Unquenchable Fire (Matthew 3: 1-12)

Unquenchable Fire 12/4/16

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Matthew 3: 1-12

May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of all of our hearts Be acceptable in thine sight
O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent–our second opportunity to gather as a people and prepare ourselves for the birth of our Savior. If nothing else, what is immediately clear from our lesson today is that this preparation in some way requires us to straighten our lives up–to examine ourselves, to take a good hard look at what is good and creative in us and what is unhelpful and counter-productive.

Indeed, as John tells us, 0ne is coming into the world very soon and “his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Just as a farmer sifts through the harvest, separating the good and nutritious grain from it’s husk–the one who comes will lift up the good in us and dispose of the bad.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to grasp in this season of preparation is that the birth of our Savior nearly two thousand years ago in Bethlehem is not merely an outward event trapped in a long forgotten past–but is, in many ways, an on-going inner event.

Our God is the God of all time–past, future–and above all the present. But our God is also most explicitly our God–God to us–right here and right now. If the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is to be in anyway significant other than as a cold, dry historical fact–then, in some sense Jesus Christ must be born into the world in our own lives here and now–today. The One who comes, must come to us. The One who separates the wheat from the chaff–must separate the wheat from the chaff in us.

So this morning–consider what is most valuable in yourself and what is
disposable. Consider what makes you truly special, God’s gift –and what conceals that specialness like the husk covering the grain.

Now, if I’m honest about my own life, I have to admit that there is a great deal of husk obscuring that good kernal, that solid place in me where truly the image of God reigns supreme. Life gets so clogged up with garbage, doesn’t it? And the things I get worked up about the most–in the end invariably are the least important.

Think about your own life–how often have you found yourself engaged in petty squabbles, lost in insecurities and useless striving? It’s all chaff–it’s all garbage, disposable.

But there is something behind all that, isn’t there? A part of you where you are calm and good and peaceful–a place deep within you where God’s goodness shines–a kind of perpetual manger, where the little Lord Jesus reigns in meekness and mildness. That’s usually the part we don’t see ourselves. In fact, generally, what is best in us is recognized only–or at least most fully–by others. Indeed, what makes us most valuable–is usually what we mean to other people–and this is precisely what remains invisible to ourselves.

In the end, I think this might be the most crucial element of repentance–and the element most overlooked. If we are called to separate the wheat from the chaff in ourselves–then we truly need each other. Repentance is a collective activity–an activity not so much in which we point out each other’s failings–in which we dwell on what is merely disposable in each other–but rather, a collective activity in which we all point out the good in one another.

Truly if there is good in us, then it comes from God–and when we lift up what comes from God–we lift up our eyes beyond all the garbage–the mere wrappings–the stuff in us that is good only to be thrown away. And when the good is lifted up in the family of God–the chaff just falls as naturally as it falls from the winnowing fork.

Each one of us is created in the image of God. Each one of us reflects, each in our own way a little ray of God’s glory. Repentence is not merely a matter of turning away from our sins, but it is also a turning toward God–turning toward his mercies, his gifts–turning toward the good. God has given us one another that we might turn toward the light–that we might see, beyond the husk to the kernal–that we might see reflected in our neighbors the very image of God–the very image of who we are in God’s eyes.

Friends, it is time to let go of what is not necessary–let the chaff fall from the wheat. Let all that is disposable be burnt in the unquenchable fire of God’s love–and may we find the courage and the power to do so reflected in each other’s eyes–that we might forever find our place and our peace in the bosom of the family of God. Amen

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