Like Fire in the Sky

Every year before we can get to the manger, we are confronted, you might even say ambushed by John the Baptist.

Yesterday my family put up not one, not two, but three trees – a bit excessive probably, but we have all these Christmas ornaments.  So, we put up a tree with white lights for our regular family ornaments, a small tree with blinking white lights for the Chrismons the children have received from Kim Yucha over the years, and one with colored lights devoted solely to the antique ornaments Sarah collects. 

It was a spur of the moment thing to get the third tree and yesterday in the aisles of Lowe’s home and garden section I was struck by how unbelievable friendly everyone was.  People were complimenting each other on their tree selection and offering to take pictures of one another’s families.  And I took it to mean everyone is ready to celebrate Christmas.

Here at Epiphany, today we have our tree up so maybe we’re nearly ready as well.  We anticipate the chance to sing Christmas carols together and we look forward to celebrating the Holy Birth.  But all the gospel writers agree: before we can come to celebrate the babe of Bethlehem, first we have to deal with John the Baptist.

It is striking that while only two of our four gospels – so 50% – have an infancy narrative where we hear about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as a baby, all four of them – 100% – agree that before Jesus’ public ministry, John was out in the wilderness preaching his own message, and that the Christian movement Jesus began had its roots in John’s ministry. 

Here at the beginning of the third chapter of Matthew’s gospel we learn that Jesus essentially got his first sermon from John whole-cloth: Just like John, Jesus began his ministry by announcing: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And you might think that the gospel writers would downplay John, as if the Son of God they are ultimately trying to proclaim was powerful enough that he didn’t need someone to help him make an entrance, but they don’t downplay John. They up-play John!  The gospel writers are all clear that John prepares the way for Jesus.

I imagine that the people who went out to John came for different reasons. Some were ordinary people, peasants, and Hebrews who were true believers in the promise of the messiah, and hoped for an end to their suffering under Roman rule and oppression.

Some were religious leaders who most certainly went out in opposition to John, to show themselves in visible protest, or perhaps even hoping to coopt the movement.

And then some people were probably just curious at all the commotion. 

So it sounds like a scene not unlike any given sports bar you might visit where you have diehard fans coming in who painted their faces and are willing to stand in the cold even to watch their team lose, as well as fair-weather fans who just jump on board when the home team is riding high, as well as people who are just looking for some onion rings and a beer.

All these various people gathered around John, but then Jesus comes to join this movement as well. And while Jesus obviously owes a lot of his trajectory to John, the Lord really does improve on John’s message because nowhere in John’s message do we hear anything about forgiveness.  There is nothing about grace.  There is nothing about love.

John’s message is repentance. He offers all the people in Judea and Jerusalem and that region a water initiation rite as a sign they are going to do better.  John offers the message that it’s time to man-up or woman-up.  These people are to take a long hard look at their lives and be better people, be more faithful people, be the people smiling that strangely happy smile in the Lowes home and garden section and doing it year-round.

And repentance is part of the life of faith.  We are called to repentance.  We’re called to take a long look at ourselves, to ask what are the ways we fall short of God’s desire for our lives; to be honest that we ignore God’s blessings to us, and forget the common humanity we share with each other.

We scroll facebook and feel jealousy at the lives other people are living and we look around and think more highly of ourselves than others.  So often we compare ourselves with others and compare our lives to what we wish or hope they could be

We imagine that this life as we see it not is it: we are what we have and what we do. 

But repentance is the invitation to do the hard work of returning to God to see again that we are freed to let go of the comparisons to see again that we are all made uniquely in the image of God.  We are beloved for who God has made us.  And we have been brought in by God to be a part of his mission in the world.

We have to deal with John and we have to deal with repentance, but thankfully Jesus comes to ambush us with grace.  He is the one that does what John can’t: he comes to bring the fire of God’s holy forgiveness and blessing. He comes to baptize us with the refining fire of the Holy Spirit.

John’s gospel of rededicating ourselves to doing better sounds nice, but there’s no power in it.  I can try not to scroll social media and watch TV and pass people while I’m shopping and compare myself to them but I’m going to get sucked into that again and again. 

Just trying to be a better, more caring, less selfish person is going to end in disappointment again, just like last time.  But Jesus claims us in the fire of Holy Baptism and burns away our chaff and our sin.  He welcomes us into a new life where we don’t live to ourselves, we live to God, and we live for God’s purposes and intentions.  

Like fire that refines metal, God’s fire purifies our life.  Like fire that heats clay to make pottery, God’s fire makes us strong. Like fire that cooks food and gives us warmth, God’s fire nourishes and sustains us.

God’s presence in Jesus Christ purifies, strengthens, gives health, and gives us a whole new vision for who we are and what our future holds.

In his letter to the Romans, here in the fifteenth chapter, Paul encourages the early Christians to believe that in Christ the future has arrived.  There’s no need any longer for the Jews to compare themselves to the Gentiles or vice versa.

I mean, let it not be lost on us that this is a big deal: This was like saying there’s no need to compare Republicans and Democrats, because they’ve been made into one new group. 

Like saying there’s no need to compare Washington Redskin fans and Green Bay Packer fans, because they’ve been made into one new group.

Like saying there’s no need to compare boomers and millennials, because they’ve been made into one new group.

It’s a big deal and Paul says no matter who we are, in Christ we are all one new community by the fire of our baptism into Christ and THEREFORE we are to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God.

This sounds familiar to any 7th and 8th graders and their families who were at our Lost and Found retreat near Lynchburg two weekends ago. This was our theme verse:  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you for the glory of God, so for three days I was in a small group with eight 7th grade boys talking about this.

We had conversation about what it means to welcome.  We played games that emphasized welcome.  We talked about how God welcomes us in baptism and at the table.

But we also talked about how even as Christians we are not immune to the sinful forces of exclusion. 

Its sad to say but we exclude others, sometimes based on race, age, or nationality.  We exclude people because of their religion or because they are differently-abled.  And sometimes we are unaware of what we’re doing.  And sometimes we are aware but we’re too afraid of losing our treasured place in the in-group that we can’t risk relationship with the people on the fringes.

We talked about all this quite a lot in our group.  And then Ian, who was one of the 7th grade boys in my group, about halfway through the second day, he sort of stops me and is kind of exasperated and says:

  “Pastor, I know you think you need to tell us about being inclusive because we’re all just in 7th and 8th grade and we’re immature, but we’re about to be in high school and people that old are more mature and don’t exclude people.”

My first thought was to say, Ian, I have some bad news.  But the more I reflect on Ian and what he said, the more I see a young man who is a prophet speaking God’s vision for us:

Jesus shows us a God whose heart overflows with such loves for us that he would come to us in flesh, to bear our hostile exclusion as we tried to push him out of the world on the cross, and who comes back from the dead to welcome us, to forgive us, and to give us his Spirit so that we can grow in maturity to learn to welcome others – especially those who are often ignored, the poor, those living with disabilities, those who are overlooked, and those we perceive to be different from us.

Jesus is the one with the power to usher in Isaiah’s vision of welcome, where the wolf’s jowls don’t salivate at the smell of the lamb, the lion feeds his belly on straw shared with him by the cow, where little children play in the street, where students aren’t bullied at school, people aren’t discriminated against because of where they are from, what they look like, or what they believe.

Jesus is God’s power to gather all humankind into one new family, burning away all the temporary, inconsequential divisions we construct, bringing peace to enemies and this world’s supposedly opposing forces, caring for the poor and outsider, and turning the walls we build into tables.

I’m as ready as anyone to sing “Silent Night” and celebrate the infant King whose birth frees and forgives, but before that, we might pause to see the season of Advent as a time to emulate John and point to the one with the power to give life and strength and health.

At this time of year, amid all the business and amid all the other messages we hear, we are pointing to Jesus as God’s act to purify and refine the world God loves.

The advent of God is coming like the arrival of the rising sun, the dawning of the circle of fire in the sky that gives life and warmth and growth to the creation each day, and like the sun, Jesus’ coming is for every creature and for all creation.

Like ripples on a lake God’s peace and grace and love radiate from Christ outward: God comes to make peace with us, God gives us peace with each other, God gives peace to all creation.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

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