St. Matthew’s Sermon 01-13-2019

St. Matthew’s Sermon 01-13-2019

The Fire That Cleanses

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen.

I think you all know by now that I am not a “fire and brimstone” preacher. If I ever said anything that made you think otherwise I hereby apologize for that error. I must say, however, when I took my first glance at today’s Gospel reading I thought I was facing quite the challenge to not go in that direction.

Reading the previous part of the story of John’s preaching didn’t help much either. In that we hear of John coming out of the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…” (3:3) and addressing the crowd with words like “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7b) and “Even now the ax is lying at the rootof the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:9) Then, out of today’s reading “…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he willburn with unquenchable fire.” (16b-17)

It all sounds quite threatening. Yet in the very next verse, verse 18 that I added to today’s reading, we hear “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” which might leave us asking how can all this talk about an ax to cut down and fire to consume be heard as “good news”.

Looking farther into Luke’s Gospel we find the word “fire” used 4 more times.

In chapter 9, when a Samaritan village refused to allow Jesus and his disciples to rest there, James and John said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (9:54) That is talk of fire and brimstone… but Jesus “rebuked them” and they went on to another village. Jesus wasn’t vengeful; he wasn’t out to destroy; he had another mission.

In chapter 12 Jesus says “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (49) We can easily see how this use of the word ties in with today’s reading about baptism of “Holy Spirit and fire” so again we ask, is it “good news”?

In chapter 17 where Jesus is talking about the coming “days of the Son of Man” he uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as analogy for the suddenness of the apocalypse saying “…but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them”. (29) Well, that’s certainly fire and brimstone.

And the final time Luke uses “fire” in his Gospel is in the scene of Jesus’ trial in chapter 22 where Peter is waiting outside and we read, “When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them”. (55) Here we rightly assume he does so to warm himself; it’s not a scene of destruction with fire and brimstone.

So in all, those verses up to today’s reading and those following we find “fire being used 7 times: Three of those we can be fairly certain are intended to convey a message of destruction of the sinful; the tree that does not bear good fruit, James’ and John’s question about calling fire upon the Samaritan village (which Jesus rebuked), and the reference to Sodom and Gomorra.

The one involving Peter by the fire to keep warm is most certainly not conveying such a message.

This leaves three uses… in question; the baptism with the “Holy Spirit and fire”, the chaff burning in “unquenchable fire”, and “I came to bring fire to the earth”.

The point is, we develop thoughts over our lifetime about a word, or a condition, that influence the way we hear that word or observe the condition; and do so without considering the context. The word “fire” is only one example of many.

In my religious upbringing the word “fire” almost always meant destruction. In particular it meant the destruction of one’s soul in the fires of hell. That message, instilled in me so many years ago, in spite of my more recent efforts to read more closely and think more carefully, was what popped up, what was the first thing to come into my mind when I read today’s Gospel reading the first time this week. That instilled meaning is why I thought I would be challenged to not go in the direction of fire and brimstone preaching today.

As I said, “fire” is only one example. We must always be attentive to all the ways we assume that a word used in one context will mean the same thing in all contexts or the way a condition is presented in one text will be the foundation for understanding it in all texts.

Going back, then, to today’s reading and the question of how all this talk about an ax to cut down and fire to consume can be heard as “good news”; if we look at it without the thoughts of condemnation, that might be the first thing to pop into our heads, we might see an alternative.

First, the ax at the root of the tree that does not bear good fruit. In this we can turn our thoughts away from personal, individual unworthiness to worldly systems that do not bear the fruit of the Kingdom. Doing this allows us to see the change involved in the coming of the Kingdom. Not the destruction of individual lives but of the unjust institutions that oppress, harm, and lead astray, or even push away; and those systems being burned to unrecognizable ash so they may never return.

In the other part, with thoughts of the personal, the individual, we can see the baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, not as the separation of the righteous and the condemned with the destruction of the latter, but as the final purification of all people. Just as John’s water baptism is symbolic of cleansing the repentant of their sins Christ’s baptism of the Spirit does the same. But with the metaphor of grain on the threshing floor and the winnowing fork we’re not seeing the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous, but the cleansing of all who receive the word; the stirring up and tossing around of each one until the chaff, the undesirable junk clinging to us, is removed and separated from us, then burned with unquenchable fire, never to be seen again, never to return.



Isaiah 43:1-7
43:1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
43:4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
43:5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
43:6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–
43:7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Acts 8:14-17
8:14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.
8:15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit
8:16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).
8:17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (added)
3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
3:22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”