God’s Furnace


Turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. 25 years I’ve been ordained. Do you know how many Sunday services that is? I’ll tell you how many it is – gazillions. And today I feel like the guy who has been pushing a lawnmower around his yard for 25 years and just discovered it has a motor. Because we’ve just read John the Baptist’s method of preaching; and I now understand that I’ve been too nice to people. John begins his sermons with, “You brood of vipers”. So, I’ve been praying about this, and I think we should try it next week. We’ll process in, as normal, then I’ll turn and face you and I’ll say, “You brood of vipers”, and you reply, “And also with you”. “You’re a bucket of snakes”; “Thanks be to God.” And we should probably redesign the pew card to say, “Welcome, serpent”. The Evangelism Committee won’t like it. They’ll tell me that is not how Jesus would do it. That’s the problem with evangelists – they insist on talking about Jesus.

Jesus or John? Jesus or John? Jesus or John? Nice or nasty, peaceful or petulant, compassion or condemnation, joy or judgement, include or insult, mercy or moody, cotton or camel, lamb or locusts, dessert or desert. Have yourself a merry little Christmas or Grandma got run over by a reindeer? John or Jesus? Wet blanket or raging furnace? Baptism of water or baptism of fire?

That is how John compared their ministries. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Two baptisms. On the face of it they are incompatible. Can you have two elements that are so in conflict as fire and water? They can’t exist in the same space. Either the water will extinguish the flame, or the heat of the fire will cause the water to evaporate.

But what if we don’t have to choose between John and Jesus, between the baptism of water and the baptism of fire, between the sacrament of new birth and the furnace that fires us to live it out? Because that’s what we want, isn’t it? We began this Christian life at the font, but it’s the fire we crave. There is nothing in all creation as attractive as passion. When we lose it, life becomes dull. Actions we used to perform with eagerness are now boring. Love is replaced by routine, conviction by pragmatism, eagerness by cold, hard duty. Enthusiasm is infectious.

There’s fire running through the feast of Word and Music we’ve just enjoyed – from the scorching pain of Eden, through the flickering hope of prophets shining in the darkness of exile and despair, through fire-brand John, to the silent, unseen, intangible spark ignited when Gabriel visited Mary.

Fire cleanses, it purifies. It warms, it comforts. It ignites in us a deep, long-held yearning for home, security, community, love. Our ancestors revered the fire as a gathering place, an incubator of stories, of memories, of imaginings. The fire was the pulpit where wise elders taught the young. It was the crib where children became lost in tales of adventure as they watched angels dancing in the flames and resisted the weight of heavy eyelids. The fire was the classroom where young people learned about their traditions and found their identity in the story of their people. The fire was the kitchen and dining hall, where meals were cooked, stomachs were filled, and love was nurtured. But there’s something else about fire. It hurts. It was round a fire one Thursday night that a friend of Jesus disowned his Lord, and a rooster broke his heart. Yes, fire devastates.

When the dross of our lives is consumed in God’s furnace we blister. When we choose to confront our pride, our desire to pay back evil for evil, our tenacious grip on our self-centeredness – it sears. When you take a spiritual inventory of yourself, and spot something that’s distracting you from loving God and neighbor, and when you wrestle that thing to the ground, bind it, sling it over your shoulder, and dump it onto God’s fiery altar it scorches.

But there’s one more thing about fire. It heals. Bacteria can’t survive, viruses must die. That scorching is therapeutic. Because it’s when we feel the scalding heat of God that we are refined and liberated from the things that sully our lives. They call it cauterization – burning the flesh of a wound to assist the healing. I once experienced this on an injury to my shoulder. And it was agony. But it worked. I’ve also experienced it on my heart when God has shown me my need to apologize to someone, or some habit that needs to be broken, some gift I need to give, some relationship I need to mend. When we experience Jesus’ baptism of fire it often causes pain. It can even feel like a mini death. But like a phoenix, your soul, burned to a cinder, rises from the ashes to new life. The scorched earth of our hearts becomes fertile soil for new growth.

Today John gives us a glimpse of the fiery baptism of Jesus. Crowds are flocking to the desert to receive the baptism of water in the Jordan. Now some desert-dwelling prophets would call people to leave their ordinary lives and join them in the wilderness, set up a community, withdraw from society. And those communities did exist back then, as they do now. Historians think that John was possibly a member of a desert community, where the faithful devoted themselves to prayer and self-denial. So, given that, you might think that John would say to people – “Come and join me. Leave this sinful world with its temptations and brokenness and join me in prayer and fasting. Flee the judgment that is coming on the world.” Other prophets might be even more radical. They might say to their hearers, “Go back to your towns and turn things upside down. Agitate. Overthrow the structures that prop up your unjust society. Confront the Romans, resist the occupation, undermine the empire.” But John does neither of these things – he doesn’t advocate leaving society, and neither does he tell his followers to plot revolution. No, what John instructs them to do is go back to their old lives and simply live in a new way. Recognize that God has called you to be where you are. And get stuck in. Live right and prepare the way for the one who baptizes with fire.

And he gets specific with them. He paints a vivid picture of what it means to prepare the fiery way of the Lord. He says: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To tax collectors: Don’t collect more than you must. It seems a bit unnecessary to demand that, but Rome turned a blind eye when tax-collectors added a little something extra to people’s tax bills to, shall we say, cover personal expenses. To soldiers, who, don’t forget, were also the police officers of the day: Don’t extort money, don’t accuse people falsely, be content with your pay.” In other words: have compassion for the poor, (share your resources with those who don’t have enough), have integrity, (Don’t extort money or accuse people falsely), and be satisfied with what you have in this life, (be content with your pay). This is a warming picture of the life that has been baptized with Christ’s fire. When we receive the healing, purifying heat of Jesus we will glow with these three graces. Compassion, integrity, contentment. What hallmarks define a disciple of Jesus? What beautiful, transparent, life-giving qualities beam from the heart of his followers? Compassion, integrity, contentment.

Think for a moment of the person you most admire. The man or woman who reveals Christ most clearly to you. They surely have these three qualities – compassion, integrity, and contentment.

Their compassion means they have big hearts. They love people. They are generous and think good of others. Rather than closing their eyes when they encounter suffering, they feel the searing pain of the fire and they become part of God bringing healing and transformation.

Their integrity means they are faithful in their relationships, honest in their dealings with money, they stand up for what they know is right, even when it is costly. They speak the truth in love, even when it is more expedient to bend it a little. Their lives match their talk – because that is what integrity is – someone’s beliefs and actions are integrated.

And they are content with what God has given them. They don’t waste their time and energy striving for more and more – they know they have enough. They share their resources – material, emotional, spiritual – knowing that they won’t run out. Gratitude shines out of them – whether they have plenty or little; whether they have healthy minds and bodies or are bearing the weight of illness.

The small-hearted who places personal ambition and financial comfort ahead of people – that person is no one’s hero.

The hypocrite who’s walk clashes with their talk, whose hymn-singing on Sunday mutates into malicious speech on Monday – that person is no one’s role model.

The complainer who is never happy with God’s gifts and God’s call, who is ever climbing ladders – social, corporate, even religious – looking for happiness – that person may end up with all the prizes, but when the game goes back in the box no one truly admires them, no one wants to be like them.

No, the people who have shaped your life for the better possess these fiery qualities – compassion, integrity, contentment.

And so, may your Advent be fiery; may you taste Christ’s compassion, relish his contentment, and live his integrity. Go, empowered by Word, sacrament and song, and prepare the way of the Lord.

About Theresa Wright