In ancient times, fire, along with earth, wind, and water, was one of the four elements that were considered the building blocks of the physical world. It’s a different way of looking at things; different from our way, that is. Atoms, molecules, particles, and so forth, are more in the modern scientific line: things unknown to our forebears.
Yet for all its pre-modern characteristics, the formula of the four elements strikes a familiar chord, as we think about our stewardship of the planet. Earth, wind, water, and fire, and their interaction, are crucial to sustainable living. Pollution of earth and air, epic wild fires and catastrophic floods, point toward the ways in which the elements of the natural world can become distorted: building blocks with cracks in them. Our ancestors, with their worldview, may have had a point in bearing down on the visible.
Stewards of the planet find the element of fire particularly perplexing. For a long time, land management techniques concentrated on avoiding fire, and putting it out immediately; but this turned out to be a flawed strategy. Fire itself turns out to be one of the chief means of avoiding a major burn, because a smaller fire will eliminate the dangerous buildup of flammable material. It’s a form of “fighting fire with fire;” of letting nature renew itself.
Our Gospel today gives us fire in two forms: the fire of destruction, and the fire of renewal. Both are legitimate Advent themes. The first is in evidence as St. John the Baptist gives solemn warning of the coming judgment. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Lk. 3:7). John’s ministry is like that of the prophets of old, who warned Israel of the coming destruction. Like the prophets, John calls the People to repentance: to metanoia, to a turning away or to a change in direction. They are to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8): that is, turn away from sin and begin to live a new life, showing by their actions the evidence of the change.
To the extent that Advent focuses us on the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell, John’s words find purchase. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9). The words recall those of the prophet Isaiah, “For wickedness burned like a fire, consuming briers and thorns; it kindled the thickets of the forest, and they swirled up like a column of smoke. Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land was burned, and the people became like fuel for the fire…” (Is. 9:18-19). Isaiah suggests that wickedness is its own punishment, its own destructive fire, cutting us off from God, and consuming us.
The second form of fire in our Gospel is the fire of renewal. John the Baptist foretells the coming of the Messiah: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:16). Fire is often a symbol of God in the Old Testament, so the fire here that John is referring to is the powerful action of God the Holy Spirit in baptism. “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24), it says in Deuteronomy; or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
It’s a different kind of consumption: the Holy Spirit akin to the renewing fire of nature, warding off the catastrophe ahead. This fire purifies, burning away the dross and leaving the metal. As John says in our Gospel today, “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” (Lk. 3:17). The fire of the Holy Spirit cleanses and renews, clearing out the chaff within each of us, as new life emerges from the fire.
The poet T.S. Eliot wrote: “The dove descending breaks the air/ With flame of incandescent terror/ Of which the tongues declare/ The one discharge from sin and error. /The only hope, or else despair/ Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— /To be redeemed from fire by fire.” (Four Quartets). Eliot has in view the renewing fire of the Holy Spirit, and the sacrament of baptism, “the one discharge from sin and error,” as he conjures up both the tongues of fire at Pentecost, and the dove descending at Jesus’ own baptism by John in the river Jordan.
Advent is not only the season of the last things, but also a time of expectation and renewal. Today, members of St. David’s Church are renewing their own baptismal vows in the presence of the community, and receiving the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit. People throughout the Diocese of Tennessee are remembering St. David’s in prayer today, as the church gathers for this important event.
Today, we pray that God will kindle a fire of renewal within them, as they turn again to God in repentance and faith, and engage more deeply in service. God is at work in them, and in us, as we worship today. As the poet suggests, as Christians we are saved by fire from fire. There’s no other way! Through God’s power, we are saved by the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit who burns within us, cleansing our hearts and preparing us for what lies ahead.