Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
We’ll begin with some thoughts about basic teachings of the Bible. All people were born in sin and it is our nature to run from God. Even so, he didn’t abandon us in our folly, but sent Jesus to live and die for us and to rise again and to make us new people. He claimed us as his adopted daughters and sons. He says to us, “You are mine, you are in my family.” He will love us and bless us.
As it happens, our preparation for Christmas brings us to reflect on John the Baptist this morning. He was different from other people of his time and certainly different from folks today. His example teaches us how worldly and short-sighted our lives can be. This is one of the messages God wants us to take from John the Baptist.
A down-to-earth man, he lived close to the soil. He knew the pattern of the wind and the rhythm of the seasons. He used word-pictures from everyday life to tell the people what God wanted them to hear – trees, and an axe, a barn, and so on.
God’s people in those days didn’t analyse everything as we so often do. They saw the world as a whole, ruled by God. They understood what one of the Psalm-writers meant, for example, when he said that rivers clap their hands and hills rejoice. They believed that the Lord ties everything together into a unity – that life comes from him and is under his direction. Things that are very different from each other, such as our souls and our bodies, nature and spirit, are all parts of God’s creation and fit together into his plan.
But many of the Israelites strayed from their heritage. They ran away from God in their hearts and became like the pagans around them. They were in danger of losing their salvation and needed to reverse direction and return to the Lord who loved them, so the Heavenly Father sent John the Baptist to help them get ready for the Savior who was about to come to them.
Before they could receive Jesus, though, and appreciate him they needed to hear what God thought of their present spiritual condition. Using picture language he knew they’d understand, John said that God wanted his people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire. The fire: a word picture that the people could easily visualize. If God’s people don’t turn to him with repentant hearts, sorry for our sins, he will consider us useless and throw us into the fire like rubbish.
Everyone knows how destructive fire can be – to the wilderness, to homes, to human life. John is speaking about a more worrisome kind of fire, however, eternal punishment for those who make a lifelong habit of ignoring God and disobeying him. He forgives; he restores repentant sinners; he forgets. But he promises to punish impenitence and stiff-necked pride. Somebody wrote, “to become hell-fodder, a soul must have a pronounced and ineradicable streak of arrogance, a belief that his or her judgment is infallible…anyone who is driven by pride in their own power or skill, their own beauty or genius, or their own unaided intellect is a candidate for eternal damnation – anyone who tries to be like God.”
Because of our trust in Christ, though, our customary humility before God, and because we accept his forgiveness, you and I don’t worry about the fires of hell. Heaven is our home and our destination, but Biblical warnings of hell-fire do help to keep us on track. They remind us to trust in God and not our own achievements or the fact that we live in an advanced civilization. God’s ways are not our ways. It is wise not to lean on our own understanding, but to rest in him.
That is not the final word, however. John used the word “fire” another way, too, that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John does not mean the fire of condemnation now, but a divine fire that is connected with God. You may remember that Moses saw God in a burning bush and that when he received the law, God came down to Mt. Sinai in fire, and that a pillar of fire guided the Hebrew people at night as they traveled through the wilderness through the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost as flames that rested on their heads. Luke wrote in Acts: “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” God also uses fire, then, to guide and protect and as sign of his presence for purification and refinement.
One of the Old Testament prophets, who was distressed at the way God’s chosen people thought and behaved wrote that God had told him two-thirds would be struck down and perish, “yet a third will be left in it,” the Heavenly Father said, “and this third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.”
The prophet Isaiah wrote that God would cleanse the blood stains from Jerusalem by a spirit of fire.
Our Father in heaven cleanses every believer. St. Peter said that we rejoice in temporary trials of all kinds so that our faith, which is worth more than gold that perishes even though refined by fire, may be proved genuine. The Lord cleanses all his children with a loving fire. “Yes, I have refined you,” he said in the Book of Isaiah. “I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” And a faithful man of Old Testament times who suffered greatly said: “the Almighty 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, our worldliness, and our self-satisfaction. His fire clarifies our souls so that we rejoice in him and not the world and so that we think to turn to him every day with our burdens and our needs and the things we’re happy about. Furthermore, God’s fire also lifts up and inspires. One of our hymn texts for Pentecost asks God to revive our drooping faith, remove our doubts and fears, and kindle in our hearts the flame of never-dying love. And Martin Luther asked the Lord to inspire every believing soul with his own pure and holy fire.
God’s fire, then, that cleanses and purifies also inspires us with love for him and our neighbors and zeal for our faith. God’s fire never rests; it prods and guides and invigorates; it lights our path so that we may always find our way to Jesus by faith.
Now, returning to the Lord is one of the main themes of the Advent season, when the church helps us get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” God said in the Old Testament. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.”
Our sins are not great crimes like those of hard-hearted tyrants; we don’t worship false gods like some of the worldly kings of the Old Testament; we don’t lift ourselves up to challenge God, like the Egyptian Pharaohs who held God’s people in slavery. Still, things of the world can draw us away from the Lord, cares and amusements can infiltrate our souls. We may grow sluggish. God’s fire comes to our rescue. It burns up the chaff that sticks to our thoughts and feelings. It shines with a more reliable warmth than the beguiling light that glimmers from the world. God’s chastening and encouraging fire assures us that he is at work on us; it keeps our wills focused on him, for he has promised not to let us go or lose us or give up on us.
John the Baptist warns us not to let the pride and vanity of earthly life deceive us. The way to truth and strength is through repentance and faith in Christ. The divine fire that chastens does not harm. It is good for us. We don’t rebel but accept the corrections of God.
To conclude, then, we’ll say that the wise Heavenly Father gave John the Baptist a role in public life. The church today carries on John’s mission by putting the Lord’s truth before our neighbors and pointing them to Christ. Though we may not be aware of the results of our work, a member of our family or a friend may see in us the joy and confidence that come with faith in Christ. A neighbor may learn something from our refusal to take part in the excesses that lead up to Christmas and follow our example by seeking refreshment through rest in the Lord. We trust that God’s fire will continue to work on us during these chilly December weeks. May our families and loved ones find in us the warmth that comes from our contact with the fire of God’s love. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus, AMEN.