Peace Through the Fire: Matt. 3: 1-12
2nd Sunday of Advent: Dec. 4, 2017
Matt. 3:1-12 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 trees; 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 her 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.”
Earlier this week a devastating wildfire swept through Eastern Tennessee, ravaging a ski resort and nearby town, damaging or destroying 1,000 structures, and taking at least thirteen lives. The stories are heartbreaking.
Closer to our community, the brother of one of our members also lost his home to a fire this week. The lives of the family and their pet were saved, but the loss is still devastating, as they now face that task of trying rebuild their home, and in some ways their lives.
In the face of this kind of devastation, it can be hard to see fire as anything but destructive and terrifying. But this week’s gospel surrounds the announcement of the coming of Jesus with images of fire. From the mouth of John the Baptizer we hear these promises, or maybe threats, about Christ’s engagement with the world:
“every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”;
“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.”
This is the week of Advent when we celebrate the expectation of PEACE. But for the second week in a row, these Advent themes just don’t seem to fit, and we are left with the question: Just what exactly are we preparing for?
In answer to that question, this gospel passage has a clear answer: we are preparing for change – for transformative, world-altering, possibly frightening change – the kind of irreversible change that we associate with fire.
The very first word out of John’s mouth is a call for change: “REPENT, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repentance is a concept that Christians tend to associate closely with penitence and sin – feeling deeply sorry for the wrong we have done, and making a decision to stop sinning.
But the Greek word translated as repent in this passage is metanoia, and it has a somewhat different meaning:
meta – for change (as in metamorphosis); and
noia – for thoughts
In other words, in his call to REPENT, John is not necessarily fixated on personal sin – he is concerned about patterns of thinking, worldviews, priorities… that are inconsistent with the coming Kingdom of heaven.
And this is an important clue to what we are supposed to be preparing for in Advent – we need to change our patterns of thought, so that we can recognize a kingdom that does not follow the rules we are used to.
But that revelation might seem to sidestep the issue of what to do with all this fire imagery. To address that challenge, we have to grapple with the people to whom John addresses his fiery warnings.
Predictably, in Matthew’s gospel, those warnings are directed to the Pharisees & Sadducees. Actually, it’s not necessarily predictable to lump these two groups together, because they were very different groups of people theologically.
The Pharisees were the religious purists, the synagogue leaders who had more than 600 individual rules for obedience to Jewish law.
The Sadducees on the other hand, while they controlled the priesthood, tended to be more secular in their practices.
But in one way, these two groups were very similar – they were both invested in protecting the status quo. The situation of the Jewish people under Roman occupation was relatively grim – they were heavily taxed and subject to oppression by the occupying forces – but the Pharisees and the Sadducees held positions of social and religious power within that system. The Pax Romana, the Roman peace meant subjugation for the masses, but it had its consolations for these groups.
For the Sadducees, it meant elite status and the associated privileges.
For the Pharisees it meant tolerance of Jewish religious practices and the preservation of the temple.
Because of this, both groups were highly invested in keeping the peace, as it was. A radical like John was a threat to the relative peace that kept them comfortable, because he might bring a crack-down from Rome if people started agitating.
It is that commitment to the status quo that makes sense out of John’s vicious response to these leaders when they come to him.
Without that context, his reaction does NOT make sense. The leaders did not come accusing or questioning John. In fact, the text says that they came “for baptism.”
So it seems an overreaction for him to call them a “brood of vipers” and threaten that they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” But John is not interested in an outward show. These leaders came for baptism, but unlike the crowds described in verse 6, confession, repentance was not part of their coming.
The elite groups did not want to REPENT, to have their thinking transformed in order to welcome a new and radically different kingdom. They were invested in keeping the status quo, the relative peace.
But the peace of God’s Kingdom, the peace described in the Eleventh chapter of Isaiah, and the peace for which we are called to prepare in Advent, is not a relative peace.
Relative peace weighs the consequences. It does a cost benefit analysis. It takes a pragmatic approach and calculates an acceptable level of collateral consequences for order.
Sure, the Roman occupiers are taxing the populous into subsistence-level economics, but at least they have let us keep the Temple. It’s better not to rock the boat. The Pax Romana is a good enough peace.
In contrast, the peace of the Kingdom is about transformation. God’s kingdom calls for total peace – a peace the changes the very nature of dangerous animals so that little children can play with them; a peace that cannot accept the pain and suffering of others as the cost for our comfort.
And that’s when the threat of fire in this text starts to get hot… for me, and I expect for most of the people in this room. Because our realty is also one of relative peace.
There are all kinds of things going on in our nation creating desperate pain for others, but which may not directly affect us, making it easy to stay silent…
Across the US, a survey of more than 10,000 educators has revealed an upswell of fear and anxiety among minority, immigrant, Muslim, and LGBTQ students, as well as disturbing patterns of racist and bigoted harassment, vandalism, and even assaults.
In South Dakota, native peoples and their supporters have faced escalating, dangerous, militarized responses to their first amendment protests over violations of ancestral lands.
In New Jersey, incarcerated people, including some juveniles and vulnerable populations, can be held in solitary confinement for an entire year at a time, despite devastating mental health consequences.
These certainly at not the only examples of the brokenness of our current context, but they all illustrate the price paid by those without power when others chose the safety of relative peace.
Well, John’s message about that kind of safety is pretty clear: “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.”
He said this to the religious leaders – to the people who had perfect piety, but lacked compassion for the suffering on which their status depended.
And if we are listening to the gospel today, we HAVE to ask ourselves. Would he say the same to us?
And if the answer might be yes, we have to face the prospect of the fire.
But I think there is actually gospel – good news – to be found in that fire.
The prophet Zechariah talks about fire the refines – cleansing God’s people to be able to recognize their God.
And John’s words in this gospel associate the fire with the threshing floor. He pictures Jesus with his winnowing fork – this is a tool that is used to separate grain after harvesting. The stalks were beaten, and then thrown into the air so that the heavy kernels of wheat – the fruit – could fall and be gathered, while the worthless stalks and husks could be blown to the side and then burned.
We all have both fruit and chaff in our lives, and the chaff can feel like protection, but really it is what keeps us from being useful in the Kingdom.
And the fire might seem terrifying, but it refines us; the fire is what prepares us for God’s kingdom.
Advent is a time of preparation and a time of transformation. The peace we are looking for is not the peace of leaving everything the way it is, because we are relatively comfortable.
God's peace is radical peace. It is the peace of the wolf living with the lamb. That kind of peace requires change so that everyone can be included. "Repent - be transformed - for the Kingdom of heaven has come near."
 Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament. 1994.
 See the first lectionary reading of the day: Isaiah 11:1-10.
 Survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center: http://www.tolerance.org/blog/new-report-school-climate-worsens-wake-election.
 Zechariah 13:9.