Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the fire that is in us.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and see through them.
Take our souls and set them on fire. Amen.
The Mystery of Christmas
This is the season of Advent. Advent is the time of the color blue. Blue is the color of kings and queens. Blue is a serious color, and something serious is about to happen.
A King is coming, but this is not the kind of king that people thought was coming. This King had no army, no great house, and no riches. This King was a baby who was born in a barn. This King is still coming. This is the great mystery we call Christmas.
You know, a mystery is hard to enter sometimes. That is why this time of Advent is so important. Sometimes people can walk right through a mystery and not even know it is there. This time of year we sometimes get so busy and are in such a hurry that we miss the mystery. Maybe we forget to get ready, or maybe we need to know how to get ready.
The Church learned a long time ago that people need a way to get ready to enter or even come close to a mystery like Christmas. So the Church set aside four weeks to get ready. This is such a great Mystery that it takes that long to get ready…
adapted from Godly Play
The Christmas List
But what exactly can we do to get ready? Well, last week I suggested that we each make a Christmas list. But not of the ordinary kind, not a Christmas list with things on it like:
• I would like Season Six of the British comedy Only Fools and Horses
• I would like a large, wall-sized icon of Christ Pantocrator
Mind you, this is just a hypothetical list. But… in case you were wondering, this is what the Saint John’s Bible looks like. (Pull it out.) This is volume six, which contains the Gospels and Acts.
And here is a smaller version of the Christ Pantocrator icon. (Pull it out.) The original dates from around the sixth and seventh centuries. It is located at St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is located at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Last time I checked, this icon was in stock at Eighth Day Books in Wichita. I expect that it is still there since the last time I checked was around 5:30 p.m. last night.
Anyway, I digress. This is not the type of Christmas List I had in mind because this is not the type of list that will help us get ready to enter the Mystery of Christmas. No, the list I had in mind was very different. It was a list of the things that we would like to ask Jesus to bring us this Christmas, things that would contribute to our spiritual transformation and growth. The idea for this list is rooted in the fact that God loves us, that God values us, and that God sent Jesus to rescue and restore us… to purify and refine our hearts and minds, our dreams and desires… so that every fiber of our humanity, every particle of our personality is increasingly able to reflect the glory of God.
Refiner’s Fire Revisited
Last week, the prophet Malachi spoke of the Lord as a refiner’s fire, as one whose flames are used to purify precious metals like silver and gold. The image of a refiner’s fire is unsettling, but as I said, a refiner’s fire is only used for substances of extraordinary value and worth. Moreover, though a refiner’s fire is exceedingly hot, it does not destroy the substance; it purifies it by removing any impurities, anything that keeps it from being what it truly is by nature.
The Unquenchable Fire
I mention all of this, because in today’s gospel we are confronted by flames once again. In today’s reading from Luke, the fiery prophet, John the Baptist, cries out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Then John goes on to speak of unproductive trees being thrown into the fire. And when people begin to suspect that John is the long-awaited Messiah, he squashes the rumors saying:
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
And then notice how Luke ends the episode. “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” But how is this good news? After all, talk of an unquenchable fire doesn’t sound very good newsy, especially in a country that has, in recent years, experienced more than its fair share of fires… in places like California, Alaska, and Texas where homes and lives have been destroyed by such uncontrollable and unquenchable fires.
The good news lies in the fact that the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit is designed to destroy the chaff, not the wheat. The wheat is to be preserved; the wheat is to be gathered into God’s barns. Only the chaff is to be consumed by flames; this is good news. I mean, can you imagine what bread would taste like, if it were made from wheat and chaff. Chaff isn’t particularly tasty, and I seriously doubt that it is digestible. The good news is that we are wheat, not chaff. The good news is that God has come to preserve us, to sift us, to winnow us. That is, Jesus is coming with the Holy Spirit and fire to destroy the chaff, to destroy anything and everything that keeps us from becoming the bread that God could use to feed a hungry world, a world starving for God’s presence, love, and affection.
The Chaff in My Life
This past week as I spent time working on my Christmas List, instead of just thinking of things I wanted Jesus to bring me, I also began to think of things that I wanted Jesus to take away. I asked myself, “Where is there chaff in my life that I would like burned away?” One word immediately comes to mind: irritability.
I have struggled with irritability for as long as I can remember. Now I do fairly well in public settings, at least I think I do. But not so much when I am at home, when I am tired and my guard is down. And what irritates me? Well, what doesn’t irritate me? Water that doesn’t stay in the bathtub where it belongs, but spills out onto the bathroom floor. The toilet paper roll which always seems to be backwards, unless I put it in the way my Mom taught me. The noise of my children fighting can trigger my irritation, as well as the noise of my children playing and having fun, which makes no sense at all.
Now I am not irritable one hundred percent of the time; it comes and goes. But it seems to come more than it goes. And in the end, it is my family—those whom I love the most—who suffer the most. I walk around the house with a scowl on my face, or I yell, or I nitpick. Yes, it is such a joy to have Daddy at home on his day off. And the fact is, when I am in one of these moods, I am generally aware of what I am doing. I watch myself expressing my irritability, and I know that I am going to regret it, but I do it anyway, which just makes me more irritable. This reminds me of what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 7:
I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
That is my question and my cry for help. How I long to be set free from this affliction! How I long for the unquenchable fire of Holy Spirit to sweep through my life and burn away the chaff of irritability, so that I can stop doing so much harm and so that my presence can be a joy and a blessing to my family.
So I put it down on my Christmas list, which is itself an act of faith. After all, I have dealt with this issue for such a long time. I have prayed about it and worked on it, yet it persists in my life. Given my track record of failures, I begin to wonder if God is able and willing to do anything about it. It would seem easier to cleanse a leper or heal a blind man than to cleanse me and heal me of my irritability. So why risk the disappointment of asking for something big for Christmas and getting our hopes up, only to not receive it?
We risk it because we know that God cares for us. We risk it because Jesus has the desire and the power to set us free from anything that keeps us from living lives of love and grace and laughter. Now I will grant you that when you receive your Christmas gift from Jesus, there may be some assembly required, but you will not be left on your own to figure it all out. Jesus will be with you every step of the way.
So what will you dare to put on your Christmas list? What chaff would you like removed? What dream or desire will you trust Jesus with this Christmas?
In the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.