Ready, Aim, Fire!
This morning I welcome you to the Advent season. Today we look forward expectantly to the coming of the Christ child whose Advent makes all things new in our spiritual lives.
As most of you know, there is a list of scripture lessons that apply particularly to the Advent season. It is called the lectionary, and it supplies us with scripture appropriate to each Sunday of Advent, as well as for each Sunday of the year. It is an Advent scripture lesson that guides this message this morning.
It is a message telling us that John the Baptist got a little hot under the collar. The basic message of the Advent season is "Prepare the way of the Lord." And the passages from Luke you heard this morning present a clear picture of that historical setting in which John the Baptist told of the coming of the Messiah. But he got a little hot under the collar—if he wore a collar.
To the crowd who came out to be baptized, he said, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? You are trying to escape hell without truly turning to God! That is why you want to be baptized! First, go and prove, by the way you live, that you have really repented. And don't think you are safe because you are descendants of Abraham. That isn't enough. God can produce children of Abraham from these desert stones! The ax of his judgment is poised over you, ready to sever your roots and cut you down. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire!"
All I can say to that is—"Well!" John may have told of the coming of Jesus, but his message was far different from Jesus' message. John's tirade certainly was not the gospel.
It was not good news; it was news of terror. John said, "You brood of vipers!" The story behind that is interesting.
John lived in the desert. The face of the desert was covered with stubble and brushwood, as dry as tinder. Sometimes a spark set the face of the desert afire, and out from their crannies came the vipers and the snakes, scurrying in terror from the menacing flames.
John was telling them that their coming to be baptized was like the snakes and vipers trying to escape the flames—a rather clever, and graphic metaphor.
Many of them thought they were safe because they were descendants of Abraham, thinking that gave them very special privilege. To some of those early Jews, there was not the slightest doubt that in God's contract with Israel, there was a most favored nation clause. They were sure that God would judge the nations with one standard, but the Jews with another. They, in fact, held that a person was safe from judgment simply by virtue of the fact that he was a Jew. A son of Abraham was exempt from judgment. And, in a way, as with Christianity, they were right—except they had forgotten the matter of repentance.
But John set them straight on that score. John told them that racial or ethnic privilege meant nothing; that life, not lineage, was God's standard of judgment.
Those Jews must have been properly frightened by John's tirade, so they said, "What do you want us to do?" (And here follows the rest of the scripture lesson.) John gives them his social prescription. He said, "If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have extra food, give it away to those who are hungry."
Even tax collectors—notorious for their corruption—came to be baptized, and asked, "How shall we prove to you that we have abandoned our sins?"
"By your honesty," he replied. "Make sure you collect no more taxes than the Roman government requires you to."
"And us," asked some soldiers, "what about us?" John replied, "Don't extort money by threats and violence; don't accuse anyone of what you know he didn't do; and be content with your pay."
John had delivered a 3-point sermon.
1) Learn to share with one another. John's was a social gospel message that God will never absolve the person who is content to have too much while others have too little.
2) His message ordered a person not to leave his job, but to work out her own salvation by doing that job as it should be done. Let the tax collector be a good tax collector; let the soldier be a good soldier. It was a person's duty to serve God where God had sent him or her. It was John's conviction that nowhere can a man serve God better than in his day's work.
3) His third point was that everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and many thought that John was the one. This was the question of the hour. It was discussed everywhere.
John answered the question by saying, "I baptize only with water; but someone is coming soon who has far higher authority than mine; in fact, I am not worthy of being his slave; I can't even untie his shoes. He will baptize you with fire—with the Holy Spirit. He will separate chaff from grain, and burn up the chaff with eternal fire and store away the grain."
John was sure that he himself was only the forerunner. The King was still to come, and with Him there would come judgment. The winnowing fan was a great flat wooden shovel; with it the grain fell to the ground and the chaff was blown away. Just as the chaff was separated from the grain, so the King would separate the good and bad.
So John painted a picture of judgment. But is was a judgment which a person could meet with confidence if he had discharged his duty to his neighbor and if she had faithfully done her day's work.
John uses the fire metaphor. God's judgment was like an ax poised, ready to sever your roots and cut you down. Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.
"You brood of vipers," scurrying from the desert fire, scurrying in terror from the menacing flames. What a graphic picture!
I wonder how much John's fiery scenes influenced the later portrayals of God's judgment as hell's fire and brimstone. "Burning in hell" became the frightening metaphor that has petrified generations of good people into believing that was indeed their fate, since God would judge them for their earthly misdeeds. That fellow who was just convicted of all those serial murders and sentenced to die in the electric chair—one of the parents of the victims yelled at him, "Burn in hell!" So the phrase is very much alive.
I prefer other metaphors of fire—constructive uses of fire. Yes, fire can destroy, but out of such destruction comes new growth.
Did you know that the largest living thing, the giant redwood tree, can take root as seed only when a fire has burned off all other foliage and ground cover? Their seeds are so small they cannot push down through the ground cover to get themselves implanted to take root. It takes a preparatory fire to clear away the brush. Then the redwood seeds can grab hold. Out of the fire comes new life.
We use fire as a descriptive phrase to mean we are on the move or are excited. We're "on fire" with enthusiasm. Churches need to be alive to the needs of those whom they would serve. How easy it is for a church to settle back into a quiet, comfortable routine and let the world go by, as it contem plates only the warm glowing embers of its being.
I hope for your willingness to stoke the fires of your enthusiasm for your church, so that those fires are ready to burst into one great conflagration of commitment to the work and witness of Jesus Christ here.
A minister watched his church burn down late one night. A man stood beside him, and the minister said to him, "Why, Joe Smith, this is the first time I've seen you anywhere near the church in a very long time." Joe said, "Yep, it's the first time I've seen the church on fire." Touché.
The Church of Jesus Christ must always make itself ready for the coming of the Christ spirit into its midst. It must always take aim on the possibility of that spirit coming alive at any given moment, and then to ignite the flames of dedication and commitment that will be as fire for the whole world to see—a kind of "ready, aim, fire!" attitude that says this is an expectant church. We expect that Christ spirit to come—we prepare the way for it by our dedication and our acting out of the principles represented by that spirit.
John the Baptist thought he could frighten people into salvation. Jesus fascinated them into following him, and, as they followed him, they saw revealed the meaning of life as God would have it be. He showed them the pattern of God's larger purpose for each person's soul. He made it plain that God's most direct relationship to them was not so much with reference to their sins, but with his loving appeal to their better selves, and the sins will take care of themselves.
You see, what was good in them God had put there, and the love of God was reaching out to awaken that goodness to such a passion of high desire that it could overcome all that was mean and evil in their souls. That was the new emotion, a heart-inflaming, a fired-up emotion, by which you and I are to be led in these coming days of Advent toward God's love made real on earth.
That's the spirit that we await expectantly at this time of year.
How do you get ready? I need time—and what we've made out of Christmas robs me of time. I'm at the point of rebellion. I will not be caught up in that secular Christmas rush. How can my heart be set ablaze in the expectation that a renewed spirit of love will enter my heart this Christmastide if I must use it to catch up on all my entertainment obligations or my clients might think I'm not showing the proper appreciation for having given me all that business this past year.
I need time—time to get ready, to take aim, and to be on fire with the coming good news. I need time—to seek out someone who is lonely this Christmas, to visit someone who is ill this Christmas, to say, "I love you" to someone who needs to hear it. And to thank God for the gift of love given me by others. Yes, I—we—need time.
At Christmas we are not the inheritors of John the Baptist's fiery judgment. But we are set ablaze with the expectation of the new hope that enters our lives. Expect it—feel it—then live it!
It ought to be clear enough to us. It comes from a child who could do no other.
It's coming, it's coming.
Be ready, take aim, and then be aglow with the spirit.
Donald B. Ward (deceased)