ outpouring of Living Water. But aren’t the two supposed to work together?
While Jesus calls us to wade courageously into the darkness where the poor and forgotten cry for help, John lights the fire by which we perceive the problems within ourselves. And these interior problems are usually the very source of the communal problems over which Jesus pours himself out. So, together, Jesus and John call us to be both an eternal flame that reveals God’s creative presence in and for the world, and a well-spring through which God’s life-giving and justice-doing water flows.
Having said that, the image of fire often seems to dominate. Under the influences of wealth and power since the days of Constantine, the Church has built perimeter fires of self-preservation that shed more in the way of raging heat than guiding light. Inside this self-made hell, we’ve done far more to condemn “broods of vipers” than to love our neighbor, and more to pronounce judgment on chaff than to welcome the stranger. Much of the Church’s own fruit has been preaching and practices that aim to terrify people into a scorched conformity rather than to invite one another to gather at Christ’s table of healing and community-creating gratitude.
Let’s be grateful, then, for Advent, a preparatory season that helps to remind us that fire can do more than destroy. Fire can purify—as one might sterilze a needle before digging a splinter out of a finger. Fire can refine—as gold is refined to remove baser metals and stone. Fire can heal, too. It can take years to experience the full effect, but in some ecosystems, forest fires tend to hit a kind of reset button. And isn’t that what repentance is all about? Resetting hearts overgrown with deadfall and invasive species?
In her book Wild Card Quilt: The Ecology of Home, Georgia environmentalist Jannise Ray writes that the entire “intricate and intriguing ecosystem [of longleaf pine forests] is…bound to fire…Periodic wildfires thwart the encroachment of hardwoods such as oak and sweetgum into the pinelands, so the trees have evolved not only to survive fire but to depend on it.”1
For three years, I was a part-time firefighter down in Statesboro, GA. Don’t be impressed. When all the other guys had nicknames like Mad Dog or Flame Throweron their helmets, mine said Hose Roller on one side and Bless His Heart on the other. (That piece of the story may have a little hair on it, but it’s descriptively accurate.) At one of our drills, someone from the local forestry commission came and talked to us about wildfire suppression. He said that the principal strategy for fighting wildfires was to remove the fuel. To stop the progression of a burn, get ahead of the fire, cut a few trees, harrow fire breaks, and then start controlled burns that burn back to the fire line where the two fires simply extinguish each other for lack of fuel. Removing the fuel ends up doing the same as the wildfires of the ancient pine forests. It clears the land of deadwood and husks and restores the ecosystem.
I think John’s and Jesus’ baptisms are acts of removing fuel. I don’t think either John or Jesus singles out particular people to be punished for being deadwood. I think they’re reminding us that we all have chaff in our lives—attitudes and habits that are unhealthy for us and for others. Running those invasive attitudes and parasitic habits through the refiner’s fire helps us to discover what lies beneath them. And something good and edifying may actually be hiding there. We’ve just misused it, or corrupted it.
For instance, if I’m continually angry at and judgmental toward someone or some group, that anger needs a refining fire to reveal its true source. During that fire, the important questions become, What about me am I judging and rejecting? What about me am I angry at or ashamed of? How have I gotten to the point that I turn my own self-loathing into justification for blaming and hurting others? Coming to grips with those realities hurts. It burns. And yet it heals.
Even in Advent, Sunday worship celebrates the promise of Resurrection. And while John does seem to strike steel to flint with inflammatory warnings, I think he is, really, whether he even knows it or not, calling our attention to the conflagration of grace.
Since the Exodus, flame has served as a symbol for the presence of God. Remember the burning bush. And at Pentecost, flame becomes the specific symbol for the presence and the work of God’s Holy Spirit. So, even if John holds the feet of Pharisees and Sadducees to the fire, his announcement of the coming of the Christ declares that God always intends healing and wholeness for the Creation.
Through repentance, then, we deliberately burn away the attitudes and habits that reduce us to arsonists. We singe off all our pride, greed, fear, vengeance, and despair. Such incendiary rubbish fuels all the devastating firestorms in our culture, in our churches, in our homes, and in our own minds. And because we cannot earn God’s mercy, true repentance is always our grateful response to God’s purifying grace already at work in our lives.
In the baptism we receive through the Incarnation of God in Jesus, we begin to agree with God. As individuals and as humankind, we agree that we are God’s Beloved.
We agree that we are capable of giving and receiving more love that we ever thought possible.
We agree that this is true for all of God’s good Creation.
And we agree to live the new life of grace, which is, in truth, the native landscape of all things created by God.
Jesus’ baptism by Spirit and fire removes the fuel of our brokenness. It refines us and transforms us. It resurrects us. It prepares us to receive and share with joy the good news of Christmas by igniting within us prophetic and compassionate hearts, hearts which reveal in us, and help us to see in others, the image of God’s ever-arriving Christ.
1Janisse Ray, Wildcard Quilt: The Ecology of Home. Milkweed Editions, 2003, pp. 36-37.