Sermon: The Unquenchable Fire

This sermon is the second in an Advent series entitled “Spanning the Space Between.”

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

A few years back, Jennette arranged a camping trip to Lake Tahoe for our church. It had been awhile since I’d been there, and I was surprised and saddened by the sight of so many dead pine trees. Instead of seeing one long swath of green over the mountainsides, there were whole chunks of forest that were brown with dead trees, and other chunks that were a mottled mix of green and brown. In fact, tree die-off is happening all over our western forests, from the Yukon all the way to Mexico.

Why is this happening? On the surface, the culprit is drought and insects, particularly the bark beetle. As our climate warms, winters shorten and droughts in western forests intensify, weakening trees, which then makes them easy prey for the beetles. But the real culprit may actually be that there’s not enough fire.  Scientists and forest managers now believe that decades of suppressing forest fires in the interest of protecting private property has resulted in forests that have too many trees in them. It used to be that fires would happen about every 10 to 15 years, which kept the forest from getting overcrowded. Such forests could better sustain periods of drought because there wasn’t so much competition for water and other resources.  But suppressing fire produces too many trees that are then all more susceptible to drought and bark beetles. In addition, fire suppression paradoxically produces bigger and more violent fires because there’s so much more fuel to burn in an overcrowded forest.  We need fire. It’s destructive; it’s dangerous; it’s hard to control; it’s scary. But we need it.  

And what’s true on a physical level is also true on a spiritual level.  So, let me explain… The beginning of our reading from Isaiah starts with the words: “a shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse.” What does that mean? Jesse is the father of King David, who ruled during the “Golden Age” of Israel. The people of Israel long for another great king to emerge from David’s line. Remember, they are on the verge of being conquered by a foreign power. It was a time of terror for them. So they want a strong King to come and defend them and rule righteously. 

The stump is what is left of Israel after God’s judgement fell upon them. The prophet Isaiah “assumed that God had founded Zion or Jerusalem and lived in it and would ultimately save it” from these foreign powers. But God will not live in a “moral slum. Therefore, Isaiah believes, a “morally defiled Jerusalem needed to be purified by judgment before it could be saved.” (From the introduction to Isaiah in The HarperCollins Study Bible.)  That purification comes in the form of fire. In Isaiah chapter 6, Isaiah receives his call to be a prophet, and the first message he is to deliver to the people is one that says that the the cities of Israel will “lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people”… the “land will be utterly desolate… Even if a tenth part (of the people) remain in (the land), it will be burned again, like an… oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” So, the mighty oak tree has been cut down, and that stump has even been burned. And then, Isaiah says, surprisingly: “The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:11-13)  So, from this stump that has been cut down and burned in the fires of God’s purification, from this holy seed, the righteous branch or the righteous shoot shall emerge. That’s what “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse” means. 

And look at the beautiful shoot that emerges from this cut down, burnt stump. We heard about it in our passage from Isaiah today (and in our children’s story). It’s a world where everything is in right relationship to everything else — which is the true meaning of the word “righteous” — right relationship. A humble ruler emerges, who both knows God and God’s ways and has the power to bring about a society based on those ways. This king’s rule results in justice for the poor and lowly. What’s more, this king’s rule results in a fundamental reordering of creation’s priorities, where there will no longer even be predator or prey, where interspecies violence comes to an end — “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” Where the most vulnerable human in society — a child — can play with venomous snakes.  (Insights from Working Preacher.) So from this burnt stump comes a return to the original garden Paradise that God intended. These images of paradise in this text — the wolf lying down with the lamb, etc. — by the way, are very similar to Sumerian myths of paradise. The images seem to represent a fundamental longing in the human soul for a transformation of violence, a transformation of our “carnivorous instincts.” But… you don’t get to paradise without the fire of purification. 

And… cue John the Baptist. He always shows up every year, during Advent. The wild man of the wilderness, who lives on the margins of civilization, out where the hermits often lived. He dresses in camel hair and leather and he is sustained solely by wild — not domesticated! — food: locusts and wild honey. He is a prophet in the tradition of Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, who precede him by several hundred years.  In the Gospels, he functions as bridge person between eras in Israel’s history with “one foot in the old age that is coming to a close and the other foot in the new age that is being born.” (From Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.)

And, oddly, this marginal wild man is enormously popular. People from all throughout Jerusalem and Judea come to him, to hear his message. From the centers of power, they travel to this marginal place, a reversal of how power normally flows in that society — or in any society. As one commentator said,“Normally, the flow of power went from the margins/wilderness/countryside into the city. Here, the reverse happens.” (Feasting on the Word)

And even more oddly, he’s popular despite a message you’d think would turn people off. He tells you the truth in a very tough love sort of way. He has a fiery, purifying message that can be summed up in one word: Repent, which comes from the Greek word that means to “turn around,” to completely reverse life’s direction. The realm of God is almost here, he says. And so now is the time to repent, to turn. To “turn away from the values and practices of the old age — like idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery and scarcity — and turn towards the values and practices of the Realm of God — like love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom and abundance.” (Paraphrase of Ronald Allen’s Working Preacher article.)

To repent in this way doesn’t mean just feeling sorry for one’s sins. It means to, in the words of scholar Ronald Allen, “take a clear-minded look at the ways in which one’s life colludes with the assumptions and behaviors of the old age, to turn away from such complicity, and to turn toward God and the attitudes and actions of the realm of heaven.” John offers listeners a stark choice. “They can repent and join the movement toward the ream of heaven or they can continue to collude with the old age and face eternal condemnation at the final judgement.” 

Now, the author of Matthew “frequently uses the vivid language of fire to speak of the consequences of not repenting.”  So Jesus in this passage says that “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10). Jesus “will gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff” — those who don’t repent, who don’t turn — “he will burn with an unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). Fire was a common way of disposing of trash back then. It was how you got rid of the remnants, the leftovers. This is how Jesus will treat those who are truly “left behind” — those who don’t turn toward the new age that is coming. 

Whew. That is tough love. Or maybe it’s just tough. This passage used to really frighten me as a child, and I still feel uncomfortable with it. It’s so polarizing, so black and white, so angry. I don’t want anybody to burn in an unquenchable fire, even people I think of as responsible for evil. I don’t believe in a God who condemns people to fire. And I don’t think we need to take it literally to understand its message to us. There’s a concept in parenting called “natural consequences.” That is, you let your kid experience the negative consequences that come, say, from not studying or doing their homework, because they need to experience that there is a price to be paid for the choices they make. That’s how they learn to make different choices. 

When we don’t cooperate with God’s ways, we also invite natural consequences. (Again, insight from Ronald Allen’s article.) If you have an economic system that values profits over people and the planet and if you have a story that says we are each autonomous little units out to maximize our own self-interest and if you have a consciousness that thinks of itself as separate from everything else then you will end up with climate change, mass extinction, extremism, inequality, addiction, all of which we have, and all of which are getting worse by the day and hour.

I recently read an article sent by one of you to me, called “How Bad Do Things Need to Get Before They Get Better” by Umair Haque (Huk). Huk is an author and business consultant, the son of Pakistani economist Dr. Nadeem Haque and is — among other things — a contributor to the Harvard Business Review, where he focuses on capitalism and creating prosperity in the 21st century (from Umair Haque’s Wikipedia article). I say all this because he sounds quite mainstream, right? And here’s what he wrote.

A few years back, he was told he was dying, and dying was the best thing that ever happened to him. Before he spent a year or two dying, he said, he was a giant word I can not say in church.” “I wasn’t Harvey Weinstein levels of horrific,” he said, “I was just a garden variety corporate dirtbag… (Dying) took a hammer to my limited and shrunken consciousness. Death laughed at my tiny, trivial, superficial notions of success and failure. And it whispered to me that the truths of grace, love courage and vulnerability were things… I had to clutch as close as children hold fathers, as mothers hold babes. It took getting worse, in other words, for me to get better… I didn’t become anything close to a functioning human being until I spent a year or two dying.” 

And, he said, maybe that’s where we are in the world today. “Maybe things are getting worse because things need to get worse before they get better. Just like in my case. Maybe (America’s) consciousness needs a hammer taken to it.” This consciousness, he says, that is a “deeply damaged, wounded, shrunken, stunted thing.” A stump, let’s call it. “Centuries of slavery and supremacy and hate… followed by a century of bombing more than half the world… followed by decades of megacapitalism… have left Americans largely incapable of thinking about… anything. The world. Themselves. Their kids. Their future. Life and the planet and democracy.” This consciousness — (stunted) “by centuries of slavery, colonialism, capitalism — has never really evolved, he says. “We see each other as adversaries, competitors, enemies, consumers, producers — not as partners, allies, distant cousins, one family, one life.” 

Maybe then, he says, things have to get worse before they get better. That’s how consciousness grows, how a shoot eventually emerges from the burnt stump. Maybe the consciousness, the story, the structures that brought us to this place of climate change and extremism, inequality and extinction, need to go through the fires of purification, be cut down and burned.  Maybe something needs to die, or appear to die, for something new to arise. Where have you heard that story before? Maybe we need the baptism of fire that John says Jesus will bring. Maybe that’s what we’re going through, right now — a baptism of fire. Maybe trying to suppress this fire will just make it burn more out of control.  Fire is destructive; it’s dangerous; it’s scary. But we need it. 

And so, come, Lord Jesus, with your winnowing fork. Clear our threshing floor and gather our wheat. Keep what is good and sustaining. But burn our chaff, what is damaged, distorted, complicitous, stunted. Burn it with your unquenchable fire. Amen.