by Isaac Villegas
Dec 8, 2013
On this second Sunday of Advent, we talk about fire. Not just the flicker of a candle, but flames, blazing. Christmas brings a baptism of fire. The advent of Jesus means fire. John the Baptist tells us so, when he appears near Jerusalem, with bugs in his teeth from his locust meals, and with the wild of the wilderness in his eyes — John warns us of the fire to come: “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.”
When I think of fire, I think of Catniss Everdeen, the girl of fire. Anyone else know what I’m talking about? Does anyone else read science fiction written for junior highers? I think I remember some of us here at church passing around those books a few years ago, borrowing from one another the next book in the trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay.
If you haven’t read them, the most important thing to say about them is that they are disturbing books, all about a vicious world in our future: the cruelty of the powerful, the exploitation of the powerless, the military making the world safe for the rich to get richer while the poor merely survive, or die trying.
The author got the idea for the books one evening when she was watching television, as she flipped between a reality show competition and coverage of the U.S. war in Iraq. “I was tired,” she said, “and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” So she wrote the books, an alarming story about violence in our world.[i]
Last week Katie and I saw the second film in the trilogy, Catching Fire. The hero of the story is Catniss Everdeen, the girl on fire, baptized in fire we could say, a fire of revolution, of rebellion against the way things are, against the deadening powers of this world, a fire of liberation from oppression. In the film, Catniss brings the fire of an uprising, spreading among the people, giving hope to the powerless, instilling fear in the powerful.
Is this the same fire we read about during Advent, as we try to understand the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of Jesus, who John the Baptist tells us will baptize us with fire? What kind of fire? What’s the tone of Advent, the tone of John’s voice, when he tells us what to expect when Jesus arrives?
In the Gospel of Matthew, right before the words we heard from John the Baptist, we read an unsettling story about what king Herod did, about how he prepared for the advent of Jesus, about how he killed the children in and around Bethlehem. The day is remembered as the slaughter of the innocents.
John the Baptist appears in the next verses, almost as a response to king Herod’s violence. John appears with a warning, crying out about the fire to come: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John promises a baptism of fire, the fire of Jesus’ life, his ministry, which John the Baptist envisioned as a kind of uprising, a revolution of sorts, a flame of hope, hope for a way of life without the threat of violence.
Jesus comes to us as a fire. When we read John the Baptist during Advent we can’t forget this image of Jesus, the image of Jesus as fire, a baptism of fire. The story doesn’t end with a swaddled baby in a manger. Instead, Jesus becomes a fire, a fire that burns through the world of sin that has imprisoned us, that enslaves us, that holds us captive to deadening realities — a world of injustice, of broken relationships, of overwhelming loss.
These are the promises of hope we hear from Psalm 72: “May the king judge the people with righteousness, the poor with justice.” “In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.”
If these words are true of Jesus, then, with Jesus we expect a fire of justice that burns through the suffering and loss, because with Jesus comes a new world: “In his days,” says the Psalmist, “may righteousness/justice flourish and peace abound.”
Advent is a season to make an opening in our lives, a crack in the world, for the fire of God. Advent is a season for welcoming Jesus: God’s fire made flesh, the same fire that appeared to Moses in a burning bush, the same pillar of fire that wandered with Israel in the wilderness. The book of Revelation describes Jesus with eyes like flames of fire, a face like the burning Sun.[ii]
To be identified with fire is be named as a threat to the world as we know it, the world as it is. I learned that by watching Hunger Games, and by reading about Jesus, who grows up and gets killed by people who don’t want the fire of his movement to catch, who don’t want his way of life to spread.
To be identified with Jesus is, in some sense, to be part of a protest movement, living for the possibility of another world burning through the chaff of this one, to live as a flicker of hope.
But this fire is not only about the world out there, it’s also about us, it’s personal — a fire 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 burning 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, all of our attitudes and ways of life, that get in the way of God’s love for the world.
During Advent we ask ourselves what needs to be burned away, what needs to change — what parts of our lives, of us, of our world, need God’s restoration, God’s transfiguration?
“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.”
This is a call to repent, and repentance is a kind of freedom — a freedom to become someone else, to let go of who you have been and to become a new creature. We are not destined to be victims of our past, of what we’ve done or of what has been done to us. We are people of new beginnings, of repentance, of conversion, of change. Grace is God’s power of creation, always making possible new ways of life, paths to another life.
During Advent, we are invited to become fire, like Jesus, God’s life in the world, affirming what is good and protesting against what leads 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, of two monks in the Egyptian desert. It’s a strange story, full of mysterious meanings, about God as fire, about becoming fire, a force for change, God’s pure justice, God’s protest, God’s fire made flesh, in Jesus, in us, which is what Christmas is all about.
So, here’s a story for us during Advent:
Brother Lot went to see brother Joseph and said to him, “Joseph, as far as I can, I fast, 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 Joseph 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.”[iii]
[ii] Exod 3:2, “the angel of the Lord appeard to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush.” Exod 13:21, “The Lord went in front of them… a pillar of fire by night, to give them light.” Rev 1:14-16, “His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace… His face was like the sun shining with full force.”
[iii] Joseph of Panephysis 7.