Signs (3): On Fire

. 4 min read

Christ Church, Mountain Top
to Worship, Isaiah 12.2-6, responsively
Advent Wreath, Zephaniah
Luke 3.7-18
Philippians 4.4-7, selections
Crutch, with bead necklace
came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to
my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and
quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I
do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers
became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made
wholly a flame” (The Desert Fathers,
translated by Helen Waddell, 117).
images of Advent cascade over us today. The warrior exulting with joy – that’s
Clay Matthews or J.J. Watt celebrating another sack. The gathering of the lame
and the outcast. The wells of salvation. The brood of vipers. Stones made into
children for Abraham – an echo of Isaiah’s reference to Abraham and Sarah as
“the rock from which you were hewn” (Isaiah 51.1-2, see R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX, Luke,
      For me, the overwhelming – and most
confusing – image is that of fire. Fire that can be both deadly and life
giving. Judgment fire and Gift fire. This section in Luke 3 summarizes the
preaching of John. It opens with fire – the axe is at the root of the trees,
every tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. It
ends with fire – the grain is gathered into the barn and the chaff is swept up
and burned. And, there is fire in the middle, “He will baptize you with the
Spirit and with fire”. At both ends, the reference is clearly to judgment. In
the middle, the reference is clearly to gift, though scholars do debate that

is uncomfortable language. It is a bit more comfortable to imagine that the
judgment side of the story has to do with other people, anyone but me and those
I love. But I hear John’s call: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone
who has none”. I’ve got way more than two coats. I know that
Christmas is not my birthday. I know that our society has turned people into
producers and consumers, anything but persons with stories. John is calling us
to turn our backs on greed, yes. And, he is inviting us to step out of the
economic terms that define us into a new life of generosity and contentment.
“Be satisfied with your wages.”
      The fire language around judgment – the
fruit trees and the chaff – uses organic imagery to talk about human beings. We
are creatures, not machines, not producers, not consumers. We were made
to be blessed by God, for God to dance and sing over us. We were made to be a
blessing in this world, especially for those that Luke’s gospel calls “the
least of these”. So often, however, we live as neither blessed nor a blessing.
It is only just that the judgment language include us. It is consistent with
the witness of all of Scripture:
1 Peter 4:17  For the time has come for judgment to begin
with the household of God.
Hebrews 10:31  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands
of the living God.
Revelation 14:6-7  Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven,
with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth– to every
nation and tribe and language and people. 
7 He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory,
for the hour of his judgment has come….”
Scriptures blur the boundary of judgment and gift, and invite us to jump into
the fire. Now, it is not judgment as we tend to practice it, what we discussed
last week as our predisposition toward judgment, our self-centered perspective
on power, and our unbridled passion for control. Our practice of judgment is
all about condemnation, all about fault-finding. God’s practice is all about
holiness, which could also be expressed as wholeness. No wonder the Revelation
describes the hour of God’s judgment as “the eternal gospel”. No wonder the
prophet Zephaniah rejoices, saying, “The LORD has taken away the judgments
against you” (3.15), a reference to judgment as condemnation.
more must I do?” Abbot Lot asked. “What then should we do?” the people asked
John. And John describes a vision of wholeness, calling the people to judge
themselves, to judge their power, to judge their wealth, from the perspective
of the wholeness of the human race, from the perspective of the wholeness of
the weak and poor. “Whoever has two coats must share.”
      Then, John takes the position of the weak
and poor when speaking of Jesus, of the coming one. He declares, “I am not
worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Luke 3.16). In that era in Palestine,
society was more stratified than middle school. The work of untying someone’s
sandals was work for slaves. It was not even appropriate for disciples of a
rabbi to untie the rabbi’s sandals (Culpepper, 85 and Fitzmyer, I:473). John’s
social status, then, is below slavery. “I am not worthy.”
      Like John, who was certainly a holier man
than I, there is no worthiness in us. The amazing thing, the gospel, is that
this coming one makes us worthy. This coming one blesses us. This coming one
offers baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire.
am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” John is also inviting us to
adopt the posture of a slave and to find in our service a depth of connection
and intimacy that we otherwise entirely miss. C.S. Lewis described the glory of
human connection in this way: “There are no ordinary
people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. But it is immortals whom we
joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…. Next to the Blessed Sacrament
itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses” (“Weight
of Glory”, cited in McCormick & Davenport, Shepherd Leadership, 21).
the shoes of adults with multiple disabilities – “closer to God than I”
will save the lame and gather the outcast”
Dillard, Holy the Firm:
that lands in candle and becomes a second wick, burning for two hours until she
blows it out.

thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame”