Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
In spite of the best efforts of the evangelists and the Church Fathers and Mothers and the Reformers, we have come to more or less treat salvation like it is a destination at which we arrive, whether it is when we pray the Sinner’s Prayer, or when we come to believe in or accept Jesus, or when we are baptized; once we’ve arrived, there is no more to be done. To put it in John’s terms, we think that simply being “children of Abraham” is enough; his statement to the contrary causes us to fear that there is something we have yet to do, some righteousness we have yet to fulfill in order to be safe from that unquenchable fire of punishment.
The reality is that salvation is not a destination; it is a journey, a process. It isn’t something that we can achieve by being or doing or believing the “right” things, because if it could, then once we had fulfilled the requirements, we would no longer need God. The purifying fire of which John speaks is not—as we often like to imagine—the fire of Hell that waits for those who fail to earn or receive salvation, but the unquenchable presence of God. Salvation comes through being in perpetual relationship with that presence.
Allow me to unpack that. Our sense of self is far less concrete than we like to think. As we grow older and become more set in our ways it becomes harder to tell, but the truth is that, to some degree, our personalities change based on who we are with: as we are around different people, we ourselves become different people, especially over time. We act, think and even talk differently when we are around church people than when we are around buddies from work, for example. When I go up to the farm where my dad grew up, I unconsciously start talking with a thick brogue. Or when I am around my sister, we fall into the same old patterns from when we were kids.
Another way to think of it is that it’s like marriage. When two people join themselves together in the covenant of marriage, they slowly become more like one another in certain ways. They pick up mannerisms or habits from their spouse, they start to adjust diets and expectations and even entire lives to one another. Some people even begin to look alike after being together for so long!
But the changes don’t stop there. Marriage means that both people are forever seeing themselves and their actions in light of their spouse. People become hyper-aware of the faults and failures of the other partner even as they are forced to recognize their own. This deeply intimate reflection that characterizes marriage is an uncomfortable process; but in the end, marriage is about more than that, and that is why people do it. It can even be a part of how marriage (ideally) makes one a better person.
It works the same way with God. As we enter into this covenant relationship—this “marriage,” if you will—with God through baptism, both God and us become more like one another. God takes the first step in becoming like us through the incarnation: Jesus, though divine, took on human form to not only live among us and relate to us, but to become one of us. He initiates that relationship with us through his incarnation so we can start become more like him. We learn to love as he loves, to care for others as he cares for us, to give of ourselves as he does.
Martin Luther calls this the “happy exchange.” Because we cannot be righteous on our own, we need a righteousness—a goodness—that comes from outside of us: an “alien righteousness.” Being in relationship with Christ allows us to receive his “alien righteousness” and become better people, people recreated in the just and righteous image of God. At the same time, the sinless Christ takes our sinfulness—our brokenness, our faults and failures—into himself and—because he is also God—heals it. He becomes like us so that we can become like him. Salvation then, is not achieving a state in which we no longer need God to be righteous on our own, but entering into an eternal relationship with God in Christ and therefore always righteous.
The idea of divine punishment that’s been implanted in us works in a black-and-white world, but it falls apart in a grey one. When we hear John’s message, we have a tendency to get hung up wondering who is “saved” and who is not. Perhaps we might instead begin to recognize that people are not grain or chaff, but stalks of wheat; we are not barren or fruitful trees, but orchards. The wheat must be purified by separating the chaff; otherwise it is no good to eat. An orchard must have the barren trees removed in order to make room for more productive trees. We all have chaff that must be burnt and unfruitful trees that need to be replaced. That is precisely why John’s message is real good news. It isn’t some hollow encouragement for the self-righteous, but a complex word of both hope and warning for a complex world.
When we enter into covenant relationship with God, we are entering into the red-hot furnace of God’s righteous presence which burns away everything within us that resists God’s good and gracious will for us and for creation. True discipleship will cause suffering because the way of God is so alien to the way of the world that to be aligned with one is to automatically be at odds with the other. We can either be comfortable now, taking full advantage of the unjust privilege we’ve accumulated, or we can give up those comforts and privileges now to pursue justice. This is what Jesus means when he says that to be his disciple is to take up our cross and follow. Being in relationship with him means following his lead—even when that path leads to the cross.
Being a disciple is not just about encountering Jesus in the Bible; we also come to know Christ through his living promises and his presence at the font and in the Holy Supper and the community shaped by those sacraments. Our God is an incarnate God, a God who chooses to be known in relationship, which means that we cannot know God in isolation. To know this God in Christ and to follow Jesus’ call to discipleship will sometimes mean that we are at odds with not only the powers of the world, but sometimes even with the very communities gathered in his name; but if we heed that call—to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus and strive for peace and justice in all the earth—we will find that even though that relationship is difficult, it is ultimately fulfilling, bringing us into closer relationship with God and with our fellow siblings in Christ and even those who we might call our enemies because in following that call, even those conflicts—destructive as they can be—have the capacity to also be healing and purifying, like a refining fire.
John’s message is that being in relationship with Jesus now will mean discomfort and persecution and maybe even death while the rulers of the world fight their losing battle to hold onto their power and privilege; but when God’s reign comes in its fullness, when the LORD is finally in the midst of God’s people, then the light of God’s unquenchable presence will shine among us forever, and the jubilant celebration of Zephaniah’s song will be ours.
And so, yes—this unquenchable fire is good news because that fire is the presence of God in our midst that burns away everything in us that resists God’s salvation. That fire is Immanuel—God with us—the presence of the LORD in the midst of the city; and since God is with us, the sin and death that plague the world are slowly being burned away. That is the Christmas gift we are all anxious to receive.