The flame shall not consume you, for God is with you.
I’d like to take you to a scene that probably played out in a house somewhere near us over the holidays.
John and Marie are first time parents of a two-year-old toddler, Jeremy. Jeremy never stops exploring and moving. Over the holidays his parents decide to light a fire in their fireplace for the first time since Jeremy was born. They meant to buy a fire screen but never got around to it, but anyway they are just going to light a fire log and they will be sitting right there on the old blue couch in their small cozy living room. It will be safe. They won’t take their eyes off Jeremy.
Jeremy stares intently as the match is lit and the fire log comes to life. He stares – unusually still – at the flames. He reaches his hand out to the fire and his mother cautions – Hot. Don’t touch! He pulls his hand back but his eyes don’t leave the flames. Watch out! – She says – Keep away from the fire. After a moment he sits down on the carpet with his toys and loses interest in the dancing flame. John and Marie sit close together on the blue couch. Their love for each other and their son fills the room like a warm, cozy hug. They exchange a glance that speaks about love and gratitude … and a little exhaustion. In that split second Jeremy stands up and puts his whole chubby hand into the flame.
His mother sees him and grabs him back, shouting “No. Hot! Don’t touch! Little Jeremy starts to cry. The father runs to get some cold water for his little burned hand. His mother holds wailing Jeremy in a tight hug, her heart racing. There is shouting and crying. But soon the crisis passes and on examination, Jeremy’s hand is barely red – he must have snatched it back from the fire very quickly. The sobbing stops and his parents hold Jeremy close on the blue couch and surround him in a huge hug, holding him tight to their hearts. They know that today he has learned about fire, but they also know that his life will be filled with other fires, other pain, and they hug him even more closely as if to protect him against the troubles that life will bring. They wish that their love would always keep him safe, but in their hearts they know they will not be able to protect him from the firestorms of life.
John the Baptist brings us a different image of fire.
We find ourselves on the banks of the river Jordan with John. People have walked for miles to hear John the Baptist preach about repentance. He is urgently calling on them to repent, to turn their lives around because the Messiah is coming.
He brings us a frightening image of fire: the Messiah will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” You see, in those times the grain stalks were threshed – beaten – on a threshing floor outdoors, to break the wheat kernels off the stalks. Then they would take a winnowing fork – like a pitchfork – and toss the stalks up into the air. The wind would blow off the “chaff” – the lightweight leaves and stalks, while the heavy kernels of grain would fall to the floor. The chaff, the dried stems and leaves, was no good for anything and it would be burned.
John’s message is that the people who do not turn their lives around, who continue to live sinful and ungodly lives, are like the chaff, no good for anything, and will be burned with “unquenchable fire.”
The problem is … fire is all around us. We are sure to be burned by life. Our broken world is filled with wickedness, cruelty and grief. Our own lives are filled with challenges and trouble. We are human and we sin – we forget to pray, get swept up in our own lives and don’t help others, act wrongly, hurt people. We feel overwhelmed with the injustices and pain of the world and don’t act… and tragedy also comes unbidden to our doorstep – sickness, death, illness, loss.
Often life can feel like we are not just putting our hand into the fire, but that we are passing right through a firestorm. We struggle to fulfill our baptismal promises. We don’t live up to our own expectations, or we are afraid that we don’t live up to God’s high standards. We fear that we are not good enough, not Godly enough. Perhaps in our heart we are afraid that we will be the chaff that gets burned.
But there is hope … Let us go back for a moment to the river Jordan. After all the people were baptized, Jesus comes forward and is baptized. And then he prays. Perhaps one by one the people in the crowd realize who he is, or feel that something is different about him. They surely fall silent and awestruck as the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And into that awed silence, into that hush, words of blessing sound from heaven:
You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Well pleased. “well pleased” may have an air of faint praise about it, like “quite good,” but the phrase also means ”in you I have taken delight.” Taken delight! God the father delights in Jesus the son! The father loves Jesus in the way a parent loves a child. Can you imagine the father taking Jesus into his arms just as the parents took Jeremy into theirs? Arms filled with love and hope … but also a sense of foreboding, knowing the path Jesus must follow leads to death on the cross. Just as Jeremy’s parents know that their son will have to face the firestorms of life.
And just as Jeremy’s parents delight in their beloved son, just as God the father delights in his beloved son Jesus, God delights in us, God delights in you! God is holding us even now in an unbreakable hug. God is with us when we walk through the firestorms of life.
And unlike Jeremy’s parents, who are only human after all, God will never leave us. There is always room on the blue couch by the fire for us to be surrounded by a hug of God’s love. And if we stray into the fire, or as we walk through the firestorms of life, God is always with us.
When we make wrong decisions, or don’t act as we should, and or tragedy comes unbidden to our doorstep, God is with us. When we struggle to do the right thing, to keep the promises we made at baptism, God is with us. God loves us even if we feel that we have failed. Even if we find we can’t even love our self, God still delights in us. We are always, always precious, beloved children of God!
In our first reading, Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel, but his words offer reassurance for us today.
I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are sitting in Jeremy’s cozy living room by the warm fire, on that old blue couch. You have worries and pain, guilt and fears, and all the troubles that human life brings. With your eyes closed, take a deep breath. Feel God’s hug of unconditional love as you listen to his words:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured,
And I love you.
Do not fear, for I am with you.
Do not fear. I am with you. (Is 43:1-7 excerpts)
Text: Luke 3:15-22, Isaiah 43:1-7