Cleansed by Fire
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent
December 22, 2019
“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”
OUR SEASONS OF PREPARATION in the Church year have become precious, even quaint weeks dressed in violet, and have certainly lost some of the edge of the sword they were supposed to present for us. Preparation in Lent and in Advent means we tear ourselves down to the basics, get rid of the superfluous, eliminate what stands between us and Christ, so that we may greet Him without shame as He comes through to us, both in the Risen Victorious Lord at Easter as well as the newborn Savior of our World this Tuesday night. We may mention fasting, prayer and confession, but I fear we seldom practice it. I succeed no better than any of you, so don’t think I am shaming you. We have lost that edge, I fear. We should get it back.
One of the motifs for the Advent lessons is the ministry of John the Baptist, cousin of our Lord, and the wilderness saint who called his nation to prepare for Messiah’s appearance. As he arrives in human history, the prophet Malachi’s words, the final passage we cite as our Old Testament, are at last fulfilled after 400 years of waiting:
“Behold, I will send My messenger, who will prepare the way before Me. Then the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple... But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire... And He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” Mal 3:1-3
Fire lights the last of four candles, a purple one after the rose pink, a candle that stands for the last of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and now hell. Heaven cannot be so dark as the other three, so it’s rosy, but hell is the lake of fire, a brimstone ever-burning place where you don’t want to go. The glory of our Savior is that He provides in Himself the way that leads to heaven, and keeps us from hell. But we need to be cleansed, and that requires suffering. His suffering. And our own.
Ever since the world made room for Christianity, even made our faith the religion of many realms and empires, Christians have tended to soften the ultimate things that made our forebears so serious. Jesus didn’t say that centuries of ease and blessing were ours to enjoy, that being a good Christian wins instant approval, and all things should just pour into our laps. Rather, He warned us that the world would hate us and that we should be suspicious of ease and comfort, of acceptance and any too-easy-peace not won by a valiant striving against evil. The evil exists, still exists, and it’s growing stronger. And Christians have for too long been off the battlefield such that we fail to remember our role.
It’s not just the Old Testament speaking of fire and purification. The Epistle to the Hebrews warns me and you, today, that we should “not refuse Him who speaks… He has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth, but heaven as well.’ Therefore, since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us be filled with gratitude, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire.” Heb 12:26-29
It’s not just poetry. Moses saw real flames light a tamarisk tree in the wilderness, its fire glowing bright in the daylight, and it called him to lead his people to freedom. That bush wasn’t consumed, but what did the bush feel? What should we feel in the fire of God’s Spirit who indwells you and me?
St. Paul looks to his church at Corinth to get itself right, so its foundations will bear a greater building. Every person in every church is part of that edifice, and must be made of noble stuff to be worthy of such a Lord and to bear the weight. We are not originally made of such stuff, but the ore from which it must be rended. Jesus is the deepest stone laid beneath us, and upon Him may only be laid elements of gold, silver and precious gems. If we lay down only our wood, paper recycling, and yard waste what must become of these? “The Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work [precious metal or mere rubbish]. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but will be saved, through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? The temple of God is holy, which temple you are.” 1 Cor 3:10-17
Elijah won the day and the hearts of his people back to the true God by calling down fire upon his sacrifice on Mount Carmel. The Pillar of Fire lit the way for the children of Israel through desert paths to escape slavery in Egypt. Fire burned on the heads of Christ’s disciples who had waited for the Holy Spirit to arrive in power, and His presence drove them out in the streets to declare His victory over sin and death. And fire is the fate of our planet, says St. Peter, not global warming, nor an ice age, neither nuclear winter nor plastic straws.
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:10-13
John came with a simple message and attracted to himself thousands in Israel. “Repent!” he cried out. “The Lord is near! Make yourselves ready, for His Day will be tremendous and powerful. He is coming! I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire!” Matt 3:11
We pray such powerful prayers. And it’s good if we mean them. “O LORD, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us.” If you call upon an Almighty God to come with His power to save and prepare you, you’d better be ready for such a guest. He will indeed come again, as we pray, “in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…” You say, ‘Amen’ to that, and you’re asking for it. You should ask for it. So should I.
But it’s big stuff. He’s a mighty God. We can’t imagine. This is not a nice religion. It’s the lifeboat, the last and only rocket out of a burning planet. And its cabins are bursting with amazing saints who have valiantly won their berth with acts of faith that frighten modern churchmen.
Do you think there is no evil to fight today, as they did of old? Planned Parenthood and the Los Angeles City School District are using your tax dollars to put sex clinics in 50 LA schools. For example. And no one appears to know, and there is no public uprising. Evil always seeks the children. And God is watching for His own to take the field and deny access to them.
We wish for peace, but forget the cost of peace in this world. It is always won by strength and valor. I’m not saying war, per se, but the zeal of goodness that brings light to dark issues and exposes the wicked schemes that the enemies of God have devised.
We love the comfortable words, but comfort in Biblical language means strengthening, not fuzzy blankets stuffed with goose down. Com-fort means “with strength.” It is only in knowing the power and determined will for good that keeps our streets safe and sane so we might rest in peace at night. The pillar of flame for us may be one lone cop patrolling half the city.
Paul wrote for us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Don’t worry about a thing. Pray your prayers to God, making Him know your cares and concerns. Then, and only then, the peace of God that surpasses all our knowledge or ability to reason out, will protect both your hearts and minds, keeping you in His peace. Phil 4
That peace cost our Saviour everything He could give. It keeps costing many good and noble people their lives, limbs and liberty when facing evil in our days. It will cost us some time before the television set if we receive the call to get up and do something when the wolf is at the door and our family is threatened.
Not an invading army, but the infiltration of our culture.
Not bombs falling, but demons ruling our skies dancing in glee when the church is snoozing.
It’s lying headlines in place of Truths that we hold to be self-evident.
It’s an unholy culture calling for its drugs demanding rights that are wrongs, calling for what your country can do for you.
And how can we answer?
The fire of God’s Spirit in us. Not in anger, but in goodness, and that’s gotten by letting ourselves be cleansed by fire, purified by fire, melted, molded, rendered pure and undefiled. Gold, silver, and gemstones you are.
Then in love we speak what we know, and by God’s power, we heal the world.