Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
John the Baptist was a down-to-earth man who lived close to the soil. He knew the pattern of the wind and the rhythm of the seasons. When he spoke to his neighbors, he used word-pictures from everyday life – trees, an axe, a winnowing fork, a barn, a threshing floor, and fire. The Israelite people he was at home with taught him about life and he knew how to speak to them.
You see, God’s Old Testament people loved the land and earthy things. They didn’t analyze everything and make precise distinctions as we’re trained to do. Instead, they saw the world as a whole, ruled by God. This is why some of the psalm-writers could say that rivers clap their hands and hills rejoice. Everything was a unity for God’s Old Testament children: the Lord ties everything together. We’re grateful to him for the ancient Hebrews. If it weren’t for them, we might see the universe as tiny bits of matter with an obscure connections with each other. Instead, the Old Testament writers teach us that life comes from God and exists under his direction. Things that seem to be incompatible such as nature and spirit, soul and body are all parts of God’s creation and fit together into his plan.
But the Old Testament Israelites strayed. They wandered away from their spiritual homeland. They were like everyone else. They needed to reverse direction and turn back to God, so John sent out John the Baptist to get the people ready for the coming Savior. You may remember that his father said this to John when he was still an infant: “You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercies of our God.”
Before they could receive the gospel and appreciate it, though, they needed to confront the law. And so, using picture language he knew they’d understand, John called God’s people to turn back to the Lord. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” he proclaimed. “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
When he speaks about fire, he uses ordinary language that anyone can understand. The Heavenly Father wants his people to turn to him in faith and produce good works. If we don’t, he’ll consider us useless and throw us into the fire like rubbish.
Everyone knows how devastating fire can be – to the wilderness, to homes and businesses, to human life. But John is speaking about a more serious kind of fire – the eternal punishment that will come to those who habitually harden their hearts to the Lord. There is no one like that at St. Peter’s. The threat of hellfire is the ultimate wake-up call. In days gone by, visions of hell featured more prominently than they do today in the church’s proclamation. The question now is more likely to be – how can a civilized God who creates civilized people also create everlasting damnation? He alone knows the complete answer to questions like that, but it surely has something to do with the fact that he gives us freedom and takes things more seriously than we do. He forgives repentant sinners and he forgets sins, but he promises to punish impenitence and stiff-necked pride. One Christian writer said that to become hell-fodder a soul must have a pronounced and ineradicable streak of arrogance, a conviction that his or her judgement is infallible....” Anyone who is driven by pride in their own power or skill, their own beauty or genius or their own intellect is a candidate for eternal damnation – anyone who tries to be like God. This is food for thought and meditation.
But because of our trust in Christ, our acceptance of forgiveness, our customary humility before the Lord, you and I – St. Peter’s people, as we said – don’t worry about the fires of hell.
Heaven is our home and our destination. Still, biblical teachings about hellfire do work to keep us on track. They remind us to trust in God and not our own achievements or the fact that we are citizens of an advanced civilization. God’s ways are not our ways. It’s wise not to lean on our own understanding, but to rest in him.
Now, John uses the word “fire” in still another way. He says that Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He doesn’t mean the fire of condemnation here, but a divine fire that is associated with God himself. You probably remember that Moses saw God in a burning bush and that when he received the 10 commandments God came down to Mt. Sinai in fire and that a pillar of fire guided the Israelites as night as they traveled through the wilderness toward the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost as flames that rested on their heads. Luke writes: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” In other words, there is something in God’s nature that is fire and warmth.
These qualities come to us, first, as the fires of refinement and purification. The prophet Zechariah writes about ancient Israel: “Two thirds (of the nation) will be struck down and perish; yet one third will be left in it. This is the third I will bring to the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” Isaiah wrote that God will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of fire. Peter in his first letter tells us that we rejoice in temporary trials of all kinds, which have come so that our faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine.” God’s fire comes tov his beloved children as a cleansing fire. The Lord says in Isaiah: “See, I have refined you, I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” And Job said: “he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”
In other words, God’s fire drives away our complacency and smugness and self-satisfaction. His fire clarifies our souls so that we’ll keep turning back to him. Some well-known hymn texts speak about God’s fore, too: “Revive our drooping faith, our doubts and fears remove, and kindle in our breasts the flame of never-dying love.” Another says: “And each believing soul inspire with thine own and holy fire.”
God’s fire comes to believers, then, to brothers and sisters of Christ, as cleaning and purifying, the fire that inspires us with love and enthusiasm. God’s fire never rests; it is always prodding and guiding and invigorating, drawing us back to our heavenly resting place.
Returning to the Lord is one of the great themes of the Bible. “Return with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” the Lord says through the prophet Joel. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.”
For us at St. Peter’s this morning, it’s not that we have strayed like the prodigal son or built a golden calf like Aaron, but that things of the world, whether cares or amusements, infiltrate our souls and we forget the Lord. This is where his refining fire comes to our rescue. It burns up the chaff that sticks to our souls. It shines with a more reliable warmth than the light that glimmers from the frills of the world. It’s a sign that God is at work on us, keeping our wills focused on him, for he has vowed not to let us go, not to lose us or give up on us.
So John the Baptist does have a message for us. He may seem like a strange person, eccentric and one-sided, but he warns us not to be deceived by the vanity of human life. There are always rivers of vanity at Christmas-time. John shows us we don’t need to drown in it. The way out is through repentance and faith in Christ, a way that includes contact with chastening fire. This particular fire doesn’t hurt us at all. It’s good for us, in fact, and we’re grateful for it.
Secondly, John the Baptist was a public spokesman for the Lord. His example reminds us of our own callings as witnesses. Though we may not be aware of it, others may see in us what we see in John. A friends may recognize in us the joy of Christian freedom. A neighbor may be grateful for our detachment from the excesses of the pre-Christmas season and follow our example to seek relief through rest in the Lord. May his refining fire continue to work on us these December weeks. May our families and loved ones find warmth from our contact with the fire of God’s love. In Jesus’ Name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.