Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Christmas is a few weeks away, but it will be here before you know it. What will happen when Christmas comes? We know its Jesus’ birthday, and we will surely celebrate. The children will wake us up once again way too early; the hustle and bustle of family dinners will dominate the greater part of our day. But it is Jesus’ birthday—shouldn’t it be life-changing, shouldn’t it make a difference?
What difference will Christmas make in your life?
Some folks say that it is wrong to take Christ out of Christmas, but what if we took the mass out of Christmas? Maybe we need to ask that question like this: What difference will Christ make in your life on December 25th?
Advent is a time to reflect upon that question and to anticipate that Christmas—Christ!—will indeed make a difference come Christmas day. We hope that it will be transformative, that we will see things in a new way; that we will wake up, and the breath that we take will be qualitatively different, that we will feel more alive. We hope that it will bring about a new vision for our life, perhaps like the vision we talked about last week from Isaiah 2, in which we see the world as a brighter place simply because God is a part of it.
But then again, it might just be another routine day, like any other. It may come and go, and nothing out of the ordinary may happen. We may wake up and be grouchy—There have been many Christmas mornings in which the kids come in yelling, “Wake up! Wake up! It’s Christmas!”, only to have me swat them with a half-dead, sleepy arm, “Get back to sleep—it’s too early!”
We say Advent is a time of anticipation and change, but what if it feels like we already arrived—what difference will Christmas make then?
The truth is, Advent and Christmas is more than merely celebrating Jesus’ birth, the coming of God Emmanuel—It is the anticipation that the truth, “God with us,” will indeed bring about a conversion for all of us who are still in need of a conversion experience now and then. It’s as Paul said in his letter to the Philippians:
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make salvation my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do…I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.”
There’s a story out of the Egyptian desert from the fourth century. This was a time in which people were going out into the wilderness in order to get away from the corruption and mass consumerism so blatant in their society, a time in which people were giving up wealth and pomp to seek simplicity and holiness. It was the beginning of the monastic movement.
The story is of two monks who lived in community together, and one monk, frustrated with his Christian journey said to the other,
“Father Joseph, according as I am able, I keep my rule of life, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts : now what more should I do?’
“The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, ‘Why not be totally changed into fire?’”
Fire, a cleansing agent that both destroys and cleans; an agent that is destructive, but in many cases is necessary for new life, like in the forest when the chaff of dead vegetation needs to be cleared in order for new life to grow. Even the word fire in Greek—pur—is the root word where we get the English word for purity.
It is the fire of conversion—in the words of one author, a “Furnace of transformation, where the old self dies and the new self is fashioned by God and born anew.”
That is the way that John the Baptist described the Advent of Jesus Christ. In all four Gospels we find this mysterious, idiosyncratic figure—John—coming out of none other than the fiery, hot desert pleading with people to “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!” and letting them know that the Messiah is about to come not to sing Kumbaya, but to bring holy fire that will cleanse souls, burn chaff from hearty wheat, and clear the threshing floor of all sin for the very presence of God himself.
John’s message and ministry was a peculiar one for sure, and we’re not sure where he came from. It was not uncommon back then that prophets emerged from the wilderness of Palestine. We may think, for instance, of the prophets and communities of, say, the Essenes, who were keepers over the library of scriptures popularly known as the Dead Sea scrolls, who preached that God would come with fire to cleanse Israel and judge the nations.
We think also a little farther back in history to the time of Elijah and Elisha, who brought down fire to consume sacrifices as a way to prove that God was boss over all creation. Like them, John critized the powers that be, both in the Roman political hierarchy and in the Jewish religious realm where Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees assumed they knew what God was up to.
We also think of the passage in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy, in which Moses describes God as a “consuming fire.”
“You brood of vipers,” John says in our lesson today, “Do not assume you know it all; do not assume you have arrived—why do you think that you are exempt from having to repent? And, even now, the ax is heading for every root in God’s forest. Fire is coming, the Holy Spirit is coming—and it will burn with an unquenchable fire.
Jesus later affirmed John’s preaching in Matthew 13, when he told a parable about God separating wheat and chaff, as well as in Mark, where Jesus said that if something causes you to sin, its better that you cast it off and let it burn in that very unquenchable fire that John mentioned before (Mk. 9).
If you think you have arrived, why not be totally changed into fire. And what is conversion but the very act of bringing every part of our being—heart, soul, mind and strength—under the authority and rule of God?
I have people ask me sometimes—it seems to be street preachers and Southern Baptists more often than not—when my conversion experience was. Although I know I made a decision to follow Christ when I was twelve, I can’t answer that question so quickly. I believe that my life is the sum of many conversion experiences.
There were so many times when I was going about life, living through the routine, when God showed up and touched me or moved me or pierced me with Spirit and with fire.
There was, for instance, that time in high school I thought I felt a call to ministry and, on one youth retreat in North Carolina, God showed up with a fire that brought me into a new place of intimacy with him.
There was the fire of college, where I studied the Word of God in the company of professors and peers alike and felt the Spirit illuminating this biblical text like never before—it glowed like embers, ready to change my very being when I sought after it with my whole heart.
There was the fire of childbirth, when, upon having Haleigh, God hit me with the reality of being a father, of having the responsibility for another person.
And then there was the fire of untimely death that visited my family, a time of testing and trial in which I had to choose from utter despair to be a victim of gun violence or to have trust and hope that God has a purpose that defeats all forms of violence and heartbreak.
Thomas Merton said it best, “We are not converted only once in our lives, but many times, and this endless series of large and small conversions, inner revolutions, leads to our transformation in Christ.” It is the way, he argues, to freedom.
If anything, John’s words for us today and this Advent season is one that challenges us to seek conversion yet again, to see what chaff might be brought before God for cleansing and for growth and renewal. It is a challenge to see conversion, in the words of Raymond Studzinski as that which “requires a person to discern what is to be left behind and what is to come and be welcomed.”
So let me ask you again: What difference will Christmas make in your life? And when Christ comes, will it be a call to convert…
- Feelings of hostility or malice into feelings of compassion or patience?
- Ideas and philosophies that are born from a worldly perspective into convictions born from God’s very mouth, God’s Word?
- Positions of fear and anxiety into dispositions of grace and trust?
- Destructive habits and behaviors into attitudes of life-giving and life-preserving avenues of hope and spiritual disciplines?
- From addictions and lifestyles plagued with sin into pilgrimages of salvation in which Christ is Lord over all of who we are?
Where will conversion take place in your life, for Jesus is coming, folks! And he is coming with that word that echoes Matthew 10:34: “Do not think I have come to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”
It is a sword that divides bone from marrow, falsehood from truth, flesh from spirit, and sin from grace. Jesus comes with Spirit and with an unquenchable fire! Why not be totally changed into fire?!