It’s a classic New Yorker cartoon. The minister is standing outside a lovely stone church, dressed in his finest vestments, and with a large smile on his face. He’s greeting his parishioners after the Sunday service as they spill out into the sunshine. But the parishioners look anything but serene. Their hair is standing on edge burned down to the nub. Their clothes are singed and tattered. Some have dark circles around their eyes. And all of them look absolutely shell-shocked. And the caption simply reads: “Excellent sermon.”
Gay Brookes gave me this cartoon some years ago now and it is framed in my office if you would like to see it. I laughed out loud when she gave it to me. I laughed because I imagined that I had never given a sermon that would leave people in such a state. And then I wondered if I ever should be preaching sermons that leave people in such a state.
What is it that you expect to hear from Pastor Emily or me on any given Sunday? Why do you listen to us? Do you come looking for comfort? Is it a good story you want? Do you want us to entertain or instruct? Maybe it’s a little of all those things, but what you probably don’t want; what I probably wouldn’t want, is a sermon that leaves you deeply unsettled, disturbed, perturbed.
Some years ago now I was at a Metropolitan Association meeting. Local UCC meetings can be a crashing bore, but not this one. We gathered in the sanctuary of one of our local church for a worship service before the business meeting began. We waited in silence. There was no prelude. Suddenly, from the back of the church, the voice of the Rev. Elice Higginbotham suddenly boomed. “You brood of vipers!” Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” And as she said it, she walked down the center aisle, a bowl of water in one hand and a branch with leaves in the other. She dipped the branch in the water and flung it at the crowd all the while shouting: “Repent!” I have never forgotten it.
Repent! It’s an unforgettable message. It was unforgettable the first time John the Baptist ever preached it. John the Baptist, who looked like a lunatic, dressed in a camel’s hair tunic and eating honey and bugs. He was a strange vessel for a stark message – unforgettable.
Despite that strangeness, or perhaps because of it, people flocked to hear him. The Roman historian Josephus reports that as many as 50,000 people showed up one day to hear John. Why? Why make the trek into the wilderness to hear that the world is ending? Maybe because they already believed that the world was ending.
It certainly must have felt that way to first century Hebrews. The boot of the Roman Empire was on their necks. Their religious leaders had sold out in order to keep the peace. Instead of standing against all that Roman testosterone, the clergy played the dangerous game of being in the middle, of trading faithfulness for expediency. So the people lived under the thumb of an oppressive government, and those charged with announcing the Reign of God colluded with the oppressors.
So sure, it was easy to believe that the end was at hand. John was only giving voice to what they already feared to be true.
John’s message is apocalyptic, which simply means that it references the end of times. And John uses apocalyptic imagery to paint a vivid picture of a world on a precipice. He speaks of slithering vipers and an ax at the root of trees, and sharp blades and threshing floors. And the passage ends with the threat of an “unquenchable fire.”
Unquenchable fire. I always heard this passage interpreted to be a reference to the unquenchable fires of hell. And as such, this passage and others like it have been used to generations in order to manipulate and control the faithful. But what if there is another way to look at this fire? What if this is not a reference to hell and punishment, but instead a reference to the fire of cleaning? What if this fire is a gift and not a curse; the foretelling of a birth instead of the threat of death?
As I said, John the Baptist preached an apocalyptic end of times. But that is not to be confused with a message of the end of the world. Instead, John preached that a new age was dawning. John prepared the way for Jesus who preached that he had come to bring people abundant life. So what John was preaching was both an ending and a new beginning. John’s unquenchable fires are the fires of change.
Some of us feel the heat of that fire right now. It seems as if the whole world is about to combust. Despots rise to the top. Dearly held rights are threatened. And religion helped to do that. At this moment in time, we don’t know what the future holds. The fire is hot. But is it necessarily only destructive?
Serotiny refers to an ecological adaptation exhibited by some seed plants, in which the seed release only occurs in response to an environmental trigger, rather than spontaneously when the seed matures. The most common and most studied environmental trigger is fire. There is a species of pine that only releases the seeds from its cones when there is a forest fire. For those trees, it takes extreme heat to create new life.
How we interpret this present fire in which we live is a matter of perspective. We can see it as only destructive, as the flames of misogyny and racism and homophobia and xenophobia threaten to consume us. Or we can see it as a moment of crisis that can give birth to something brand new. We don’t have to die in this flame. We can be born again. This church can be born again. This country can be born again.
The day after the election, at an interfaith gathering, a Sihk woman named Valarie Kaur offered this prayer for America: “In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth: The future is dark. But my faith dares me to ask: What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave? What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.” Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear. Let us make an oath to fight for the soul of America — “
The season of Advent is one of longing and waiting in the dark. But the Christ for whom we wait is the Christ of Resurrection and new life. This present moment need not defeat us. Instead, the flames can actually set us free.