Advent (3): The Coming Fire

3rd Sunday of Advent (C) – December 12, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18

Judgment Day: Good News?

Every Sunday after the homily we stand up and say the Creed—pretty mindlessly if we’re being honest. And in the Creed, there is one line that we usually glance right over: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” He will come again…to judge.

At Mass for the PSR kids the other day, I asked them, “How many of you, when you hear that Jesus is going to come again—how many of you get worried? When you hear that Jesus is going to come again to judge the living and the dead, how many of you get worried?” And all of a sudden a bunch of little hands started creeping up. And if I had to guess, the sound of that probably makes a lot of us here a little worried.

If I told you—and again, this still hasn’t happened, so don’t go spreadin’ rumors—but if I told you that Fr. Rick called me and told me he had a vision last night in prayer, that Jesus presented himself before Fr. Rick and Jesus told him, “I will be coming back in less than four weeks, definitively.” If Jesus said, “I am coming back in less than four weeks”—what is the first reaction of your heart? *gasp* A leap of joy? Or is it fear? “The end is coming.” When you hear that, are you afraid? worried? Again, don’t be ashamed, don’t hide from that, don’t distract yourself from that.

It makes us worried because of what we’ve heard about Jesus’ return, what we’ve heard about this “Day.” We’ve given a bunch of one-liners, a lot of scary things, judgmental things, fire and brimstone things. For example, this line from John the Baptist, “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). The New Testament has lines like, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief…the elements will be consumed by fire” (2 Peter 3:10). Yikes! And the Old Testament isn’t much better. “The day is coming, blazing like an oven…the day that is coming will set them on fire” (c.f., Malachi 3:1-19).

And this is precisely what the Church places before our eyes on this Gaudete Sunday—Gaudete, Rejoice! Here I am up here looking like a dork wearing rose, the Church is saying, “It’s Gaudete Sunday! A Sunday for rejoicing!”—and then it focuses our attention on Jesus’ return, when he comes to judge, a “Day” that our preconceptions about are (to be honest) pretty bleak. Like, even the end of the Gospel does’t seem to make sense, “‘The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people” (Luke 3:17-18). Good news?? This is good news? Paul in our second reading, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again:  rejoice! The Lord is near.…Have no anxiety.” Rejoice?? No anxiety? He’s coming again to judge, and I’m supposed to think this is good news? That I should rejoice? No anxiety?

So what gives? Is this “Day” that is coming a cause of fear and anxiety and worry? Or is it good news, cause for rejoicing and freedom from anxiety?

Are You Part of the Story? Or Are You Trying To Write Your Own?

The coming of this “Day” is good news! I think it’s easy to fall into the stereotype that this “Day” is a cause for fear because we forget the backstory. We either don’t know the backstory, or we forgot it—or we know it but don’t really see ourselves as part of that story!

We’ve been talking about that story for the past several weeks, and how we are part of that story. It’s that story of expectation, of anticipation—waiting for something amazing to happen. It’s that story of needing someone to come to rescue us, not from drowning or some abstract “sin” we don’t even understand—but waiting, needing someone to come save us from this downward spiral of self-reliance and the misery of trying to give ourselves everything.

Do you see my point? “Good news” is only “good news” if you know the backstory and if you see yourself as intimately bound-up in that story. You have to be able to say, “Yeah, I’m waiting for something amazing, I guess. Yeah, I am waiting, needing someone to save me from this downward spiral of self-reliance and misery.”

Like the Gospel said, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke 3:15). We are expecting, anticipating, waiting for His coming, for His presence!

Rethinking Holiness: A Purifying, Life-Giving Fire

So now, now you can say: “Cool, Fr. Michael. You’re still dancing around this whole Jesus showing up to judge, and the ‘fire and brimstone’ stuff, this whole ‘unquenchable fire’ business.’ When Jesus shows up, when God is present, there’s this whole ‘fire hazard,’ if you know what I mean.”

Here’s the thing: in Scripture, God’s presence and God’s holiness are often represented by fire. And yeah, like fire, God’s presence and God’s holiness can be dangerous, a cause for fear. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. God’s presence is revealed as a bush that is on fire. Moses sees this from afar and when he draws close he covers his face in fear! So yes! The burning, fiery presence of God can cause fear (good job!) 

But also notice: the bush is on fire, but not consumed! This fiery presence, this holy presence of God can cause fear—but it’s a presence that burns not to consume and destroy, but to bring fully to life! The bush is radiant, exuding the very life and energy of God.

Remember what we’ve been talking about the past several weeks: our need for God to come and do something amazing, our need for God to come as our goel, our redeemer and rescue us. God coming close, God showing up, His presence is supposed to be a good thing, good news, cause for rejoicing, remember? God’s coming is what we want and what we need, remember?

We easily get worried because we’ve been raised in a very good Protestant culture here in the United States, a culture that drew from a very misguided understanding of scripture, a culture that tells us that we can pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps and fix it all ourselves. For example, in Scripture there are all of those famous—or should I say infamous—laws and rules about holiness and purity. And they aren’t simply about chastity. They are about all the ways to keep oneself ritually pure so that they could approach God. There are all of those laws and rules—go to the book of Leviticus—all of those rules and laws about washings, and not touching dead animals, and bodily fluids, what it meant if you were a leper, and so on and so forth. And those sound so strange and cultic and rigid to us! But why did they exist? What were they getting at? People were trying to be ritually pure and clean and “holy” so that they could approach God. God’s presence, being in God’s presence is dangerous! People died in the Old Testament from approaching the presence of God unworthily. So these laws were all of the ways you can make yourself pure so that you can approach God’s presence. But do you see the problem? It’s all about me, and what I can do to make myself holy and perfect, so I can go to God’s presence—it’s still this self-reliance. And it doesn’t work. People still can’t fix it.

So when Jesus arrives—look!—when Jesus arrives everything gets turned upside down! When God arrives in Jesus Christ, everything changes. Jesus goes around touching all of these people: lepers, the blind, the lame, the mute, hemorrhaging women, dead people. And instead of Jesus becoming impure or instead of these people dying or burning up because they were close to Jesus, to God—instead of that, Jesus’ purity, Jesus’ holiness—God’s holiness—is transferred to them. They are healed.

God approaching, God drawing close, God’s holy presence drawing close—why does God do this? To burn up us horrible sinners? No. When God comes close, he isn’t expecting to find us perfectly pure and spotless and “holy,” no. He comes to heal us. His fire comes to bring us fully to life. He knows there are parts of us we have tried to fix, things we’ve tried to get rid of but can’t. His judgment comes to burn up within us all that is not us, all of those things that hold on to us. The fire he brings isn’t to destroy us. The judgment he brings isn’t to condemn us. The fire comes to bring us more fully to life. He comes as our goel, our redeemer.

Rejoice

We are called to rejoice! Why? Because we can allow him to come close to us, allow him to judge and not be worried. This is what’s going on in the sacraments especially, why the sacraments are so important! Because we can allow him to come close to us, allow him to judge and not be worried. In Confession, we open ourselves up to his presence and judgement—and we are healed and forgiven. In the Eucharist, we open ourselves up to his presence—and we are healed, forgiven, strengthened. Maybe a good goal, a great challenge would be to go to daily Mass for the next two weeks. Maybe it’s making a good Confession.

Because yes, you’re right: we should be concerned for this “Day” if our lives are clogged up with chaff—with sin and useless junk. (It’s like a combine: chaff can be incredibly dangerous to a combine, a real fire hazard. Combine fires are a real thing. Yeah, you should be worried about your combine getting clogged up with the chaff.) We should be concerned if we have let our lives get clogged up and consumed by chaff, by lesser things—if we have slipped into grave sin, missing Mass, receiving communion unworthily—yeah, we should worry, but only if we keep the Lord at arm’s length.

We are called to rejoice! Why? Because we can allow him to come close to us, allow him to judge and not be worried. Let go of the chaff. Let him burn it up. Don’t hold on to it. Let him draw close with his presence and holiness and bring you more fully to life. Rejoice! His mercy triumphs over judgment. His judgment is covered in mercy. Rejoice, have no anxiety—the Lord is near. Let us prepare for his coming.

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