Burn, fire, burn


I bought this t-shirt in Italy last month — featuring Andy Warhol’s artistic depiction of an erupting Mount Vesuvius.

There really isn’t anywhere you can go in and around Naples, Italy, without being in eyeshot of Mount Vesuvius. Whether you are boating off the Mediterranean coast around the islands of Ischia and Procida, landing or taking off from the international airport there, or driving one of the many autostradas intertwining a metropolis of almost four million people, the unique double-mound character of this famous mountain is never out of sight, from any direction.

Of course it is still considered one of the most, if not the most, active volcano in Europe. Since the catastrophic, violent eruption that levelled Pompeii in the first century, it has erupted about three dozen times, significantly once in the 17th century and most recently in 1944.

Geologists and volcano experts today expect another eruption from Vesuvius, and believe they will have about a 4-week warning period before the first signs lead to the eruption.

So, you can imagine the horror we felt when we saw smoke pouring from the peak of Mount Vesuvius. Just a couple days after climbing the famed Mount and learning all this history, we were driving into Naples from the north. After holding a sudden, collective breath, we exclaimed together: “It’s going to blow!”

Some of us with phones quickly called our friends. Of course I kept driving, but in Naples it seemed everyone smoked, talked on the phone and held their child in their lap while driving at 130 kms/h. You will be happy to know I kept both my hands on the wheel while my passengers did some quick research to find out that a grass fire on the south side of Mount Vesuvius was sending smoke over the top which made it look, from our point of view, like the warning signs of an immanent eruption.

Indeed we are terrified of fire when it is out of our control. I’m not talking here about the pristine and contained burn of a campfire at the end of a day of leisure play on a lake or in the backyard. People who have seen and witnessed the raging inferno of a forest fire — earlier this year in Fort McMurray, for example — can speak of the palpable terror of a consuming fire.

In the text from Hebrews for today (12:18-29), the writer describes God as a “consuming fire.” Indeed, the writer describes the religious awe from Exodus in the Old Testament as a terrifying experience: “Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.'”

What does fire mean, in the context of faith? When we experience and confront hellfire in our lives — describe it however you will, reflecting on the greatest challenges in your life now — what does the consuming fire mean? 

In the DC Comics recent film, “Suicide Squad”, our super heroes each have a special gift they use for the cause of good. One of them has the gift of fire. El Diablo is his name, and he describes his ability as the “gift of the devil.” Indeed, we make a direct association, through culture, between fire and sin, fire and evil. In Dante’s epic 14th century poem, Inferno, there are references to fire to be sure. But considering all the degrees of hell described therein, fire is not the singularly predominant symbol of hell.

In the last century, Scots preacher George MacDonald in one of his sermons poses a more nuanced reflection on the purpose of fire: “Can it be any comfort to us to be told that God loves us so that God will burn us clean?” How many of us want to be tortured? MacDonald goes on, “We do not want to be clean and we cannot bear to be tortured.” So, the natural, human tendency kicks in — better the devil we know than the devil we do not know. And we take the easy road: we remain stuck in our unhealthy life styles and viewpoints that are far from the honest truth of it all.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that for many of us, fire means punishment.

Either we want it to mean punishment, or we imagine other people do. So, we avoid the all-consuming fire of God’s presence in our lives. We don’t believe we can stand it. In the words of a famous movie line delivered in “A Few Good Men” by Jack Nicholson: “We can’t handle the truth!” And so, in our hearts at least, we run away from God.

But the bible (in Hebrews, Revelation, Exodus, and the Gospels at least) reveals that fire is not God’s punishment; fire is not meant to be torture. 

Fire is purification.

Fire is used to refine metals. The smelter melts and pours off the gold or silver, then skims off the dross until she can see her own face reflected in the molten metal — not a bad metaphor for God’s judgement. The question is, what gets purified? And the answer has to go further than merely ‘sin’. Because sin is so embedded in our lives, and will always be as long as we walk this earth. We have to go deeper. The purification of God goes to that place deep in our hearts that causes sin, that generates those unhealthy behaviours and thoughts:

Our false selves. All the excuses, the lies, the fictions, all the rationalizations, self-justifications, all the official versions and self-diagnoses we attempt to sell to others, all the self-adaptations and defensiveness to escape criticism, all the motivations that are fuelled more by selfish ambition and fear than an honest concern for the other. All these will be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

Ironically, what I often call ‘religiosity’ is also a target for God’s fire. When we are honest about our true motivations for coming to church: Is it to look good, to make a good impression, to merely reflect the group’s ideals taking on manners of speech, dress, belief, common sense, even political opinions that make us fit and feel good about ourselves? The mournful fragmentation of the Christian Church into a plethora of denominations today is an unfortunate testimony to this truth, I believe. Yet, God’s fiery love will clean us from that sort of religiousness as well.

And when all that happens, this is the joyous promise: When God’s presence breaks into our awareness, when we feel ourselves being utterly known, embraced, and accepted as we are. The embraced and accepted self is not the false self that reflects only our perfected self image; it is the real self that God created. In that moment, the false self becomes ashes. In the end, I believe that the harshest judgement of God’s consuming fire (read: mercy, love and grace) is friendlier than our own most lavish self-praise.

But do we want to go there? Do we want to change? Or, are we afraid of what we will find when we take off the masks of our false selves?

Perhaps we cannot do this. Perhaps we are too weak to confront the consuming fire on our own willpower. Perhaps our fear is too great, and we are trapped in cycles of self-delusion. Like the point of view in our sighting of smoke on Mount Vesuvius: It looked like an immanent eruption but in truth it wasn’t. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. In that case, it was better the devil you knew! We choose how we want to look at things. What is our response?

I see a connection with the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:2-14) where you might recall the king threw out a guest who wore no wedding robe even though the guest had clearly not anticipated attending a wedding when leaving home that day. However, a little know fact: it was up to the host to supply suitable robes to invited guests in that time and culture. The truth of the matter was that this man refused the offer, likely insisting he was OK as he was. Invited, yes. Fit to be present, not yet.

The invitation to the marriage feast is given to us. The joy and freedom is promised. Perhaps the consuming fire of God is an unavoidable mercy. And the only thing we can count on, is that this mercy will be offered to us over and over again throughout our lives regardless of how we respond to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. And so, all we can do is take the next step on the pilgrimage with our God, the all-consuming fire.

For that alone, then, thanks be to God.

Much of this sermon is adapted from Gray Temple’s fine piece in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds, “Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year C Volume 3 (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.376-380

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

The Falling and the Rising

It is the first Sunday after Christmas. How do you navigate this ‘hangover’ time? Are you wandering now into the proverbial ‘deep valley’ after having experienced the ‘mountaintop’ of festive frivolity?

For some, the reality of the cost of gift giving has begun to sink in. Perhaps for you, your expectations were high coming into the season, only now to discover it was not what you thought it would be. For others still, the toys unwrapped on Christmas morn are already a tiresome bore, left on the shelf somewhere.

There is good reason to suggest that choristers ought to visit the nursing home with joyous carols, not before Christmas Day, but in the dog-days of late December and early January. It is this time that many of us may need a pick-me-up, more than ever. I am grateful some of you thought to organize a congregation meal together for Epiphany rather than when things are crazy in mid-December, when we are at the height of all expectation and activity.

We read in the Gospel text today, “Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many …” (Luke 2:34)

Notice the backward order of the words in the scripture — “falling and rising”. In the world, as it may be how we feel at this time of year, it’s ‘rise and fall’: The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the rise and fall of a business tycoon, the rise and fall of a celebrity.

In Macleans magazine, they evaluate 2014 newsmakers in terms of “winners and losers” — and include the likes of famous Canadian radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who “fell from grace”, we say, whose stardom rapidly disintegrated this Fall (Dec 8/15, Vol.127, Nos.48/49). This is the way we see the rhythm of history and what the world notices. First, one rises; then, once on top, the only way is the way down.

But with Jesus it’s the other way around. With Jesus, it’s fall and rise. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Anna fasts “night and day”, not ‘day and night’. Jesus did not fly directly up into heaven once danger flared. He suffered and died, and then was raised to glory. The movement is down, then up (Philippians 2:5-11). We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise.

You may just fall. But if you rise, it is because you have first fallen. Rising doesn’t come without falling.

If you have arisen, you would have done so rising from the ashes of defeat, failure, having come through some of the worst time of your life. If you have arisen, you would know what it means to be at ground zero. There is spiritual power and great wisdom in embracing your own vulnerability, your own limitation, your own shame, anger and fear.

There is inherent value in being open and honest about your pain — not denying it, not pretending it away, not hiding it, nor distracting ourselves from it. Because it is in facing our own ‘stuff’, even our own mortality, that we will experience the turn.

Simeon, the elder, can now be hospitable to his impending death after encountering the vulnerable, infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). There is no rising without first falling. Ironically, this is also the message of Easter. And this is how Christmas and Easter are indivisible: We can see it from the perspective of Mary …

Mary must have shuddered at Simeon’s words. Mysteriously he speaks of a “sword piercing her soul” (v.35). It is moving to think of Mary, feeling Jesus kick in her womb, hearing his first cry, nursing him, watching his first steps. After all, she will witness thirty years, which is telescoped into a single verse: “The child grew and became strong” (v.40). Jesus leaves home and marshals a following.

But wicked men turn against her son — who is pure, good, all love. Mary has to watch as Simeon’s prophecy is fulfilled. Her heart breaks as she sees the lifeblood she had given him drain out of his beautiful body on the Cross. The fall.

But then the rise, on Easter morn. Who, among all who witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, was more joyful to see him alive than his own mother? (thanks to James C. Howell, “Feasting on the Word” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2008, p.168, for his words and thoughts on ‘falling and rising’).

So, when we are at the bottom, how do we cope when “in the Fall”, and when we still await “the Rise”?

As I reflect about looking back over unhappy times in my own life, as I reflect on dashed expectations, disappointments and unfulfilled ‘wants’ — I wonder. I wonder if crying out for the Lord is a cry of despair, or a cry of hope? (thanks, Rev. Doug Reble, for this insight). For me, I have to confess: I would not give up on hope.

Because of Jesus. Mary and Joseph, in this part of the Christmas story, take Jesus to the temple in order to fulfill the letter of the Jewish law (Luke 2:22-24). Their diligence may raise questions for Christians who feel no obligation to the Old Testament’s laws. What is the purpose of the ‘sacrifice’ for their purification?

From a Christian faith perspective, we would say this child was in no need of any such purification. Jesus did not need to be purified. Karl Barth wonderfully wrote about Jesus’ baptism — which we shall read in a couple of weeks — that Jesus needed to be washed of sin; but not his sin, but our sin: “No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He” (cited in ibid., p.164).

No one ever came to the temple for purification as laden with sin — not his, but our sin. Jesus took it all on him. Jesus was purified, for our sake. Jesus takes it all on him — whatever burden we carry — so that we can have a new start, a fresh beginning. Therefore, we can hope.

In this coming new year, 2015, may you be blessed with hope. A hope which carries you through the weeks, months, or even years of “lonely exile” and into the peace, love, and joy promised in Jesus Christ. May your falling turn into a glorious rising, “soon and very soon”.