Cultivated by Fire

A Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

Text: St. Luke 3:7-18


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our coming Lord, who is cultivating us for the Kingdom. Amen.

Is there anything quite like fire? All it takes is flicking a match against a box to strike a flame. The initial light is so weak that even a child can blow out – but that same blaze can leave a burn that will “torment you throughout the night.” And that same small, delicate flame can quickly grow into a fierce and unquenchable fire threatening to destroy everything in its path.

In the unfolding climate crisis, we have seen larger and larger wildfires consume massive swaths of the Pacific coast, the mountain west, Alaska, Siberia, and Australia. Smoke from the fires can cover hundreds of miles, turning the sky a terrifying shade of hellish red, and send haze and smog thousands of miles further. These infernos threaten to devour everything they touch. In 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Smoky Mountains destroyed more than two thousand structures. In 2020, wildfires destroyed more than 17,500 structures in the US. And in 2018, the Camp fire in California destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings and killed 85 people.  It doesn’t take much – yes, downed powerlines and lightning strikes can start up a blaze, but even something as simple as a car driving over tall, dry grass can light a fire that will unleash scenes of hell on earth.

When John the Baptist says, “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,” and that the one who is coming after him will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff in “unquenchable fire,” it’s hard not to hear it as a threat of hell (especially coupled, as it is, with an address to a “brood of vipers.) The connection between hell and fire is so strong, in fact, that our modern word for raging fires, inferno, comes from the Italian word for hell.

John talks about unquenchable fire, but to what end? St. Luke says this is how John the Baptist “proclaimed the good news to the people,” but what good is fire?

Is it just for the sake of punishment? Some would tell us that God delights in punishment, as though the Lord is a pyromaniac pouring gasoline on an anthill, tossing in a match, and cackling at the ensuing chaos, stacking on leaves and twigs and logs to smite those wretched creatures. We have made God angry, the logic goes, and so we deserve to be tormented by the flames for all eternity.

If this is who God is, then there is no good news. Who could escape the wrath to come if God was interested only in meting out punishment with fiery vengeance. Who could enjoy a heavenly paradise knowing that loved ones were engulfed in the inferno?

But God is not some petulant and spiteful child seeking to harm us. Fires rage and destroy, yes, but that destruction can be used to bring forth something more beautiful.

Smokey Bear PSA by Albert Staehle, 1944

One reason that fires have become so much more destructive is because we spent decades trying to prevent any and all fires. Remember the old Smokey Bear campaign? “Only you can prevent forest fires.” “Smokey says, ‘Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires’”. It as part of a larger zero-tolerance policy around forest fires. At the first sign of smoke, the goal was to put it out. But fire is also a natural part of the environment. Relatively small fires occur naturally and clear out dead wood, leaves, and smaller plants. Indigenous American groups noticed this and incorporated these small fires into their agricultural practices, harvesting material before burning away the dead and useless debris. But years of over-zealous fire suppression and repressing these native practices led to a buildup of fuel – meaning that fires catch more easily, burn hotter, and spread further and faster.

Land managers are now learning to wield fire wisely – to cultivate the land in such a way as to keep larger blazes at bay and help local flora to flourish with a return to so-called “cultural burns” on tribal lands and prescribed burns in other areas.

If you don’t know what’s happening, it can look terrifying. Someone wandering around the woods with a drip-torch, intentionally setting fire? It’s down-right menacing.

But if you know that they are not merely seeking to destroy but rather doing the hard work of using fire to carefully cultivate the land? Then, a skilled worker can wield the flame to bring back wildflowers where they have been crowded out by other plants, to open up cones from the mighty sequoia, and to prevent calamity later on.

Consider what John the Baptist is saying. God is not an arsonist terrorizing a community. No, God is a farmer, ready to do the difficult labor of chopping down that which is not fruitful and to burn it. It’s not a punishment but a way to foster health – to make sure that the productive trees have the most resources, the most nutrients and water, to bear more and better fruit. Like pruning a grape vine, the goals is to ensure the land produces good fruit and that the soil is not depleted.

Threshing and burning wheat stalks isn’t about punishing the chaff but making sure the wheat is as pure, as nutritious, as delicious as possible so that it can make good flour and good bread.

Last week, we read the words of the prophet Malachi, promising that God is like “a refiner’s fire” – burning away all the impurities so that silver and gold may be more precious still.

We read these passage incorrectly if we see them as about a divine blood-lust sated by torturous violence, cutting down individuals. It’s about God cultivating a people who will bear good fruit, who can be gathered together into one good loaf of bread, who are more precious than the purest gold. It’s about sanctification – that is, about being made holy as God is holy. It’s about living as the people that God created us to be.

God is chopping out that which is dead in our lives, cutting away the dead wood: the racism we hide behind claims of being colorblind, the greed we cling to out of a disordered desire to always have more more more, the bigotry we defend as “heritage.” The Lord is separating that which is good and holy in us from the chaff of lust, envy, arrogance. These are the things that are destined for the flame.

Notice what John says to those who come to him to be baptized – “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Not just to feel sorry for their actions but to enter into a new way of living. For those who have sufficient resources, to share with those who have need rather than to hoard up. For the tax collector, to stop defrauding others. For the soldier, he says to give up extortion.

Look, beloved! Not with your own eyes but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Pray that the Lord will search out the places where you are not bearing good fruit, for where sinful chaff has mingled with holy wheat. Cut them out and burn them to make way for the fruit of repentance! Make way for the self-giving love that comes from God!

This will be awfully uncomfortable, to be certain, for we have grown quite attached to some of these fruitless branches. They feel like they are part of us. And even the humble flame from a matchstick is sufficient to leave us yelping in pain. But that momentary discomfort from pruning away that which leads us to death is nothing compared to the overwhelming joy of new life in Christ through repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

Our Lord is coming, more powerful than any mere mortal – the King of the Universe, the Righteous Judge. He came that we might have life everlasting, and he will come again on the last day to purge away all our sin with unquenchable fire. On that glorious day, when the chains of sin and death are cast at last into the inferno, we will follow him into the Kingdom to sit in the shade of his fruitful vineyard to feast on bread made from the purest wheat and wine from the finest grape.

Amen.

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