Fire and Light

St Thomas, Fifth Avenue (NYC)

John the Baptist is my favorite Advent character! (Said no one, ever!) I'll bet none of you have a John the Baptist figure as part of your Nativity set. Can’t we just get on to the angels and lovely Mary?

And yet, John was a very important person in the story of Jesus.  All four Gospels start off with him. In Matthew he appears as a kind of wild man, standing in the wilderness, calling people names. 

John is dressed like another wild man, the prophet Elijah, who famously called down fire from heaven and was supposed to return as the harbinger of the dreaded day of the Lord, according to Malachi, the last book in our Old Testament. And so John appears in the first book of the New Testament and does his prophet thing, warning everyone to repent, for the Kingdom of God is near. 

Repent, of course, means turn back. It means to reorient yourself toward God.  God is coming soon and we want to be ready.

So John is an important figure for us during Advent, the time when we are to prepare ourselves for the Lord's coming. In fact, we have to go through John to get to Jesus.   

John exhorts us in a pretty blunt way, but his star will fade, and Jesus will carry the message much further. John baptizes for repentance; but Jesus will bring healing and the forgiveness of sins. That is where the story ultimately goes. We may start with repentance, but we will end up with forgiveness.

Some of us, however, have never gotten past the message of John. Our history is filled with preachers like Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" was required reading back in the day, or my day at least - those preachers made sure that everyone heard the message of John. God is coming with fire and is planning to throw most of us in it. Even today people will flock to hear someone tell just how hot the fire will be, perhaps with their list of people they hope will burn.

(Jonathan Edwards said a lot of other stuff too, good stuff, but this is what we tend to remember.)

But John is only the beginning of the story of Jesus. We start with him, but we don't stay with him. John testified to the light, but he was not the light.  It is Jesus who shows us God. And Jesus heals the sick, restores sight to the blind and makes the lame walk. Jesus brings about transformation - from suffering into the fullness of life. Jesus exhorts us to care for the poor and vulnerable, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to visit the sick and imprisoned - to bring life to others because God has brought life to us.

But what about that fire, you ask? What about Jesus and that winnowing fork? What about the wheat and the chaff?

Well, yeah. We all have chaff we need to get rid of. Chaff is the outer layer, the husk, on a head of wheat. Our chaff is our junky outer layer that we hide behind - resentment, self-absorption, fear - stuff that keeps us from being vulnerable. It builds up, like plaque, from living in a world that is not kind to the vulnerable.

If we are going to present ourselves to meet our Lord either at the manger or at the end of time, though, well, that junky stuff has got to go. We will want to present our real selves to the Lord. And the Lord knows that only our real selves can go about God’s business in the world. Our self-absorbed frantically busy selves will not have what it takes to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and work for justice and peace.

And so the chaff has to go. We need to realign ourselves with God’s vision. It’s for our own good and for the good of the world.

Still, I wish I didn’t have to go through this again every year. I find it hard every time. I don’t want to let go of my self-protection and my resentments. I don’t want to be vulnerable, laying myself open to be transformed. Transformation might hurt. I already feel broken enough and fear being swept aside. 

And I don’t want Jesus to see my real self which is misshapen by my foibles and my pride and my fears. I’m afraid that I’ll be thrown in the fire. So, fa la la la la, I can’t hear you, John the Baptist.

But remember the power of forgiveness, which is where this story is ultimately going. Forgiveness is just about as powerful as anything that exists in the world. This week we are reminded of what kind of transformation forgiveness can bring about as we remember the work of Nelson Mandela and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. That was a hard thing, it seemed impossible, for people to face one another and speak hard truths and confess wrongs and to forgive and be forgiven. And yet they did, and the people were changed and the world was changed. The people made themselves vulnerable before one another, and they were not swept away but instead given the power to transform themselves and their society.

We don’t get to the reconciliation part until we do the repentance part, until we can name and face the truth about ourselves, about the parts of us that we’d rather keep hidden - in both our personal selves and our society. Some of us may have been trying to hide some pretty big parts, too. But now, right now, comes our chance to shake off the chaff, to hear the hairy prophet and turn ourselves back toward the Holy One in expectation that God can and will do a new thing with us and through us, as misshapen and broken as we are. 

Don’t be afraid of John’s message. God is coming to us soon, bringing light and life. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. We will not be shattered by God’s power but broken open so that love can get in and love can come back out and utterly change the world.


Bill Bynum said…
Another cogent, timely sermon. Nelson Mandela was indeed a modern saint. It is truly remarkable that Mandela and the Reconciliation Commission could prevent South Africa from exploding after the end of apartheid. I shouldn't be so surprised, however, because forgiveness is one of the basic messages of the Gospels. I guess that my own fear of vulnerability makes me wonder whether all those principles will really work in practice..
Thanks, Bill! The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the proof that this works, but most of us are afraid to try something like that, even on a small scale.