Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent 3, 2012: Breath and fire

Lectionary: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist says: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Don’t think you’re home free just because Abraham is the head of your family tree. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of [those] trees; [and] every tree (that is every one of you) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the… unquenchable fire.”

How’s that for Good News?

If we are to hear what’s good about this, we will have to listen with new ears and a dose of humility.

Let’s start with the basic message of what the Good News is: God promised to save the whole world and to reconcile us to God (which means to co-exist with God) that we might live eternally in the love and presence of God. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, who is the son of God and the son of Mary, and who lived, died, and rose again, thereby reconciling us to God. God in Christ, who was resurrected from the dead, then gave us the Holy Spirit, who is God, and who dwells in us, and called us to participate in the continuing work of redemption until he comes again.

Does that sound about right?

In our gospel story, John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah, is teaching those who have power, and privilege, and who understand salvation to be their right rather than God’s gift. John calls them to a baptism of repentance, urging them to change the way they live their lives, to get back on the path of righteousness (right relationship).

John makes this message concrete when the tax collectors, who were notorious for getting rich by exploiting the poor, ask him how they should repent. Be honest, John says. Take no more than is required. And when the soldiers, who were Mafioso type body guards and enforcers for the tax collectors, ask how they should change their ways, John instructs them to be humble, gentle, and honest in their work.

When one is lost, learning how to get back on the right path is Good News.

Using language familiar to his listeners, John explains that those who have strayed from the path of righteousness, including some from the family of Abraham, will be cut off at their roots and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Fire, as you remember, is symbolic language for God. John is describing a kind of spiritual do-over. The fire is unquenchable – just as God’s love and desire for our redemption is unrelenting. Being consumed by the fire of God’s love and purified in that love is a gift, and sometimes it’s the only way to change the course of one’s life.

The Good News here is that in God we can start over. The fire of God’s love will consume us, purify us, and make us new.

The listeners of this gospel story were people much like us. Most of them had enough to live comfortably. Some had more than enough. When they asked how they should repent, John answered them: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

This is Good News on so many levels.

First, it opens these people up to a world in which they are not the center of attention. Being the center of attention is a way of life that seems attractive but it is actually a trap and soon becomes an obsession. Look at our culture of celebrities.

Secondly, it connects them to others, building in them empathy, respect, and a willingness to enter into friendship with people they used to judge and avoid knowing.

Third, it frees these people from their attachment to things. It makes relationships their priority. John tells them to give ‘their stuff’ away, to be as generous with others as God has been with them.

Imagine also what Good News this is to the weak, the poor, the exploited, and the hopeless. They are the ones who will receive the coats that will be shared. They are the ones who will receive the food that is no longer being hoarded and held away from them.

They are also hearing the ones who have enough, the ones who have been exploiting and harassing them, being told to change their ways. If that happens, they know they will no longer be judged or blamed for their poverty, but lifted out of it.

This truly is Good News.

Finally, John acknowledges to the gathered crowd that he is not the Messiah. He is baptizing with water, but the Messiah, who will come after him, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire – both words that refer to God.

Holy Spirit, which is translated from the Greek word,‘pneuma’ also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ The Messiah will baptize with the breath of heaven – the very breath that gives life to all that is living and breathes new life into those who are dead.

The Messiah will also baptize with fire – which is the presence and passion of God. Sharing in the presence and passion of God means knowing that we are connected, to God and to one another, bound by the eternal love of God.

And that means we will no longer be able to separate ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or even us and God. We will live in the unity of the Love that is God.

Our awareness of our connectedness and unity with one another and with God will transform the world, and the will of God will be manifest on earth as it is in heaven. No one will have to tell us to be honest, or gentle, or humble in our dealings with one another. We will bear this fruit because we will know that
the root we truly spring from is God and we will share the character and nature of God who dwells in us.

Lives transformed by the Good News of our salvation – that is the call of our baptism as much now as it ever has been – as much as it was for the people John the Baptist was teaching… as much as it was for the people to whom Zephaniah was prophesying: “Rejoice… O daughter Jerusalem! … the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”

Rejoice. Be joyful. Hear the Good News of your salvation. There is no destruction to fear – only new life to embrace.

Let the fire consume you and be grateful it is unquenchable because it means that God never gives up on us. God always provides the chance for new life, purified life, life in the presence and passion of God.

When we truly trust God we don’t fear for our lives, we surrender them to God just like Mary and Jesus showed us how to do. Like Mary, we give up our expectations for what our lives might be and give ourselves fully to God whose plan is so much more than we can ask or imagine. And we trust as that plan is revealed to us over time.

Living in the truth of the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, we remember that resurrection is always God’s response to death. We know that if God calls us to die (literally or figuratively), it is so that heaven can breathe new life into us and into the whole world. So, we can offer ourselves to God, not out of fear, but anticipating joyfully the new life God is waiting to give us.

Muslim poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, offers this prayer to God: “I have one drop of knowing in my soul. Let it dissolve in your ocean.”

As we enter our final week of Advent preparation, may we faithfully enter the unquenchable fire that purifies us and sets us free from all that divides us and distracts us from the truth of the Good News.

May we drown in the ocean of God where we find the peace that surpasses all understanding.

And may we trust in the bountiful grace and mercy of God to deliver us again and again from death into life. Amen.

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