Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 (refiner's fire), Luke 1: 5-25; 57-80 (birth of John the Baptist foretold), Luke 3:1:18 (John prepares the way)
As individuals and communities, we long for peace. Nevertheless, the world is filled with war and conflict. And in our personal lives, we are often troubled by inner conflict and by nasty arguments in our families and communities.
During the season of Advent we await the coming of the Prince of Peace. Perhaps another Christmas celebration will provide us with the inner peace we long for? Perhaps another Christmas will bring the reconciliation between nations we so desperately need? And yet the readings this morning suggest that the coming of the Day of the Lord will not necessarily be a quiet or pain-free affair.
Malachi wonders: "who can endure the day of his coming" for "he will be like a refiner's fire." And John predicts that Jesus as the Christ will "burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Good news, we are told. Hmmm.
I'm afraid that our readings today again sound the apocalyptic note that has been struck for the last three Sundays. When will we finally get to the quiet and peace of Christmas night?
And yet I think we can see value in the harsh notes of these readings. Repentance in my experience can sear like a refiner's fire. And sometimes peace can be found on the other side of an unquenchable fire.
What struck me first about the story of John in the wilderness was how he greeted the crowds. These were ordinary people, Jews and non-Jews, who had come to the banks of the River of Jordan so that John could baptize them for the repentance of their sins. "You brood of vipers" he hisses at them. He insults the crowd that has come to be blessed by him in the sharpest possible way. Is Luke holding up John as a role model in this passage? I hope not.
Luke's story of John in the wilderness is based upon the original version in Mark. But Luke adds the insult, which is not found in Mark, just as Luke adds the warnings about unquenchable fires and about axes being laid to the roots of trees. He also adds the commands to share our wealth and to not cheat or rob others. That Luke . . . always adding difficult things to the story!
Luke also adds in the tidbit that John is the cousin of Jesus and that John has a miraculous conception and birth, just like Jesus -- none of which is in Mark. But then Mark doesn't tell us of the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus either.
But back to insults and repentance . . . I am sure that John had good reasons to be angry with the good folks who had come down to the river to be baptized. John's time, just like today, was filled with unethical people: soldiers who robbed civilians, tax collectors who took more than their fair share, and well-to-do people who didn't share their good fortune with the poor. Perhaps John relished the idea that when the real Christ, his cousin Jesus, came, then the chaff would all be burned away in an unquenchable fire.
Except a key lesson about anger that we try to teach our children is not to use anger as an excuse to insult or attack people. One can simply say you are angry or disappointed and connect those feelings to what you think is wrong. One can express anger cleanly without insulting people or calling them bad names. Didn't John know this?
Maybe not. The traditional image of John is of a wild man living in a state of nature out by the Jordan where he rants and raves. And don't we often need ranters and ravers? People who scream that the family/town/country/world is going to heck in a handcart, and we better watch out because Jesus is coming to town, and he is ticked off!
Luckily for us, when Jesus does appear in the gospels, he is the friend of all sinners, both those who repent and those who don't. He loves these broken people -- people just like us. He walks with them and suffers with them. And it is in stories like this that we usually locate the good news of Jesus as the Christ.
As for John, should Jesus have told him to chill? Perhaps, but I think we can find part of the puzzle of the life of peace we long for in John's images of repentance and fires.
To repent means to make a turn, 180 degrees right around -- to turn from a life of sin towards a life of love and service. As in Jesus' story of the prodigal son, this may involve turning back home to the father with our tails figuratively between our legs. But how do we do this, how do we repent? John suggests baptism.
In baptism, Paul says that we are baptized into the death of the Christ and into a new life in Christ. While this sign of dying and rising might have been given to us when we were babies, the process of baptism continues all through life. In fact, the various baptisms we undergo can be key moments of God's grace in our life. They can also feel like trials by fire.
In my life, a key moment of repentance was accompanied by the sharpest pain I have yet felt. I had a girlfriend at the time who had three pre-teen children, and unfortunately there was an awful lot of fighting in the family. Perhaps foolishly, I agreed to go on vacation with them. Everyone seemed to be in a lot of pain. I certainly didn't enjoy myself. And both my girlfriend and me felt powerless to make things less hurtful.
It was at that moment, which seemed like a humiliating low point, that I realized that I loved those children. Despite their fighting and their pain, I loved them. These feelings puzzled me. But fairly quickly, I saw a missing piece. By feeling love for these unhappy kids, I had found a new way to also love myself. In those pain-filled children, I saw some of my own unhappy and aggressive times as a child, and I realized that if I could love them, perhaps I could love myself too, broken as I was.
Good news, you say? Yes, definitely. But the pain I felt was sharp. With this costly gift of a new way to love myself -- through spending time with these children -- I was also able to feel some of the long-buried pain of my own childhood. And I wouldn't trade this moment for anything, despite the pain and grief.
The central message of Jesus as the Christ is love: to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. But to love oneself, you have to face your own reality -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. For me, as for many of us, the process of embracing what is real comes with pain -- pain that can feel like a searing, almost unquenchable fire.
I didn't stay with my girlfriend or her wonderful children Despite doing a lot of work, we couldn't agree on how to make life in her family less difficult. I still love those kids, though I no longer have many ways to make this love real. But I owe them everything. I owe them myself -- especially a greater ability to know and care for myself. It seemed to me that in those kids and at that moment, I met the Grace of God's Love, which could transform and turn me around; and which felt . . . painful.
Similar things apply, perhaps, to the world. In Copenhagen this week, all of the world's political leaders will hear the cries of the earth to stop the destruction of our environment. But to effectively respond to these cries, the ways in which they run the planet would have to change -- and those changes would be painful. Perhaps out of dying to an old way of life, a new way might arise: a way of human solidarity and unity, a way of restoring the environment, and a way in which our days would be filled with less busyness and with more peace and love. But though we can pray for such an outcome, many of us are skeptical that our leaders know this path. Perhaps the pain of climate change and the effects of habitat destruction have to become much sharper before the world's baptism by fire succeeds.
Usually we don't need to go looking for this pain. Hitting bottom just seems to be a part of most lives. The good news is that a path to peace can open up on the other side. Out of my own grief, I felt less burdened by denial of my own reality. There was peace on this path, which had been made straight towards a life with more joy and love. In a similar fashion, if the world could confront the painful reality of the destruction of the environment, a new era of peace might arise where our social energies would be spent in cooperation and not competition.
This Christmas as we search for peace and love at home and in the world, perhaps we might also remember the stark words of Malachi and John the Baptist. The coming of God's Love into the world is good news -- the best news that has ever been. AND it is news that comes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. God as Love means new life for us and for our society, and it comes with a cost.
Finally, as we celebrate communion this morning and remember the painful baptism of Jesus -- not his first baptism by John in the River Jordan, but his second baptism on the cross -- may we also find a new life of love and service. This new life is here for us when, with God's Grace, we receive strength to repent of our old ways, and so rise to a new ways of peace, joy and love.
Thanks be to God, Amen.