|Here are the readings for Dec 16, 2018, Advent III, Year C.|
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. (Go Badgers!) I am blessed to call Fr. Dave not only my colleague in this diocese, but also my dear friend. It’s a joy to be invited to be with you this morning, to share the 3rd Sunday of this Advent season, to be present to young Harold Isaac David’s baptism into the Body of Christ, and to worship the living God with you today.
I have a trivia question / favor to ask. Does anyone know the fancy Latin name this Sunday goes by? I’m pretty sure I can say it right, but I want someone else to say it first. Gaudete Sunday. Pink candle Sunday. The “we’re more than halfway home to Christmas” Sunday. Rose Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. Joy Sunday. Lemme ask you, if you got put in charge of setting aside one Sunday a year given over to joy, and they stuffed that Sunday full of scriptural references to joy, like today’s readings, say… Zephaniah: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Canticle 9 from Isaiah: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy.” Philippians, Paul, exhorting the church: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” And then they told you to pick a biblical character, a mascot, if you will, for the day, a person who personifies every aspect of joy, you’d go with John the Baptist, too? Amirite?
Who wouldn’t go with John? It’s not really close, is it? That joyfully, itchy camel hair. Those joyfully crunchy insect appetizers. Scratching, crunching, joyfully pointing fingers, and yelling, “You brood of vipers!” Charming those around him just comes naturally to John.
No, no, no! What is going on here??
When John bursts onto the scene today it’s like a Christmas pageant gone awry. All the other characters are in place, know their parts, are wearing perfect and coordinated costumes made by their mothers by hand. Conscientiously whispering their lines under their breaths. It’s all so well choreographed, each motion expertly fitted for the one before and after. And then, the performance. A hush. Lights dim, music starts, dramatic, sentimental, sweeping. But then this one rogue sheep decides he’s had enough...NO, I will NOT stand idly in the fields. Suddenly, he’s on his feet. A teacher calls out to him, but he does not hear it. It’s not his fault the director has unjustly miscast him AGAIN and, for his part, the injustice will not stand. He was every bit as Joseph as Billy was in auditions. But what can he do? His friends are already in the place of the shepherds, standing out in their fields. The Holy Family is taken, too. What’s left? Hmm. YES. It dawns on him. A prophet! He stands up, sheep skin turned camel hair, now hanging from his shoulders. No more will he be silent. A voice! He marches toward center stage, tripping and pushing over toddling animals, who fall and tear their costumes. “FIRE!” he shouts. “FIRE!” The director stands dumbstruck, scanning the scene, searching in vain for some semblance of order. It’s too late. Children are screaming. Mary faints and nearly drops the baby. What, in God’s Name, is going on?
"I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. That’s right. This is John’s Good News. Merry not-quite Christmas. This is John being joyful.
So this is the question we are given today: what does fire have to do with joy?
I don’t know about you, but I’m used to it going the other way. Fire as punishment. Here, there’s room for that sense, too, potentially, but even the wheat in the granary gets baked into bread eventually, according to John. The fire is not just for the bad girls and boys. Fire is for everyone.
It’s funny, because for us fire is so quickly hellfire. But there are alternative interpretations in Scripture. In fact, fire has something of a storied history in the Bible.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light (fire)”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
Fire can signal a new creation.
What else do we know about fire? Where else does it pop up in the biblical narrative?
Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed; think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels; think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father - admittedly, this fire is implied, not stated outright, but the earliest pictures drawn by the earliest Christians show Mary inside a flame, carrying the presence of God and, think back to Moses, yet not consumed; think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. Pentecost! The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism. Think even the flames of the New Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Fire, not first as our punishment, but - throughout the resounding witness of Scripture - first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
If you’ll humor me, turn to page 285 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the New Fire is lit. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:
First, the fire, “The Light of Christ,” the deacon sings. Then…
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.
Do you see it? The response of the People of God to the fire, to the presence of God, is joy. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us.” Rejoice.
Now, I realize this account of the fire risks ruining the mainstream idea of faith. Ask even the non-religious on the UW campus what religion is for and they’ll tell you, almost to a person: faith is for making you a better person. So fire is for threatening you into being a better person. But no, the Christian faith is for making us truer, not better, and the truth begins with the news that we have not been forsaken by God but that God is with us and for us and we know the face of this presence in Jesus. Canticle 9 again. “Surely, it is God who saves me. I will trust in him and not be afraid….the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.” We discover who we are as we discover ourselves as beloved of God and together in Christ. Our task is to be present to the One who has promised to be present to us in and through the love of Jesus.
We who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus touch fire; like Moses, like Mary, the presence of God does not consume us. But as Martin Luther liked to say, “We are baked into one cake with Christ.” What burns away, what is challenged as chaff, are our other stories about ourselves - failures, successes, insecurities, and fears, and God knows we have some - that get in the way of, distract from, or otherwise challenge the truth of this promise: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Harold Isaac David, we’re about to pray this fire on you, on us again. Burning bush, new creation, power of God, light to lighten our every darkness. You will be baked with us into the one cake of Christ. Your baptism will open us again to this fire and these familiar promises by which each of us and all of us together are reminded that God’s love is the most true thing about us. With God’s help, we will do our best to help you remember this, too. So without knowing it yet, you have asked us to reexamine our trust in this love, to turn our backs on false stories and every practice that endorses them, to recommit ourselves to the love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. In a world in which it is so easy to feel overwhelmed, lost, and alone, your baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus this morning becomes for us this wonderful reminder and shaping promise: The best of all is, God is with us.