Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Playing with Fire

A Meditation for Advent (Matthew 3:1-12) ~ John the Baptist appears in the desert, preaching fire and insisting on deep personal change.


When I was young, at Christmas-time, my parents used to put those little plastic candles in every window. So that every evening, after school or basketball practice, I’d walk up our street to find our house glowing with light. We were in New England, then, so there was often a fire in the fireplace as well. Christmas was a season for warm lights and toasty fires.

But the fire that gets stirred and kindled in the reading this morning is something else, something more demanding, something more consequential. This strange baptizer – chewing on locusts, dipping his paw in honey – wanders the desert to the south and east of Jerusalem and preaches fire to all the folks daring enough to come close. Look out! Lots of fire.

I count at least three references. First, he talks about making your life count. And he asks us to do some reflection around the deadwood and the greenwood in our lives. Tend to the green shoots, tend to the lively sprigs. But toss the deadwood on the fire. John the Baptizer, preaching fire in the desert. Time for us to do some inner work. Toss the deadwood on the fire.

And then, second, there’s this enigmatic nod to the one who’s coming. To the one who’s coming to ignite the kingdom life, the fire, the Holy Spirit within us. John’s setting the stage – that seems to be his sense of things – for another prophet, another teacher. And preparing all of us for something very new, something life-changing. Something within us – something dormant, something still, something divine – something within you, within me, is about to be ignited.

All this fire. And there’s a third reference here, isn’t there? Right at the end of this. John insists that the coming one – whoever that might be – is coming to rearrange our lives, coming to reprioritize our lives, coming for a clean sweep. Again, all that’s true, all that’s authentic in our lives is honored, embraced; and all that’s false, all that deadwood, is put out with the trash to be burned. A lot of fire from John in the desert. And a locust-chewing, honey-dipping, camel-cloth-wearing prophet to boot.

Christmas may indeed be a season for warm lights and toasty fires. But we’re not quite there yet.


Now you can picture John out there in the riverbed as a wild-eyed maniac – like one of those booming street preachers announcing the imminent end of things. But I think that’s missing the point. I think of John as more of a poet than a puritan, more of a mystic than a moralist. “What counts is your life,” he says. “Is it green and blossoming? Is it lively and life-giving? Because if it’s not, if there’s some deadwood, if there’s something mean, something cynical – it goes on the fire.” Out there in the desert, John’s trades in metaphor and poetry. This isn’t the stuff of maniacs. I think it’s the language of mystics. Fire is his metaphor – used to provoke and inspire, to dare and encourage. What are you going to do with the deadwood?

There’s a story about Gandhi – the great Gandhi – during one of his famous hunger strikes. And a man – whose daughter was killed in the conflict Gandhi was hoping to end – came to the great leader in anguish. And this man wept before Gandhi, and he said that he’d stop fighting – forever – if the great man would just eat. He wept and wept. And he waited.

But Gandhi understood something about the kind of healing needed in India. And he understood that it went deeper than simply stopping the violence. So he told this man, Gandhi did, that he would eat only when the tormented father embraced the man who killed his daughter.

It’s said that the broken man collapsed in tears, but that he did as Gandhi asked. And this led to the end of the larger conflict and to the end of Gandhi’s fast as well.

There’s some deadwood and some greenwood in every one of us. And Gandhi recognized the urgency – for this grieving father – the urgency of recognizing the deadwood. Bitterness, resentment. It was a lot for Gandhi to ask. What kind of courage did it take for someone so violated to set aside bitterness? What kind of courage did it take for him to toss resentment, justifiable anger into the fire? But this is what he did. Embracing the man who killed his daughter. Tossing the deadwood into the fire.

And this is a piece, even a critical piece, of our Advent challenge. To cherish the green shoots, the live-bearing sprigs in our own hearts. To honor our capacity for forgiveness and mercy. What counts is your life. Do you pray for peace and invest your energies in reconciliation? Do you weep when you hear a great piece of music or when you see a spectacular sun set? Is your life green and blossoming?

And when it’s not, when it’s not green, blossoming, life-bearing – when bitterness chokes you, when even justifiable anger is a burden on others – when there are these pieces of deadwood in your heart, will you, can you, turn them over? Gandhi insists you can, you must. John the Baptizer, too. But it’s not easy. To lay them on the fire.

And before I go any farther, let me just be completely honest. With the hope it’ll help you too. Now I’ve had a couple moments this week – moments of justifiable anger. A couple things have gone wrong. And when they do, I can get to walking around feeling a little beleaguered, a little like nobody really appreciates me, you know, a little pity-fest going on in my tiny world. Come on, you know the stuff!

But I have a hunch that, in my little pity-fest, I made life somewhat harder than it should have been for the people closest to me this week. You don’t really need to know the details. We all have our details. But I was dragging around some deadwood this week; deadwood. And it started to scratch and dig at the people I love most. Because I…let it. So now it’s my turn: to recognize the deadwood in my heart, the resentment, the bitterness. It happens to all of us. The deadwood, the bitterness. But we can turn it over. I can turn it over. I can set it on the pile. Into the fire. Turn my attention to the green shoots, to the lively sprigs that remain.


It is said that a great Zen teacher once asked a initiate, a student, to sit by a stream until he’d heard all the water had to teach. So he did. The student sat and he sat and he sat. And after days of looking, after days of taking it in, after days of listening, a wee little monkey happened by; and in one seeming leap of joy, that little monkey splashed freely in the stream.

The student wept and ran off to find his teacher. But the teacher only scolded him. “The monkey heard,” he said. “You just listened.”

The stream is your life. The stream is the world of water and sand, sisters, brothers, twenty-four hour days and songs waiting for you to sing them. Now if your life is green and blossoming, you’re out there splashing in the stream. You’re out there with the wee little monkey touching and tasting, risking and loving, immersing yourself in the sixty-second minutes that make up your life.

And if there’s some deadwood getting in the way, if there’s some envy or some bitterness, if there’s resentment or anger, you and I have it in us to recognize what’s going on. We have it in us to see that deadwood for what it is. We have it in us to turn it over and lay it on the fire to be burned. Because the thing is: the stream’s there waiting. The stream’s there waiting for you. Waiting for me. And it’s good.


So about Christmas. John the Baptizer says that the coming one will ignite the kingdom life within you. Check this out: “the main character in this drama will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you.” What are you going to do with that promise? You’re reading in the Bible this morning that Jesus isn’t just coming to carve his way through a good roast. And Jesus isn’t just coming to pick his way through a solid piece of fruit cake. And Jesus isn’t just coming to fire up a new iPhone or sing Silent Night for five hundred and twelfth time.

It’s poetry, for sure. But you’re reading in the Bible this morning that Jesus is coming to ignite the Holy Spirit within you. And that’s a promise God intends to keep. For every single one of us. If your heart’s been broken, Jesus is coming to ignite the Holy Spirit within you. I’m not exactly sure I know that that means. But it sounds kind of wild, kind of exciting, kind of like the wee little monkey splashing in the stream. If you’re wandering through your life these days, without much sense of purpose, Jesus is coming to ignite the Holy Spirit within you. If you’re new to the faith or new to the church and you’re asking what it all means: Jesus is coming to ignite the Holy Spirit within you.

After all, says Marianne Williamson, “we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” Let that sink in. Let that be your little mantra this Advent season. “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” Go to bed with those words on your lips. Wake up in the morning and say them quickly – before anything else comes to mind. “I was born to make manifest the glory of God that is within me.” It is, you know. The glory of God is within you. And that’s what Christmas is all about.