Title: Becoming Fire
Text: Matt 3:1-12
Date: Dec 5, 2010
Author: Isaac Villegas
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness and says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11).
First John comes with water, but soon Jesus will come with fire. Advent is a time of fire. What is it about fire that gives us an angle on the coming of God in Jesus?
A Child Pyromaniac
I have always had a thing for fire. As a little kid, probably ten years old, I would wander around the yard outside my house and find stuff to burn. I would gather some twigs in a pile, then take off my glasses and use them to magnify the sun. I had a pretty strong prescription. After about a minute or so, I’d see some smoke—then the flicker of a few small flames. I’d add a few more twigs and let the fire burn out.
This was probably a bad idea. I mean, I lived in the dessert, in Tucson AZ. I’d be out burning stuff with my glasses in the middle of a dry, hot summer. I could have easily set on fire the desert that surrounded my house and turned the neighborhood into ash—all with my glasses.
Is that the kind of fire John the Baptist envisions? Will Jesus walk around with his glasses and turn the world into charcoal? Listen to John again, as he offers a warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 10).
I wonder if it’s important that John doesn’t say that Jesus will do this kind of burning, that Jesus will bring this kind of fire. John doesn’t say that Jesus is coming with an ax, and that Jesus will cut down and burn up the trees. Instead, it’s just a statement about what will happen: the ax is at the root of the tree, and trees are cut down and thrown into the fire. John the Baptist seems to be giving a description of the way destruction will unfold, if something doesn’t change, if people don’t change their lives, if the crowds don’t repent.
The Fire Next Time
That’s how James Baldwin talked about the coming fire that would burn America in the 60s. He wrote an essay in 1962 called “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of my Mind.” It first came out in The New Yorker, then a few months later he republished it in a book called, The First Next Time—which immediately became a landmark piece of the Civil Rights movement. Here’s the last line of the book:
If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
No more water, the fire next time. Baldwin’s essay was a warning, a warning of the destruction he saw on the horizon—of the way he thought the people of America would end up destroying themselves, unless society changed, unless people risked everything to love their sworn enemies. Everything would go up in flames if people didn’t change the world.
If things didn’t change, there would be riots and cities would burn. That’s just what happens in an unjust society. There’s only so much humiliation and suffering a people can handle. Then come riots and fires. No more water, the fire next time.
That’s the kind of warning John the Baptist is offering to the crowds near Jerusalem, in the wilderness of Judea—repent now, change now, because the fire is coming. If they continue down the path they are on, they will destroy themselves.
Jesus Is Fire
But, even if Jesus doesn’t bring total destruction, a worldwide fire of punishment, he, nonetheless, does come with a fire: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” says John the Baptist.
Jesus comes to us as a fire. That’s an important image to keep in mind during this season of advent. The story doesn’t end with a cute and cuddly baby in a manger. Jesus becomes a fire that burns through the world of sin that we have created—a world of injustice. Listen again to the words of our Psalmist, from Psalm 72: “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (v. 2). “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more” (v. 7).
Jesus comes with a fire of justice that burns through the systems that have created a class of people called “the poor.” With Jesus, the one who comes with fire, all of those institutions go up in flames—whether they are economic policies or political orders. Because there’s a new world coming: “In his days,” says the Psalmist, “may righteousness/justice flourish and peace abound.”
Jesus has come to burn through the world of sin we have created in order to make room for new life. Advent is a season to make an opening in our lives and in the world for the fire of God—the same fire that came into the world at the first Christmas: that we may be consumed with the same fire, that we may burn with the life of Jesus, the one who is God’s fire made flesh.
To become fire is, of course, a threat to the way things are, and the people who want to keep things the way they are. When the infant Jesus grows up they kill him because they don’t want the fire of his movement to spread through the land. So, for those who follow Jesus, we will always be a protest movement against the forces that work contrary to God’s abundant love.
But this fire is also a very personal fire—something that consumes each of us: “He will baptize you,” John the Baptist says, Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” At the heart of this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is a question, a series of questions that all of us must wrestle with. What is going to last? In our world and in our lives, what will last and what will be burned away?
God’s fire is a purifying fire—affirming what is good, and melting away all the corruption that disfigures the goodness of creation, the goodness of our lives. Jesus has come to burn away all the systems and structures—and all of our attitudes and practices—that get in the way of God’s love for the world. So, what needs to be burned away in your life?
“His winnowing fork is in his hand,” John says of Jesus at the end of our passage, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (v. 12).
This is a call to repent, and repentance is a kind of freedom—a freedom to be someone else, to let go of who you have been and to become a new creation. You are not destined to be a victim of your past—a victim of the people who have wronged you and a victim of the wrongs you have committed against others. Jesus has come with a fire to burn away the old and make space for a new creation. God’s grace is the power of creation, of making possible new ways of life.
You can become fire, the fire of God’s love in the world, a force of affirmation of what is good and a protest against what will lead to our self-destruction.
To be baptized in fire, to become fire—that’s the nature of the Christian life.
There’s a story from the 4th century after Christ, of two monks in the Egyptian desert—it’s a crazy story about what we can become. And I’ll leave it to make sense of it. But, at the very least, it’s story of someone who believes that God’s fire can be a reality in our lives, a tangible experience—that we too can be God’s fire made flesh, like Jesus:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,
“Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all fire.”
 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), pp. 105-106.
 Joseph of Panephysis 7.