The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s002g13   Advent 2   8/12/2013

'He will baptise you with .. fire'  Matthew 3.11

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have been thinking about the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush in the wilderness.  You will remember that he turned aside to see the strange sight of a bush on fire, yet the bush not being consumed.   And I reckon that this is the precursor of all scientific enquiry, and that the curiosity that burned within Moses that day, has continued to burn in individuals down throughout the years, undiminished, yet also not consuming those within whom it burned.  (1)   This is something of God, something that en-nobles humanity.   How much has humanity’s existence been enriched by the fire of scientific inquisitiveness?   Actually the question really is: what can we name that is not something that is a direct result of scientific endeavour?   Even the fact that we are still here; that we haven’t died of plague, pneumonia, diarrhoea or measles is real testament to the fruit of scientists.  For myself, at the comparatively young age of 62, had an angiogram some 20 years ago and I still take my half an aspirin and anti-cholesterol tablet each morning.   And I reflect that I have no idea who the people were who developed either the angiogram, the anti-cholesterol tablet, or aspirin!   Never once in the last 20 years have I thought to give thanks to God for them!   Oops!   One of the things that interest me is to learn about the lives of the saints, both obscure and influential, but this has blinded me to even the names of those who developed the pills I take each and every morning!   And I wonder why the church prioritises the lives of devout people over the people whose contribution is practical and scientific rather than religious.

As a hospital chaplain, I have thought for quite some years that my main task is to keep out of the way of the real practical care exercised by the many health professionals who have devoted their lives to restoring people to real health - returning them to society and humanity.   This is infinitely more healthy than some parts of the church who really never want people to return to society and humanity.

Is the only really authentic christian life like Paul’s: 'Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.   Three times I was beaten with rods.   Once I received a stoning.   Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.   And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches’? (2)   The words of St Paul are misused to alienate people like LGBTI people and the heroic characters of yesteryear have made me feel that somehow my life is less worthy because it is so relatively hum-drum.   And I guess I’m not the only one felt marginalised.

And I think of the technology in the hospital where I minister among the ministers.   Why are these people put down simply by omission?  Why were nurses expected to work long hours with little renumeration - because it was a calling? - not a real profession!

There are so many things which inspire us, things that make us feel worthwhile and unique., things that the church often simply ignores or downplays.  Physical intimacy, a meaningful job, group activity, political action, service club activities, creativity, connection with nature and the universe, meditation, the list is endless really - are all life-giving rather than soul-destroying.   Somehow the energy ‘expended’ never runs out - the mark of the divine.   And it is never just personal, it spills over to others.   I remember once speaking to a musician who acknowledged his debt to the audience.   There is much more joy playing to a crowd.

By contrast, that which is not of God is demeaning, critical, alienating, excluding, condemning - and the measure we give will be the measure we get back.   If our sense of self-worth is at the expense of others, it will certainly come back to bite us in the bum, sooner or later.   It is very lonely at the top.   Uncle Andrew in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ says to Digory; ‘Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures.   Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.’  (3)   Digory however saw through his ‘grand words, “All it means,” he said to himself, “is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.”’   Later Digory explodes: ‘“All I can say - even if you are my Uncle - is that you’ve behaved like a coward sending a girl to a place you’re afraid to go yourself.”’ (4)

Interestingly I was talking about the fire of creativity to someone recently and they brought up about Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt for being curious, looking back at God’s fireworks. (5)   For me this turning back testifies to the eternal and surreptitious temptation of bullying and power, which has its consequences.  

And as I look at the debate raging over affirmation of all people, gay as well as straight, I see parts of the church being 'demeaning, critical, alienating, excluding, (and) condemning’ whereas secular humanism is trying to make all people feel ‘worthwhile and unique’.  As I said last week: 'The unexpected hour is actually the ever present now.   The orthodox and the devout fear advancing secular humanism and declare it to be the enemy of true religion, when it is God’s persistent call to the church to follow her Lord into incarnation.’   Is the church the coward for sending others to a place, the world, where it is afraid to go herself - following her Lord?

The ancient message of John: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near' and 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ are not directed towards those who do not come to church, but towards those who do - to stop filibustering and being obstructionist when in the same way 'the people of Jerusalem and all Judea’ were being accepted and welcomed - and not just their holy huddle.   John doesn’t mince his words when some of the devout and orthodox come too.   He calls them 'You brood of vipers!’   And the message of John is that even those who were not Israelites are accepted: 'God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’.   These words imply that inclusion is not just restricted to 'Judaism, Christianity, Islam and more recently the Bahá'í Faith’, (6) all who consider themselves children to Abraham - but to others as well.

So the message of affirmation and inclusion begins right at the announcement of John the Baptist, the very beginning of the gospel story - as well as John's estimation of the demeaning and exclusion of others by those who counted themselves religious.   It was announced by John and because Jesus lived for affirmation and inclusion of all, he was killed by those who most conspicuously loved 'the LORD (their) God with all (their) heart, and with all (their) soul, and with all (their) might.’  (7)

These words tell us plainly that people come when they hear words of affirmation and acceptance.   They flocked to John the Baptist and they flocked to Jesus.  The wisdom of Digory shows us that ‘evangelism’ is another pious word used to avoid the gospel imperative of affirmation and inclusion.   The saying: 'You cannot fool all the people all of the time’ is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. (8)   People have come to recognise religious exclusivism that is not of God, and for this we have the secular humanists and the ease of communication to thank.  

I am grateful to Cynthia for alerting me to the cartoon of the Rev. Jay Sidebotham: ‘The Great Commission Revisited’: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, developing task forces and strategic plans, and surveying the congregation in order to craft a succinct and memorable mission statement easily communicated on bumper stickers, website home pages, t-shirts and coffee mugs.’   Someone commented: 'Yeah - and make it 140 characters or less too, so that it can be tweeted as well.’   Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!   For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’  (9)   The prophets and kings did not long to see task forces, strategic plans, or succinct mission statements on bumper stickers and the rest.   Neither do they long to see crucifixes, crosses or fish ‘Jesus' symbols on each and every surface.   The eunuch travelled 6000 kms from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back to try to ‘hear what you hear’. (10)   I don’t think that we need to re-position our churches to get people to come.   People will respond and travel similar distances to hear words of affirmation and inclusion.

What is the fire that burns in our hearts?   It might be, as I began, scientific inquisitiveness, but it might as easily be any one of those huge number of things that en-noble us and en-noble others.   It actually doesn’t matter how the divine fire burns in us and in others: all are included, because it is the divine fire.  And we do well to acknowledge, accept and be grateful for all examples of the fire of the divine, for our very lives depend on that fire burning in one and in all, each and every day of our lives.

(1) Exodus 3.1-5
(2)  2 Corinthians 11.24-28
(3) C.S. Lewis p21
(4) ibid p25
(5) Genesis 19.26
(7) Deuteronomy 6.5
(8) 1809 - 1865
(9) Luke 10.23,24
(10) Acts 8.27