120521 Advent 2 The Fire we Expect and the Fire we Get

The sermon begins at minute 21:15 of the video

Mal.3:1-4; Phil. 1:3-11: Luke 3:1-6

        What do we expect from God? Malachi’s prophecy that God’s messenger would come like a refiner’s fire wouldn’t surprise most people; it’s what they expect. It may not be what they want from God, but it’s definitely what they expect because it conforms to the harsh image of God that most of us grow up with. For centuries after Malachi’s prophecy, people assumed that the day of God’s coming would be as Malachi foretold: the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to the temple. But who can endure the day of the coming of God’s messenger? The fact that so much time passed before anything like that happened didn’t lessen the expectation.

       So when John came along and said the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, people flocked to hear the message, even though it threatened to throw them into the fire. At last, the refiner’s fire had arrived. It didn’t make it attractive to get close to that God. Yet, that is what most people expected from the God they envisioned.

     Today’s other passages give a very different image of God and of the messenger that announce God’s coming.

  • John’s father, Zechariah, sings of a God who has come to set the people free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship without fear. The Messenger will give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn will break to shine on those who dwell in darkness and guide our feet into the way of peace. What kind of fire looks like tender compassion?
  • Paul writes to the Philippians that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Many prophets had spoken about the Day that was coming as something to be feared. Paul calls it day the day of Jesus Christ. The promised fire would complete a process of making people whole by that day. What kind of fire looks like completing a good work?
  • Finally, Luke quotes Isaiah to speak of valleys being filled, mountains being lowered, crooked paths made straight, and rough ways made smooth, and all flesh seeing the salvation of God. What kind of fire looks like all that?

I recently learned a phrase that is being used by a variety of groups to describe this different kind of fire: fires of compassion. There are spiritual movements, ecological movements, and movements to recover indigenous values that see the fires of compassion as the energy that drives their being; there are Christian churches committed to the poor writing sacred songs about the fires of compassion, yoga practices that cultivate that fire, and even businesses that use the phrase to describe their work. The fires of compassion in each of these expressions are rooted in ancient traditions, where fire was a central part of the life of the community. Fire was seen as a sacred part of creation, not just an inanimate force to be tamed.

       Just like other elements like water and wind, fire brings both life and death, purification and destruction, cleansing and disaster. The life, purity, and cleansing they bring are not always pleasant. And death, destruction, and disaster are sometimes necessary steps on the path to wholeness. I remember undergoing a process of emotional healing after the death of my mother twenty years ago. At several points in the process, the healer asked me if I was ready to face the fire. I didn’t have a clue what he meant, but I knew I wanted the healing. He said healing was only available on the other side of the fire. So I said yes, without knowing what it meant.

       Today I understand better what the fire is. Now I have to decide whether I’m ready and willing to face it. I know that to face the fire means to confront my fears – personal and public – and discover that there is life on the other side of them. I understand that to face the fire means exposing my shame to the powerful force of forgiveness, and discover that I won’t be rejected for what I am ashamed of. And I am aware that facing the fire means accepting my guilt and making the amends and apologies necessary to reconcile and heal. I want the life, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation on the other side of the fire. I’m not always sure I’m ready to face the fire that is part of the process of getting there.

What practices might help us to begin the process of facing the fire? After all, preparation is what Advent is all about, isn’t it? Prepare ye the way of the Lord. But we must acknowledge that, oftentimes, the fire just comes; ready or not, here it comes. Meanwhile, we can either wait for the fire to come, or face the fire on the way to life. Even if we believe that the fire this time is going to be a fire of compassion as  Zechariah, Paul, and Luke described it, that doesn’t mean the fire will be tame. As Ken Wilber put it rather inelegantly, Real compassion kicks butt, takes names and is not pleasant on certain days. Those who practice real compassion will fry your ass.

So it behooves us to prepare for the fire before the big one comes. We can practice with smaller fires. When we’re experiencing difficult emotions like grief and fear, one form the fire takes is courage, a quality traditionally associated with fire. What if we imagine a fire of compassion rather than a refiner’s fire to do that work? It’s still hot; and by no means tame. We might begin cultivating courage with fire by doing something as traditional as lighting Advent candles; or meditating on the fire resting continuously over the tabernacle where the reserve sacrament is kept; or simply sitting in front of a fire and gazing at the flames. Any of those accessible practices can kick-start the fire that may heal us. It may feel at first that the fire has gone out or there is only a tiny flame, but with patience and persistence, that flame will prepare us to face the larger fires when they come.

We can also practice this kind of preparation on the public level of our life as we face fires that come on the daily news. Many are becoming aware that watching or reading the news can be damaging to our spirits. As we listen to the Supreme Court argue the case about abortion, or watch another school shooting unfold on our television screens, or read about the threat of the Omicron Covid variant, and of flash mob robberies in homes and stores, the fear, sadness, and anger they generate in us often have nowhere to go, and simply create toxicity inside us. Maybe if we view those news stories and the emotions they generate as small fires, we can take small steps that prepare us for the larger steps we will need when larger fires come.

I heard a song this week called The fires of compassion that could serve as a prayer to take some small steps: Lord, light a fire of compassion; a flame that burns strong for the poor, a love that moves hearts into action. We pray your kingdom come; let your love and justice kiss the earth… We cry out for justice; we cry out for peace; we cry out for mercy; we cry out for healing; we cry for release.

Yesterday, the book club finished its study of the book, Begin Again. The author, who wrote before last year’s election, concluded with these words: Trumpism presents us with a choice. We can either double down on the lie and reelect him, or find comfort in reaching back to an idea of normalcy and elect someone “safe”, or we can decide to untether our politics from the insidious assumptions of race that have guided our choices for generations. If we now choose Trump or choose to be safe, we should prepare ourselves for even darker days ahead. But if we decide to be otherwise, as difficult as that may be, we will finally make possible the birth of a new America.

Friends, that is terrifying to me. But I agree with the sentiment. The only path forward is to start taking small steps that will prepare us for the fire to come. The same author agrees: First steps are important. We have to exhibit the courage and willingness to take the risk and step out on faith with the hope that our rocky start will give way to more confident strides. May it be so in both our personal and public lives.