Sunday, December 30, 2018

An Evolving Faith (A sermon from Luke 2:41-52)

As far as my memories go back I remember being in the church house on Sundays. It did not always go well for me on Sundays. I can vaguely remember one Sunday when my parents and my best friend’s parents let us sit together during Sunday worship by ourselves. We decided to take the foil wrapper of a piece of chewing gum and make a little paper football. We had a whole side pew to ourselves so Keith slid over to one side and I to the other. We made goal posts with our hands and thumbs and kicked field goals. One of my kicks deviated from its intended path and landed inside a curl of the lady sitting in the pew directly in front of us. She was hard of hearing so we didn’t worry too much, but Keith got tickled and I got tickled, enough that our parents took note. Well, that was the last time we got to sit together for a very long time. I also remember as a kid sitting in worship as the preacher seemed to drone on and on thinking, “What person in their right mind would want to do this every Sunday – how awful.” Well, God works in mysterious ways.

Over the years my faith has evolved and changed. But I have no doubt that what I learned and what I was taught and the faith practices I participated in, even when I didn’t want to and when my mind was in some other place, nevertheless have had an impact on my faith formation. Clearly there are elements of my childhood faith I no longer believe, but please understand, I am very grateful for being brought up in the church.  

Jesus is brought up in the church, that is, the synagogue. Jesus is raised in the Jewish faith and is required by his parents to participate in the rituals and practices of Judaism. Jesus is carried into the temple before he can even walk. His parents are observant Jews who strive to do all that they believe is expected of them. On the eighth day they bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be circumcised and then less than a month later they consecrate him to the Lord in the temple.

So Jesus is brought up in the Jewish tradition and is faithful to the Jewish tradition. When Luke sets forth Jesus’s agenda by telling how he read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke begins that segment by saying that Jesus “when he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” Luke is telling us that Jesus was faithful to his religious tradition.   

In our text today we see Jesus as a boy who is becoming a man questioning and discussing religious matters with the teachers of the Torah. In those days the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem was made by extended families and friends who traveled together in a caravan, so his parents would not have thought much about not seeing Jesus on the day’s journey. But then, when Jesus doesn’t show up that evening they get worried, and soon realize Jesus is not in the caravan. They find their son three days later in the temple discussing and debating with the teachers of the Law. When Jesus is rebuked by his parents as he should have been, Jesus responds with his own rebuke, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Only Luke has this story, and scholars wonder where it came from. Was this part of the oral tradition handed down to Luke, or did Luke come up with this on his own. Who knows? Personally, I think Luke tells this story here to show that even before Jesus fully entered adult life, he was passionate about the teachings and traditions of his faith.

But that’s not all of it by any means. There is an edginess and radicalness to Jesus portrayed here, that is a foreshadowing of things to come. In this story Jesus shows no concern about his parent’s anxiety over his well-being. It’s not even on his radar. So when his parents rebuke him for being irresponsible (and he certainly was being irresponsible) and for creating this situation he dismisses them and says, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” with an emphasis on “must.” What would you say to a teenage son or daughter who says that to you, after you spent three days trying to find him or her? I know what I would say and what I would do and it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Let’s think for a moment what Luke may be trying to say by telling this story. Luke seems to be suggesting that Jesus’ passion for God and God’s will emerged out of his own personal experience of God. He calls God “my Father.” Well, God was looked upon as father by the Jews, but generally this was more of a formal kind of relationship grounded in a theology of covenant. The Jews looked to God as the God who had entered into covenant with them and so was the father of the Jewish people. Jesus, however, speaks of God on a more personal level. Jesus uses the Aramaic term “Abba” to speak of God and pray to God, which was an expression that little children used to speak to their fathers. It was a word that reflected the intimate, personal experience between a child and loving parents. Keep in mind, too, this was a patriarchal culture where the divine-human associations “Abba” implies could just as easily be applied to mother. The point here is that Jesus claimed a personal experience and relationship with the God who entered into covenant with Israel. It is Jesus’ experience of God as “Abba,” as loving father and mother that ignites his work and ministry. It is his personal experience of God that compels him to confront and challenge some of the narrowness and injustices he found in his religious faith and traditions. This is why he frequently provokes his fellow Jews, especially the religious leaders. Here, his provocation of his parents anticipates what is to come.

Right out of the box in Luke 4 Jesus confronts the elitism and exceptionalism and favoritism and nationalism that pervaded the Judaism of his day. We face a similar context today in our culture. I don’t think the nationalism and favoritism and prejudice are as pervasive in our culture today as it was in Jesus’ culture, or even in American culture prior to the civil rights movement, but these negatives forces are certainly present, especially in the halls of power. When Jesus is teaching in his hometown he makes a case from their own Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) that God does not show favoritism and sometimes chooses non-believers, non-Jews to do God’s will. It’s a fascinating story. At the beginning the people are praising the gracious words coming out of his mouth. However, by the time he finishes Luke says the people are in a rage trying to hurl him off a cliff.
Again, we face similar opposition on this front today in Christianity that Jesus faced in Judaism. It’s not all that different. Most Christians think they are the only ones on God’s side and the only ones God saves. I know because I use to be one of those Christians. They think you have to be a Christian to know God or experience God’s grace. They think God’s healing, redeeming grace is exclusive to Christians. That’s what I was taught and what I believed for a number of years, and I suspect many of you did too. Sisters and brothers, we don’t need to covert the world to Christianity, we need to covert the world to the experience of and embodiment of the love of God. If this comes through Christianity, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. Of course, this kind of conversion has to begin in us. Too many Christians are running around trying to convert others, who themselves need converted. Actually we all do, every day. There are many days I need a fresh conversion and commitment to a lifestyle of God’s love. So when you think about it, we face a situation today in Christianity that was not much different than what Jesus faced in the Judaism of his day and what Jesus confronted in his hometown synagogue.

I think any Christian who questions the things that Jesus questioned will face some degree of opposition. Hopefully, they won’t try to hurl us off a cliff like they did Jesus. I shared once before the opposition I felt when I preached at a Southern Baptist associational meeting. You might be thinking: Why did you do that for anyway? Well, I was asked. For many years our church has supported Jack and Wilma Simmons, who are Southern Baptists, in their work at West Point, Kentucky. Even though today we have no connections at all with the SBC we have continued to support their work in that poor community, which I think has been a good thing. We can certainly help people who may have some different beliefs than we do can’t we? Of course we can. One time after we had conducted a free fair in West Point Wilma asked me if I would preach at their annual meeting. I tossed this around in my head and concluded, wrongly, that if she really didn’t know how progressive I am and what I believe, then most likely no one else in her association did either. So I decided to go ahead and preach something safe, rather than try to explain to her why it might not be a good idea for me to speak at their Southern Baptist associational meeting. Well, apparently the pastors and leaders in that association did know something about me. What I felt in that church on that particular evening was unlike anything I have felt before. I have had people oppose me before and disagree with me and get angry with me, as I am sure I will again, but nothing like what I felt that evening. When I got up to speak the intensity of the opposition I felt in that building at that moment was almost palpable. It was like a fog in the air – unlike anything I had experienced before or have experienced sense. I really believe that anyone who tries to reform his or her faith will face something similar to that from time to time.

Whenever I talk to people who are ready to abandon their Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in the church, or because of the teaching and doctrine they can no longer intellectually accept and believe, I try to convince them to not leave their faith, but rather, to dive deeper into it, which is what Jesus does within the Judaism of his day. Jesus never abandons Judaism. He goes deeper into it, beyond the misuses of it and the superficialities, and becomes passionate about reforming it. And as you would expect, he faces some stiff opposition. Jesus is pushed to the edge of Judaism by the religious establishment, but Jesus sticks with it, even though his critique and prophetic voice eventually gets him killed. It’s the Jewish leaders who conspire with the Roman authorities and persuade Pilate to execute him.

This little glimpse into the life of Jesus as a young man captures some of the passion and edginess of Jesus that we see displayed over and over again in the Gospels, and in particular, the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells one would-be follower who was busy making arrangements for his father’s funeral to abandon his plans and join him. He says to him, “let the dead bury the dead, you come and follow me.” That’s on the edge however you slice and dice it exegetically and theologically. Who would say that to a man or woman preparing for the funeral of a loved one?

In Luke 14:26 Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, clearly, we would all concede I think that Jesus is employing hyperbole as he often does. Jesus often inserts shocking elements into his teaching and stories to grab people’s attention, but still, this is pretty radical isn’t it? You have to hate your loved ones to be my disciple.

I don’t think we are all called to go about the Lord’s business the same way Jesus did. Those who do, often end up dead like Jesus. But on the other hand, God, I believe, expects all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus to speak up and stand up for what is true and right and just and good. And that will take some courage. We don’t have to be a Martin Luther King Jr, or a Romero or a Ghandi, but God expects us to do justice, practice mercy, and walk in humility. And if you do that, you are going to get into some trouble from time to time. It is inevitable. If your faith has never got you into trouble with anyone, then, in all likelihood, you are not taking it seriously enough, or maybe you are too much a product of group think. That was my problem. I took my faith seriously as a young man, but I didn’t know how to think for myself, and maybe also, I was too afraid to challenge the group.

Jesus didn’t come to his sense of calling and his understanding of God all at once. He grew into it, according to Luke. Luke says, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God was upon him.” Like Jesus we must question and grow and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or the teachings of our tradition when it becomes clear to us that our traditions and practices are doing more harm than good. And we do that best not by abandoning our religious faith, but by moving deeper into it.

Faith is not and will never be something that is static. As life is constantly evolving so must our faith be evolving. I hope for each of us this coming year that we will make some progress – that our faith will grow and be ever expanding. In his letter to the Galatians Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). The only thing that counts is faithfulness to the way of Jesus that is expressed through our love for others. Our beliefs, our traditions, our rituals, and our common practices of profession of faith, baptism, and Communion, count for nothing, unless they inspire us and lead us to be more loving persons. What we need today is an evolving faith that translates into an evolving love – a love that is more inclusive and expansive, a love that is more welcoming, accepting, forgiving, and affirming, a love that mirrors the love of Christ.  

Lord, help us to realize that a living faith is always growing and a dynamic faith is always evolving, and sometimes, may even have an edginess to it the way Jesus’ did, because if it is authentic faith then it will always empower us to be more loving persons, and love always stands for and speaks up for what is good and right. Help us to have the courage to question, and go deeper into our faith in ways that inspire us and empower us to be more inclusive and affirming, to be more caring and compassionate, and to be more passionate about what is just and right and good. In the name of Christ, I pray. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Vision of Love (a sermon from Luke 1:39-55)

Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The mention of “fulfillment” anticipates a new kind of world. It looks forward to the time when the kingdom of God pervades the world fully or completely, when the will of God is actually done on earth as it is in heaven. As some theologians like to point out the kingdom of God is now, but not yet. It’s here, and always has been here, but not fully, though in Jesus it has come to us in a definitive way. The kingdom of God, like our own souls, is in the process of becoming. And it takes a lot of faith and hope and courage to trust that it will come in fullness, especially after you watch the evening news. Because there is still so much fear and hate and prejudice and greed and evil and injustice in the world, and even in our own souls.

Mary, of course, has a major role to play. She carries the one in her womb who will show the world what the kingdom of God looks like lived out in human flesh. She gives birth to Jesus, cares for him as an infant and teaches him as a child. Think of the calling given to Mary and Joseph. They taught Jesus right from wrong, they grounded him in the best of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, and when he went astray as all children do they corrected him. A major factor in Jesus becoming the person he became was the guidance and loving nurture of Mary and Joseph. All of us know how important it is to receive love and good instruction in those early formative years don’t we? Mary and Joseph did that.  

The song of praise by Mary that follows the greeting by Elizabeth is a litany that scholars believe was recited, sung, or chanted in the early Jewish Christian communities. It seems to have been composed based on the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. It proclaims a message that is an important theme in Luke’s Gospel, namely, the kingdom of God will turn the kingdoms of the world upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The kingdoms of the world take pride in power and position and wealth. Not so in God’s realm.

Mary begins by rejoicing in God her Savior and the Savior of all who “fear” God, that is, all who reverence God and reverence the values and ways of God, which are the values and ways of mercy and justice. Then, the song celebrates how the proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent away empty. But the hungry will be filled with good things, and the lowly will be lifted up. Why does God scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty? I suspect it’s because they, unlike Mary, see no need for a Savior. They have everything they need – so they think. They are in control – so they think. Some people think faith is the entry point, the starting point. It’s not. The entry point into participation in the kingdom of God is humility. Faith that is not born out of humility is not faith. We cannot be faithful to the values and ways of God’s love in the world if we are proud and arrogant and think of ourselves as better than others and like to lord it over others. There’s no place in God’s new world for that sort of thing.

We all need God as Savior, though God doesn’t do the work of salvation alone. Jesus called disciples and sends them out to do the very works of salvation he was doing. Jesus models what God wants for all of us. The way we love God is by loving others. The invitation to trust in God as Savior is an invitation to be participants in God’s salvation.

One of the themes we sometimes highlight during the Advent season is the need to patiently wait for Christ’s coming – into our lives in new and fresh ways, and for the time of fulfillment. But make no mistake sisters and brothers, we do not wait in idleness. While we wait, we are to be busy praying, serving, and loving the world with the love of Christ. We don’t just dream of a world made whole, we are called to participate in making the world whole. That’s how God works. From the time of the Big Bang or whatever set the whole creative, evolutionary process in motion, that’s how it has always been. We are not pawns waiting to be moved, we are movers, players, and participants in the unfolding story of God’s loving relationship with humanity and all creation.

At times this can be a lot to bear, but there is no escaping it. To trust God as Savior is to heed God’s call to be God’s agents in the healing and liberation of the world. I have to admit it was a lot easier when I believed that Jesus would come back one day and take care of everything in one colossal move. I believed, and many Christians still believe, that in giant swoop Christ is going to make everything better. Paul and many of the early Christians seem to have believed this in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In Paul’s earliest letters he seems to think this could happen just any day. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he even suggests that he will be alive when this happens. We are left with a similar impression in his correspondence with the church at Corinth. But by the time we get to the final letters of Paul, Ephesians and Colossians, if Paul did indeed write those letters, he seems to have changed his tune a bit and also seems to imply that the body of Christ in the world will be instrumental in this process of gathering up all things in Christ. As much as I may wish it wasn’t so, I’m pretty much convinced at this stage in my spiritual journey that if this world is going to ever be made right, then a lot of us are going to have to learn how to be better conduits of God’s ‘Spirit, through whom God’s love can flow out into the world.  

If the prophetic vision of a transformed world is to ever become a reality, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth, then our kingdoms have to go. One way or another our kingdoms have to go. Our pride has to go, and we must allow the Spirit to grow roots of humility that sink deep into our hearts and lives. Our lust for position and power and prestige have to go, so the Spirit can nurture within us a love of neighbor and a passion for service. Our love of money and possessions have to go, and we must trust the Christ to ignite and foster a spirit of generosity in our lives and churches that is expressed in the way we use our material and immaterial resources to help others and serve God’s cause in the world.

In 1991 Dr. Wayne Ward, who taught theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back when it was still a credible institution, shared a story in a sermon he preached at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville. I was doing a Doctoral seminar there at the time and somehow got hold of a copy of the sermon. In the sermon he shared this story. In the summer after his high school graduation his high school track coach who was Superintendent of Education in Northeast Arkansas entered his summer class at Arkansas State College with an urgent plea. He said, “We have got an emergency situation. Hundreds of little children in Black River Bottom and in the hills of Crowley’s Ridge in the Lemons School District have no one to teach them. The pay is low. Will you help us?” There was a long silence. Finally, Wayne Ward spoke up, “Coach, I’ll go.” He passed the test that gave him an emergency teaching certificate and off he went to Hickoria School in Black River Bottom.

Wayne Ward fell in love with the mostly poor, ragged, and usually dirty kids that made up his class. They looked to him with yearning eyes to learn and they soaked up his teaching like a sponge. The little boy that touched him most was “Eggie Eggenspieler—the most deprived child in the class. He wore the same patched bib overalls and same tattered shirt everyday. Mr. Ward would set him by the “pot-bellied stove” to dry out as he began class. He was so skinny he was concerned about Eggie having enough to eat. One day Mr. Ward slipped into the cloakroom and opened his little molasses bucket lunch pail, which probably was an invasion of privacy. He found one soggy biscuit with mold on it, covered in a sticky bob of molasses. Says Dr. Ward, “Emily Post, in all her etiquette books, never had instructions on how to meet a challenge like that.”

Most days of that cold, rainy fall during recess Mr. Ward was out with the kids sloshing through mud and water trying to play kickball or “capture the flag.” At lunchtime they opened their paper sacks or molasses buckets, climbed up on the woodpile and gulped down their soggy biscuit sandwiches. One kid though, whose father ran the country store, had a beautiful lunchbox with a thermos bottle. Mr. Ward often observed the other children looking longingly as Buddy Baker poured out his steaming hot chocolate. Buddy’s closest friend was, as you might guess, Eggie. He stuck with Buddy like his shadow. As Christmas approached, Buddy began to have an occasional orange in his lunchbox. Eggie had never seen an orange before. Buddy, sitting on the woodpile, would solemnly peal his orange and hand the peelings to Eggie, who gulped them down like they were some kind of delicacy.

Mr. Ward would silently pray that Buddy would give Eggie one section of a real orange; but he never did. Mr. Ward felt a resolve forming in his heart and decided to see to it that Eggie and all his little brothers and sisters got some real oranges for Christmas or he would die trying. On Friday, before Christmas, as Mr. Ward was dismissing school he told Eggie that he needed to see him. Eggie turned pale, “What have I done?” he asked. “Nothing,” said Mr. Ward, “I’m going home with you.” Eggie objected, “You’ll get drown-ded Mr. Ward!”

And he was about right. Mr. Ward drove down an abandoned railroad “dump,” trying to keep out of the flooded bottomland. He parked his old “free-wheeling” Plymouth on a built-out siding which railroad handcars had used. When he opened the trunk and began to load Eggie and himself down with bulging sacks of oranges, apples and toys Eggie’s eyes started flashing like strobe lights. On the first step off the railroad dump they went bobbing for apples. When they got going again Eggie said, “Follow me, Mr. Ward, I know where the high places are” and so he did.

When they got to his little shack that Eggie called home, raised a few feet out of the water, ragged kids came running out to meet them. Inside was a distraught mother with more kids than she knew what to do with and there was no Daddy to be seen (he was in prison). Mr. Ward took an orange and broke off a section and insisted Eggie try it and he watched as his face lit up like the sun. Dr. Ward said in the sermon that even though he has told that story many times and every time he retells it he gets a lump in his throat because it was that experience when he learned the blessing and joy that comes with being generous.

But not only did Wayne Ward learn this, Eggie learned this too. Shortly after Christmas Mr. Ward was asked to referee the Junior High Basketball games, but he didn’t have a whistle. One morning he arrived at school and there was a little package waiting for him, in paper that had been requisitioned from the wastebasket. As he opened the package he could sense two big blue eyes looking intently at him waiting for his reaction. Inside was a beautifully carved willow whistle. Mr. Ward shouted, “Beautiful!” and gave the whistle a blow that rattled the windows. Eggie’s face lit up the room. You see, he too had learned the joy and blessing that comes with giving. Blessing begets blessing. That’s how we spread the love of God.

I don’t know if this vision of love will ever be fulfilled (fully realized) in the world. But what I do know is that it has to start with me. I have to be the change I hope for and pray for. The kingdom of love has to pervade my heart, my soul, my thoughts, attitudes, actions, and relationships before it can ever pervade the world. My responsibility is to keep this vision alive as best I can by welcoming the Spirit of Christ into my life every day, so that my pride will give way to humility, so that my lust for power and position will give way to service, and so that my greed will give way to generosity. I readily admit I have a long ways to go before this vision is ever fully realized in my life. But I plan to keep at it, because I am convinced that our calling as disciples of Christ and as human beings who bear God’s image is to keep living and spreading this vision of love as best we can.

O God, help us to fan into a flame in our own lives this vision of love that Jesus so beautifully embodied. Let it grow inside of us and let it be manifested and expressed in all our relationships and in all that we say and do. Help us to realize that whatever any of us might believe about the future, it is our responsibility right now to be the change we pray for and hope for. There is a kind of waiting that is useless and a kind that is useful – may we wait not idly, but prayerfully and actively doing all we can to spread the vision of your love. Amen.  

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

We are wired in such a way that we find our greatest joy when we become a blessing to others. We are created in God’s image. We are stamped with divine DNA. And because God indwells us, because we share in the divine life and divine nature, we will never find true happiness apart from consciously living out of our oneness with God. We are at our best, and we are most joyous and fulfilled, when we allow God’s Spirit to flow through us – when we allow God’s love to fill our lives and overflow into the lives of others. When we bless others, we bless ourselves, because we are doing what we have been created and called to do. Whatever happiness we may have as a result of self-serving actions is always fleeting and temporary. And once it runs its course it leaves us feeling empty, because it’s not real happiness. It doesn’t reflect who we really are. Repentance then, is a realigning of our actions and attitudes and desires with who we really are as God’s children and that brings joy.  

John and Jesus have parallel birth stories in Luke’s Gospel. And clearly, while more emphasis is given to Jesus, John has a significant role as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Both John and Jesus were filled with the Spirit, and were blessings to others, though in different ways.

Some people think that John and Jesus were opposites. That John was all about judgment, whereas Jesus was all about grace. And to be honest, that was my view for a time, and you may even recall me teaching or preaching that. Well, I have come to see John differently. It is true that John emphasized judgment, whereas Jesus emphasized grace, but there is grace in John’s proclamation of judgment, and there is judgment in Jesus’ preaching and embodiment of grace.

It seems to me that how one understands John and Jesus’ preaching of judgment, and in fact, all the judgment texts in the scriptures, depends on one’s understanding of the character of God. If one sees God primarily as a Judge and a lawgiver, who cares more about order and control and and law-keeping than God does about the brokenness of God’s children, then it is quite natural to think of judgment as retribution. If God’s judgment is punitive, it is because God is punitive. That’s how a lot of Christians think of God. However, if God is primarily a  caring Father or Mother, as Jesus suggested when he used the Aramaic word “Abba,” to pray to and refer to God, then we do not have to afraid of God’s judgment. Because whatever judgment may involve, whatever pain or suffering go’s along with it, it is ultimately designed for our correction and redemption. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then none of us have to be afraid of being cast aside as worthless to be excluded forever from God’s presence.

Actually, if the Christian mystics are right, there cannot be any separation from God. If God dwells in all of us, if it is true as Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17 that in God we live, move, and have our being, then we could never actually be separated from God. We might feel separated from God, but we could never actually be separated from God, for to be separated from God would mean “none existence.” Our spirits are infused with the life of the Divine Spirit. We are one. If God is unconditional love, then God’s judgment is for the purpose of transformation, not condemnation. If judgment is about satisfying the law and about retribution, then God is not unconditional love. It really all comes back to the character of God.

John talks about the Messiah, the one who fulfills God’s salvation, separating the wheat and the chaff. I’m sure you have observed that any person or Christian group who interprets the wheat and the chaff in this text to be persons or groups of persons, inevitably place themselves among the wheat that will be gathered into the granary. I did this in the first part of my Christian pilgrimage. No one wants to think of themselves as chaff. Who can blame them? But I’m convinced that we misread this if we make the wheat and the chaff persons or groups of persons. I think the wheat and the chaff represent the good works and unjust works we do, and the good intentions or evil intentions that fill our hearts. The fire of God’s judgment is intended to burn up all our unjust works and evil intentions, so that we will be able to love God with are whole being and love others as we love ourselves.

I challenge you to do a study of the judgment texts in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Every single judgment text in the Bible is about what we actually do and how we actually live that flows out of the good intentions or evil intentions of our hearts. Every single text. I don’t know where we ever got the idea that simply trusting in Jesus protects us from God’s judgment, because I don’t’ know of one judgment text in the Bible that actually teaches that. Even in the Gospel of John where the writer puts so much emphasis on believing in Jesus (and I think many Christians misinterpret what John means when he talks about believing in Jesus), but even so the one text in that Gospel that speaks of a final judgment says this: “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (the voice here is the voice of the Christ) and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” The judgment texts in the Bible are always about what we do and how we live and what fills our hearts, not about what we believe.

So when John speaks of judgment and calls the people out to the desert to repent and be baptized, he tells them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. The crowds ask John, “What then should we do?” John doesn’t says, “Well, first you have to believe this or that.” He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” One might respond, “You mean even that undocumented person, that migrant, that person of a different religion from a different country? “Yes, indeed,” John would say, “Anyone means anyone.”

Then some tax collectors asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” I can imagine the religiously devout taking exception with John here: “How can you permit these Jewish traitors who collaborated with the enemy to be baptised? How can you let in to the kingdom of God these greedy Jews who sold their souls to the Romans? John baptizes them and says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”

Then, lo and behold even the enemy shows up. Roman soldiers come out to be baptized. I can imagine real resistance here from both the common people and the religious leaders, because all the Jews had felt the wrath and mistreatment of the Roman soldiers. But when they ask, “What should we do? John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” And he plunges them into the waters of baptism too. I hope you can see here that John’s fiery preaching of judgment is filled with grace.

I don’t know how I ever missed it. John’s preaching of judgment is filled with grace, and completely based on what we do. Some Christians identify themselves on the basis of what they believe. Some even adhere to fundamentals that they claim one has to believe to be a Christian. They have a checklist: Mary was a virgin. Jesus was God. The Bible is inerrant. And so forth. But in John’s call to repentance there is not a single word about what one must or should believe. Every single thing John mentions as a fruit of repentance relates to what we do.  It’s about love of neighbor and the golden rule. It’s about how we care for one another, and treat one another with respect and understanding. John says, Be generous. Be fair. Be merciful. Treat people right. When you go through these waters of baptism, says John, you pledge to be a different person, you are making a commitment to love your neighbor, rather than take advantage of your neighbor.

John has one thing in mind out there preaching repentance and baptizing all sorts of unlikable people in the desert. John is getting them all ready to be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, which is nothing less than the Spirit of love. He’s out there baptizing in water, but the Christ will baptize in the Holy Spirit. He’s teaching them how to love others, so when the full embodiment of love comes along after him, they will be ready to be immersed in that love and shower that love on others.

You see, sisters and brothers, the unquenchable fire of the Spirit is the Spirit of love that burns up all the chaff, all the greed, all the hate, all the jealousy, all the pride, all the egotism in our lives. We all need God’s judgment. We all need God’s fire to consume the selfishness and evil in our hearts, so that we can love one another the way God loves each one of us. Wouldn’t it be great if we were so immersed in God’s Spirit that no one would have to tell us to love others? We wouldn’t even need a commandment to tell us to love others, because loving others would be the most natural thing in the world
Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known. No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own. One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening. 

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.”

On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a nest and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was light. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for it and had to give it up.

If only we could be like this priest, and be so immersed in the Holy Spirit, so full of the light of divine love and grace that there would be no place for darkness to reside or evil to hide. There would be no room for greed, for prejudice, for pride, for favoritism, for jealousy, for envy, for contempt, or any evil intention or desire.

Whatever the fire of God’s judgment might be, that’s where it is headed sisters and brothers. That is the goal. A baptism with the Spirit so full and complete, a baptism of love so pervasive, there’s just no room for anything that would put down another or hurt another or take advantage of another. The fire of love would burn too hot and too bright.  

Oh God, may we invite and welcome your Spirit into our hearts, to expose our evil intentions and selfish attitudes and negative patterns so that they may be consumed by the fire of your judgment, and we might be free to truly care for and love one another as the Spirit of Christ fills us. Let us be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, O Lord, so that your immense love can expand our hearts and open our minds and incline our wills to do what is good and right and just and merciful. Let us not reap the fruits of our sinful ways, but let us reap the fruits of the loving kindness, forgiveness, and service we shower upon all those around us. For then we will know the lasting and enduring joy for which we were created. In the name and Spirit of Christ I pray.