If I were to ask you what is the greatest discovery or invention of all time, what would you say?
There have been a lot of amazing discoveries and many of them in the last couple of hundred years.
Vaccinations were an incredible discovery or invention. They have saved millions of lives and prevented many more from devastating illness.
Going back to earlier days, the wheel, some three thousand plus years before Jesus was born.
Paper was invented in China about 100 years before Jesus was born.
The nail was invented around the time of the wheel and the screw was invented by the Greeks about 100 years before Jesus.
The Printing Press came 1400 years after Jesus.
More recently electricity. The light bulb came about 150 years ago and was the real beginning of us harnessing electricity.
I think one of the greatest inventions in my lifetime is the computer chip and computers. It has revolutionized a lot of technology.
Other notable inventions, the telephone, antibiotics, the airplane and nuclear fission…
But maybe the first, and one of the greatest discovery or invention is fire.
In some ways humans didn’t invent fire, they discovered it. The invention was how to start it, and how to control it and how to adapt it.
The use of fire goes back maybe as far as two million years.
Fire was used for warmth, protection and cooking. The ability to cook helped humans to get the nutrients need to support our expanding brains.
But just think of fire and how much it is used.
It is fire that brought in the iron age, the bronze age and the age of steel.
Metal is made using fire.
Nearly all the houses in Alberta are heated by a fire in a furnace.
Most vehicles are propelled by an internal combustion engine which is basically a fire inside a metal box. Planes, trains and automobiles.
Yes, I know we are moving to electric vehicles, but for years in Alberta electricity was generated by fire…by burning coal.
Fire has powered this world, for better and for worse. One can argue that burning fossil fuels has led to the brink of environmental disaster.
And so, while fire can be incredibly helpful, we all know that fire can be incredibly destructive.
Witness the forest fires in Canada the last few years.
And of all the horrific things that humans have done to each other during human existence on earth, maybe the most horrifying is summed up with a fire metaphor…The Holocaust.
Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. But it wasn’t just Jews that were imprisoned and killed. Other groups that were targeted were the Roma, (or Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, Soviet Prisoners of War, people with mental and physical disabilities, homosexuals, homeless people, alcoholics, addicts and prostitutes.
The word Holocaust came from the fact that millions of Jews were sent to death camps and after being executed were cremated in huge ovens. Fire was a tool of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Fire has changed our world. It may be one of the most important of human discoveries, but like most great things it can be used in destructive ways as well as helpful ways.
The image and metaphor of fire is frequently used in scripture. Sometimes the image of fire is positive. God is revealed to Moses in the burning bush. It is pillar of fire that leads the Children of Israel, represented the presence of cloud of God’s glory.
God is described as a holy fire.
But fire is also used to talk about destructive things in the bible, with the most powerful image, maybe being John’s Lake of Fire in the Book of Revelation.
John the Baptist comes on the scene in Luke’s gospel and begins his sermon:
You brood of vipers.
Just imagine any preacher today starting their sermon by calling their congregation a brood of vipers and see how long they will last as minister.
And for those diligent readers of the bible, you will find that in Matthew’s gospel John calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees the brood of vipers, but in Luke’s gospel it is all the crowds who are the children of snakes.
And John uses the image of fire a couple of times in his sermon.
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
…but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the joy Sunday in advent and so far, it has seemed to be much more doom, and gloom and fire and brimstone, than it has been joy.
One of the difficulties with this passage is this: Does John really know the mission of Jesus, or like other disciples does he not completely understand the love and grace of Jesus?
He understands Jesus to be the Messiah. He understood that miraculously in the womb when he leaped for joy when he heard the voice of the mother of Jesus, Mary, when she was pregnant with Jesus.
But does John think like most Jews, that the nature of Jesus the Messiah is to kill and destroy and burn with fire the bad guys and save the good guys?
After all, when John is in prison, he seems as if he doubts the ministry of Jesus. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, if Jesus is really the Messiah, because it seems like Jesus is not doing what John and the Jews thought the Messiah would do, burn the bad guys.
Or…Or does John have a better handle on the ultimate redeeming, loving ministry of Jesus?
It is a good question and I am not sure of the answer.
But let us work through some of this passage.
Brood of vipers. Children of snakes.
I am not particularly a snake lover. Snakes are not known for being cute and cuddly. Fur is much better for cuddling with than scales.
And snakes are not mammals. Mammals are more affectionate, bond better with their families, certainly show love and affection.
Snakes, well snakes just do what snakes do. Snakes do not nurture their young. If they were hungry enough, they might even eat their young.
They bite or attack when they are threatened. And they attack and eat whatever they think is food. There is no moral compass. They are predators who take. There is no right or wrong in a snake’s mind. They do whatever it takes to survive and thrive.
And I think this is the sense that John is thinking of. In particular the leaders of the Jews are those who are seen to be predators, who take, who consume. In some way they are the fires that consume other Jews. And not only do they take because they are the powerful, they constantly talk about the not good enough being destroyed.
The image of fire consuming the bad guys is the story and theology that the Pharisees and Sadducees love.
And so, the crowds are the offspring of these consuming snakes. In other words, the average Jew (and maybe Romans, Greeks, Syrians or Egyptians for that matter) has bought into the same theology and the same ideology as the Pharisees and Sadducees.
You destroy the different, the bad, the morally weak, the other, the threat, the enemy, the impure, and anything that threatens your way of life. We are the chosen ones, and the unchosen have no worth. It is our right to be on top of the human food chain, or the social ladder.
That my friends, is the same theology and philosophy that the Nazis had, and they followed through until its logical ultimate conclusion.
That is what Jesus came to change.
And to John’s credit, while he calls the people the offspring of snakes, he tells them that there is a better way to be than to have the theology of snakes. The theology of snakes is to take what you want and kill those who don’t agree with you…
But the better way is to share, to be honest, to treat each other fairly, and don’t use your power to hurt others, intimidate others or take advantage of others.
Well, we know that John says this to the crowds that come to the Jordan to see him, in the wilderness. And those crowds are comprised of Jews and Gentiles of rich and poor and all sorts, but just notice who is named.
In Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees and the Sadducees are named as being there. In Luke’s gospel you find that there are tax collectors there, and there are soldiers. These might be Roman soldiers, or they might be Jewish soldiers of the little army of Herod Antipas who was the Tetrarch of Galilee.
The other group that is not explicitly named but implicitly named are those who have two coats and extra food. They are the wealthier ones.
So, the people who are named as visiting John are some of the ones, we Christians have thought of as the bad guys in the bible. The rich and powerful who took advantage of the poor. The Religious leaders who propped up their own power and constantly criticized Jesus and cared little for those who weren’t good enough for them. The soldiers who practiced violence. The tax collectors who were Roman Collaborators and cheats.
And John doesn’t burn them all or destroy them. He says to them: Go home and live your lives. But instead of being stingy, be generous. Instead of being greedy do the right thing. Instead of threats and violence be kind and loving, and caring.
You see, John is talking about fire here, but not the fire of annihilation and destruction, but the fire of change, the fire of refining, the fire of burning away impurities to get to the gold, which is the purity of love.
What is bad is not the people. What is bad is the theology of snakes who are just out for themselves with no regard for others.
And the answer to that is a different theology. A theology of love and caring for all, even enemies.
I know it doesn’t sound super joyful, but John is saying in his own gruff way, that joy doesn’t come from taking, from hurting, from stealing, or cheating, or intimidating, or getting ahead in this world by whatever method.
Joy comes from caring, from sharing, by being content, by non-violence, and being the children of God, you were created to be.
The good news is that the one who is coming is Jesus and Jesus is going to immerse you in love; and Jesus’ fire is not going to kill you or destroy you, but transform you.
He is not going to burn you as chaff, or fruitless trees. He is going to burn away the chaff that keeps you from being fruitless, that’s keeps you from loving, that makes you want to hurt others and get revenge and destroy others with fire.
He is not going to put a fire of destruction in you, but a fire of love.
So be joyful. Christ is coming.
Hans Christian Anderson is known for his fairy tales. You may know or have heard of “The little Mermaid” or “The Ugly Duckling” or “the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
But one of his first tales was called “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”
The Steadfast Tin Soldier was the last of 25 soldiers in a box of tin soldiers and because he was the last and there wasn’t enough tin, he had only one leg.
But he stood just as well on his one leg and the others did on two and he is this story’s hero.
Hans Christian Andersen, Eventyr, fortalte for Born [Tales, told for Children] (Copenhagen, 1835, 1838), trans. Naomi Lewis (Oxford UP: 1974), “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
The tin soldier is put out with the other toys and he sees a ballerina who is posing on one leg and the tin soldier think that she would be the ideal wife and falls in love with her.
And during the story the tin soldier thinks but never says a word. He always remains steadfast in his duty and in his love.
There is an evil goblin who may or may have not pushed him off the window into the street.
There he is picked up by two little boys who make a paper boat and put him in it and sail him in the gutter. He sails down the drain into the darkness and void where he is chased by a rat because he doesn’t have a passport.
You didn’t know you need a passport to enter hell.
Eventually he goes through the drain and into the river where like Jonah he is swallowed by a fish.
Strangely enough the fish is caught that very day and put for sale at the market. The fish is bought by the cook of the very same house where he was the child’s toy and when the cook slices the fish open, lo and behold the one-legged toy soldier is back with the toys.
And he is still in love with the ballerina.
But even though he journeyed into the void and darkness and the abyss, his troubles are not over.
For maybe or maybe not, the evil goblin influences one of the children to throw him in the fire and he starts to burn up.
He still remains steadfast in his love, whereupon a wind blows the paper ballerina into the fire where she burns up in an instant.
So, the tin soldier is burning outside and inside. I quote: The heat was intense, but whether this came from the fire or his burning love, he could not tell.
And the story ends with the soldier melted down and when the maid raked the ashes the next day he is melted into the shape of a heart.
Some say that part of Hans Christian Anderson is in this story. That he is the one who is feels not whole, but perseveres in life.
To me it really is a gospel story. Maybe the tin soldier is the Christ who keeps loving and loving, even those who don’t love him back, who endures the fires of hell to save us and is resurrected to live in our hearts.
And maybe the tin soldier is a story about you and me. We are the ones who don’t always feel whole, who don’t always feel loved, but are steadfast in persevering, in loving, in caring, in enduring the difficulties of this life.
What I do know about the fires and tribulations of life is this. All of us have them. All of us experience loss and grief as well as joy. All of us at times deal with evil. And those who seem to do best are those who don’t let the fires destroy them, but let the fires transform them into loving, caring, joyful people.
That is what I believe Jesus does for us.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.