December 10, 2006
“A Fire and Brimstone Preacher”
One of the Bible personalities we expect to see this time of year is John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. John was an odd character to say the least. His unusual fashion sense (camel skins), his different diet (locusts and wild honey), his solitary lifestyle in the wilderness. If John the Baptist were to walk into our church today, you’d probably hope he didn’t sit in your pew. John is kind of a scary guy.
When I lived in Detroit for a year the church I served as a vicar had an annual drama, presenting the life of Jesus. It was very elaborate, with church members all in character and costume. The man chosen to play John the Baptist was a police officer with a commanding voice. And I will never forget when he appeared at the back of the room, bellowing out, “REPENT! REPENT!”. His deep, loud, voice startled the adults and actually made one little girl cry. He was a good John. He was scary.
But what is most fearful about John is not his eating or dressing habits, or (as we might imagine) his loud booming voice. It’s the message he brings. It’s a fire and brimstone sermon. It’s a preaching of Law that pulls no punches. And it can be terrifying.
But that’s not all there is to John either. As we hear from this final prophet today, listen carefully to his message of fire and brimstone, but also the promise of the Savior, who was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Fire and Brimstone
“You brood of vipers!”. That’s how John started his address to the crowds who came to hear him. Nice, huh? Imagine if instead of a pastoral welcome and the usual announcements, Pastor Poppe greeted you this morning, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” You might think there was something wrong with Pastor Poppe.
But even though John was talking to the ancient Jews, and the Saduceess in particular, those words of judgment apply to us too. We are a brood of vipers, in our sin. We deserve God’s wrath and punishment. When the law speaks its stark and harsh judgment to us, we too might feel the need to flee.
We are a brood of vipers, who have been poisoned by sin. Ever since the serpent slithered into the garden, and our first-parents bit the forbidden fruit, we have sinfully slithered in their tracks. We are poisoned, but we also spit that venom at others, and at our God. Anger, selfishness, arrogance, gossip, apathy, laziness, whatever our pet sins… they are a poison, but they are a part of us.
And we deserve to be thrown into the fire. And not just all of us, but each of us. YOU deserve such punishment. Your sins are worthy of God’s wrath.
John’s fire and brimstone preaching uses the metaphor of a man sifting wheat from chaff – and burning the chaff in the fire. How can we not think, here, of the fires of hell? With their tongues of flame licking our toes, as we dangle above? “The unquenchable fire”, John calls it – a just eternal punishment for our offenses against the Holy and eternal God.
This is the fear that John’s message should invoke in us – a fear for our very souls.
But John’s message is not all bad news. In fact, Luke says that John’s message, as a whole, was good news.
John’s message was, ultimately, like every prophet, all about Jesus. The Christ. Son of God and Messiah, who was coming with a baptism (a cleansing) of his own. John said, “I baptize with water, he will baptize with The Holy Spirit and fire”. John said he was not worthy to untie the sandal of the one who comes after him.
And when John did see Jesus, rightly called him, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.
John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, really is the same as Christian baptism. It points forward to the ultimate baptism, the universal washing of sin that Jesus did by his blood shed at the cross. It is rooted in that saving sacrifice, just as your baptism and mine is. We are “baptized INTO Christ’s death and resurrection”. It is a washing of rebirth and renewal – in a sense, it is our first resurrection. It is the baptism in water, by the Holy Spirit. And it is a baptism of fire.
It’s interesting that fire is mentioned several times in this passage. In one sense, fire represents judgment, wrath, punishment, hell. But fire is also a refining agent. In metal-working, fire separates out the impurities. So the baptism of fire that Jesus brings takes the impurities away – takes the sin – and leaves a pure and clean person behind. John’s not referring to the day of Pentecost here, but to the baptism of Jesus – the purification he gives to all believers.
John’s words of hope regarding baptism stand in stark contrast to his fire and brimstone message of repentance. But knowing how fierce is the judgment we deserve – we appreciate all the more that Christ rescues us from that judgment.
What a joy to live, knowing that the fires of Hell are nothing to fear – because in Christ we are baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It changes everything. God changes everything. He changes our future. But He also, by that Spirit, changes how we live, even now.
What Shall We Do?
The people to whom John preached had been struck by his fire and brimstone law. But they also believed in his message of hope, and many were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. But then they asked John, each in turn, “what shall we (now) do?”.
Not what shall we do to BE saved, mind you. But what shall we do, especially since the Lord is coming soon?
Here we could ask the same: “What shall we do?” What shall we, who are baptized, believing, and forgiven people of God, what shall we do, especially since the Lord is coming soon?John’s answer to such questions was simple. It always had to do with whatever someone’s role or vocation happened to be. The advice was always the same – turn from sin. Tax collectors – avoid the pet sins of tax collectors. Soldiers – avoid the pet sins of soldiers. Those who are rich should share with the less fortunate. Turning from sin - and doing good instead - is part of true repentance. Or as John calls it, “fruit in keeping with repentance”.
Wherever and whatever you are in life – a mother or father or child, student or teacher, worker, boss, pastor or layperson, young or old, rich or poor, you will have temptations to sin. But for the believer, we take John’s guidance to heart – and turn, more and more from these, OUR pet sins. We do it, not to earn heaven; that is already ours. We do it, not by our own strength, but by the Spirit’s. And we do it, never perfectly, but always forgiven and yet still striving “more and more as we see the day approaching”.
Christ is coming. His advent is at hand. As we look forward to that day, may our hearts continually be prepared by his Spirit, and may our lives show the fruits of repentance. For we have been baptized with His Spirit and with fire. And we stand pure in his sight forever. Amen.