Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Baby Who Bears

Christmas Eve 2007 • SJF • Tobias Haller BSG
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.+

How much can a baby bear? This is a question for all parents in the congregation, and for older brothers and sisters who may have been drafted to babysit when a new arrival came. How much can a baby bear? Well, if you know babies as I know babies (being the oldest of six children and often drafted as a babysitter) you know that babies are not the most patient sort of people.

But they are among the most honest. You know where you stand with a baby; you don’t have to guess; their intentions and opinions are unmistakable. When a baby is wet, or hungry, or colicky, the baby will let you know. Babies are among the fussiest of people, so when I ask, How much can a baby bear? the answer would appear to be, Not much!

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Yet tonight, this special night, we are told once more, as people have been told for two and a half thousand years, of the arrival of a baby who would bear everything, a baby who would take upon himself the whole weight of a fallen world. This little baby would take up the yoke of our burden, the bar from across our shoulders, and carry it with authority and ease — this amazing baby with the amazing names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

What a burden for a tiny child to carry! What a weight of responsibility to place upon a baby. And it would be, if this were just any baby. But this is not just any baby. This baby is special, marked as different from the very beginning. He was marked as different from any other newborn child, by wonders on the earth and signs in the heavens above: angels singing, stars shining, dreams and visions. But he was also marked as different by a very special sign, a sign that tells us volumes about who this baby was.

The wise men from the East were given a sign in keeping with their station. Eastern sages would naturally seek a sign in the stars, and so they received a suitably high-class, stellar guide to lead them to the child. But we’ll hear more about that in two weeks.

For tonight, we’re not dealing with eastern sages so impressive they came to be known as kings. No, tonight we’re dealing with simple shepherds, and the message, the sign, that they receive. The angels gave the shepherds a distinguishing mark to identify this one baby from among any others born that night in the overcrowded town of Bethlehem. And the sign was this: — he would not be lying in a decent cradle, in a decent house, warm and cozy by the fireside, but be found wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger.

You know, we hardly ever hear the word manger except at Christmas, so we tend to forget what a manger is. Let’s be blunt, as blunt as the Gospel: at his birth our Lord and Savior was wrapped in pieces of cloth and lying in a feed-trough in a barn. The sign the shepherds received was one they would recognize: the child would be like one of them, living rough, out in the cold. How much can a baby bear? This baby bore far more than most newborn children would put up with, right from the beginning; just as, when grown to manhood, he would bear far more than the sons of men are accustomed to accept.

That yoke of our burden, that bar across our shoulders, would become a cross this child would bear when grown to full estate. As Paul told Titus, “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people of his own...” How much can a baby bear? This baby would bear the sins of the whole world!

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Chuck Colson is a man who knows about sin, and about redemption. As you know, he was one of Tricky Dick Nixon’s henchmen in the Watergate fiasco, and he went to prison for his part in the plot. As you may also know, he experienced a change of heart and turned his life around, and became a spokesman for the power of God at work in us. I certainly don’t agree with everything he stands for, but on this we agree: God can work wonders even with unlikely material.

In his book Kingdoms in Conflict, he tells of that power of God at work in a child — and I want to share that story with you tonight as a challenge and a testimony: that if a child can show forth the power of God, surely we can do so too. In December 1983, in the city of Philadelphia an 11-year-old named Trevor Ferrell saw on the TV news a report on homelessness in his own city. He was astounded to learn that some people don’t have houses to live in. He asked his parents about this, and they admitted it was a tough world out there, but also agreed that their young son should learn more about it if he wished. So they drove downtown. As they drove past city hall, they saw someone huddled over a sidewalk grate for warmth. Think of that — just a block away from the seat of power and authority in one of the great cities of this great country, a man has to huddle over a sidewalk grate to keep warm, snatching at the shreds of second-hand warmth that ooze from underground — heat so little needed by the city it can afford to just let it leak out into the cold night.

Trevor asked his parents to stop and he went over to the man, and held out a blanket to him, saying, “Sir, this is for you.” Then man looked with some surprise, and then, taking the blanket, said, “Thank you; God bless you.”

This was a life-changing experience for that family. Over the next weeks, they continued nightly visits downtown, helping out a few people each time — and clearing their home of unused blankets and clothing. Word began to spread, and other people joined them, contributing a van and food and more clothes. What had started with one little boy became a campaign. Lots of people were fascinated by it and drawn to it — odd, isn’t it, that just doing what Jesus said we should do should make the news and attract so much attention. But it did. And when the likes ofMother Teresa and Ronald Reagan heard about it and asked the boy why he did it, the answer was simple and obvious Trevor said, “It’s Jesus inside me that makes me want to do it.”

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Well, if an 11-year-old from Philadelphia can do so much with Jesus inside of him, how much more can and did the Son of God incarnate himself, in human flesh appearing! That little body, that little baby, lying in a feed-trough in the middle of winter, out in the barn behind the inn with “No Vacancy” plastered to the door — that little body, that little baby, embodies all the past of a struggling, fallen humanity, and all the hope of deliverance for the future. The newborn Christ is like the narrow point of an hourglass — small and fragile, connecting the sins of the past with the hope of the future. He is the point at which all that’s been said and done for good or ill is narrowed down to rest upon his shoulders, to be carried forward in sacrifice and grace, to be borne up in endless possibilities. This is why the Christ Child is the center of hope: he is the present upon which both past and future rest, like the two arms of a balance beam, or a yoke, or the arms of the cross.

How much can a baby bear? This baby, this Christ Child, can bear us all in his everlasting arms. And even as we are held by him, so too he is held by us, inside of us, as little Trevor said, in our hearts to warm us and work his power in us. So let us then, beloved in Christ, be born anew this Christmas night; let us lay the grief of the past upon the shoulders of this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Prince of Peace; let us feel his warmth in our hearts, and not keep it to ourselves, but open our hearts to others, and our closets and pantries and pocketbooks and wallets — to help all of those our sisters and brothers who share in Christ’s image but have yet to share in the bounty we enjoy; and let us look toward the dawn of a new birth of hope, of joy, and of believing in him — who is the only-begotten of his heavenly Father, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Human Sign

Saint James Fordham • Advent 4a • Tobias Haller BSG

The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

In the days before the Internet, before television, and long before they started showing commercials in movie theaters, one of the most effective and common kinds of advertisement was called “the sandwich board.” Nowadays sandwich boards have returned with their original purpose, whiteboards or blackboards standing like little A-frames outside of restaurants with the specials of the day written in chalk or multi-colored marker.

Once long ago, some unknown restauranteur got the bright idea to make this fixed sign mobile, and for a few dollars a day, hired a man to wear this sign over his shoulders, and walk up and down the crowded street. No doubt the first few times this happened people were astonished and took notice, and even followed this odd human signpost back to the restaurant for lunch or dinner. But eventually, as more and more cafes took up the idea, and the streets became as crowded with human signposts as with potential customers, the effectiveness wore off, and sandwich boards went back to their place by the doorway.

Although I must confess that just a few weeks ago I encountered someone, not with a sandwich-board, but holding an old fashioned sign on a stick, on the corner of Fifty-Second Street, pointing the way to Hamburger Heaven hidden half-way down the block. (And the hamburgers were heavenly! But I’d never have known about the restaurant without that sign on a stick.)

I noticed the sign chiefly because it was unusual. Most places have given up on the “walking” sandwich board or the hand-held sign. We’ve seen the same kind of fading effect with the banner ads that appear on websites and intrude into our e-mail. The more we see them, the more they become a nuisance, and finally a bore, so that we hardly even see them anymore. We employ other software to prevent their even appearing! And as with the passing of the sandwich boards, new means of advertising have to be sought out. Just as the human signposts of the last century were soon out of work again, so too the internet ad companies struggle and founder to find new ways to purvey their virtual wares.

This is one of the inherent problems in advertising, and with signs of any sort. They may catch our attention at first, but after a while we become used to them, become bored by them, so that they cease being signs — that is, being significant — and just become a blur in the background.

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And yet still we long for signs. There are few things worse than being lost out on the road, map in hand, but without a single street sign to let you know where you are, so that you can use the map to find out how to get where you want to be. You know those signs in shopping malls— the ones that are so helpful because the first thing they show, the first thing you look for, is that all-important arrow and the words “You Are Here” — words that show you where you are so that you can figure out how to get to where you want to go. And with the increasing use of Tom-Toms and Garmins and other such electronic GPS marvels, we can carry around an electronic map that always shows us to be at the center of a virtual world, and will even tell us where to go!

God knows we long for such signs, signs that tell us where we are, to help us find the way to where we want to be. This is so not just in our ordinary daily life but in our spiritual journey as well. If only there were a GPS that monitored our spiritual location and told us how to get to where we needed to be!

God knows just how much we need such pointers on the way, so much so that once long, long ago, God commanded King Ahaz of Judah, worried half to death over the new alliance between Syria and Israel to his north, to ask for a sign from the Lord his God. When Ahaz refused to ask, God said through the prophet Isaiah that God himself would provide a sign. And this sign would not be a wonder of fire from the heavens, nor a pillar of smoke arising from the depths of the earth, but something different, something human, a human sign. A young woman, already pregnant, would have a child, and give him the singular name Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” And before that child would be old enough to reject evil and choose good, God would deal with Israel and Syria by bringing disaster upon them in the form of the king of Assyria, who would destroy them both and carry their inhabitants off to exile.

Now, this human sign must have been just as, if not more, startling than walking sandwich boards the first time they appeared, and for precisely the same reason. We are not used to human signs. In those days people were used to signs made of stone or wood or cast metal, as much as we now are used to signs made up of lights or flashing on the screens of our computers or the GPS on the dashboard. We are not used to signs made of human flesh and blood.

But this was precisely the sort of sign that God chose to give to King Ahaz, the sign of the infant who would not be grown out of childhood before the world would radically change and two kingdoms fall. And more importantly for us, this is the sort of sign that God chose to give again some seven hundred years later, a sign to another Judean faced with doubts, though of a more domestic nature, but a sign that would be as high above Joseph’s worries as those concerns were below the affairs of state that so sorely troubled King Ahaz.

For Joseph’s concern with Mary was of a private, household nature: he had discovered his wife-to-be was pregnant. Being a kind-hearted man — but no fool — he had decided to deal with the matter quietly, saving her and her parents, and himself, serious embarrassment. Yet within this little domestic drama in first century Palestine, a story so low-key it would scarcely make the cut in a modern soap opera, within this family drama God suddenly enters in, raising it from domestic to cosmic. For the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph to tell him that this is no ordinary human situation. No, this is quite extraordinary — nothing less than the power of God made real in human flesh. This is completely unexpected and unusual — nothing less than the entry of the Holy Spirit into the daily lives of men and women through the actions of ordinary men and women, and most especially through the birth and life of one extraordinary child who would grow to become an extraordinary man. And they would call him Emmanuel — God is with us — and they would name him Jesus — Savior!

So it was that God, who once spoke in visions and celestial signs, in this latter age spoke to us in person — in a person, his own beloved Son, begotten of a woman through the power of the Holy Spirit, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins. God in Christ marks the world with an indelible sign: You are Here, because he is “God with us,” and he shows us how to get to where we need to go, because he is the Way, the Way who leads us in peace to salvation.

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So it is that we have received a sign from the hand of God, but not a sign fixed to one place like the signs outside of restaurants. This is a sign that moves where it wills and reaches us wherever we may be — it is the very spiritual GPS I spoke of before, the thing we most need when we stray from the path. And guess what — we all got one for Christmas. It is right here in our hearts, if we will let Christ in; and if we listen to his voice, he will tell us how to follow him. This is a sign that seeks us out and finds us to tell us that there is something to eat and drink of which we did not know. There is food for salvation, there is a table spread and places set for us, and we need do no more than follow this human sign back to the banquet, the festival meal of those called to be saints.

On this final Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas Eve, we begin to get the glimmer of that human sign’s arrival. Christmas is almost here. Let us not in the bustle of the packages and wrapping paper, in the shower of credit card bills that suddenly appear out of nowhere in the new year, in the crowd of myriad Santa Clauses and the preponderance of reindeers, amidst the trifling whimsey of elves and the militant cheerfulness of insistent jingle bells — let us not in the midst of this sensory overload neglect or overlook the one important sign that God has given us, that human sign, that infant sign, the sign of the child born in Bethlehem, born to be God with us, and to save us from our sins.+

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Waiting Game

St James Fordham • Advent 3a • Tobias Haller BSG
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.+

This Sunday has a nickname, a nickname that has been around for a long time. “Rejoice Sunday” — or, in Latin, “Gaudete.” This Sunday is the Advent opening parenthesis that will find its mate next spring in Lent’s “Laetare” — or “Be happy” — Sunday; the pair of them sending a message not unlike Anglican songster Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Into the midst of this royal purple season of Advent, a rosy intrusion makes its way, and the day takes on a rose-tinged hue — including the vestments. We are given a verbal and visual command: Lighten up! We set aside for a moment the stern admonitions of John the Baptist, calls to repent and flee the coming wrath of God. And we turn to a gentler vision of a more upbeat world to come, a world foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, a world whose reality began to take shape in the ministry of Jesus, a world in which blind people see, lame folk walk, lepers are cleansed, deaf people hear, dead people are raised, and the poor hear the good news.

This is the lighter side of Advent, the rose-colored glasses view of the life of the world to come: a laid-back, sunny afternoon kind of Advent, fresh with the surprising fragrance and color of a rose blooming on the verge of winter, the thirst-quenching miracle of a spring appearing and welling up in the middle of the desert of our lives.

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But there is another nickname for this Sunday, and it captures the other side of the Advent spirit. This Sunday is also known as “Stir up” Sunday, because of the phrase in the collect of the day: “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Now, that’s a more familiar kind of Advent, the Advent of breathless expectation, of the imminent nearness of the Lord’s coming. As Saint James says in today’s epistle, “the coming of the Lord is near... the judge is standing at the doors!” and it’s as if the door has opened and a sudden draft of frigid air has invaded the cozy warmth of our living room, setting the candles to flickering, and causing us to draw our scarves up around our shoulders.

The warning of our Lord’s impending arrival is likely to cause that shiver up the neck that is the unmistakable sign of the presence of the Holy. It is the physical intimation that the tremendous and mysterious is just around the corner, or standing just outside, knocking at our door.

However, lest we jump immediately to our feet, Saint James, somewhat paradoxically, also tells us to be patient. “Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” So it is that on this Sunday we find ourselves caught in the middle, in the world of “already but not yet.” This is the paradoxical time of the church on earth; the in-the-mean-time, in-between time, the time between our Lord’s first coming and his second.

On this Sunday we are reminded that we are the Church Expectant as much as Militant: the Waiting Church, the Watching Church, who knows it has an appointment with its Master, but doesn’t know the date. And the advice James gives us, to be patient in the midst of anticipation, might seem a bit like the old army slogan: “Hurry up and wait.” Until, that is, we look more closely at the kind of waiting, the kind of patience, that Saint James advises.

The patient waiting that Saint James counsels is not mind-numbing waiting in lines at city hall, the bank, or the crowded shop in which everyone wants to pay with an expired credit card or with a check but no i.d.! It is not the anxious waiting by the telephone or the mailbox for a long-delayed but promised call or letter. No, the waiting patience Saint James counsels is the patience of a farmer waiting for crops to grow. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” That’s a very different kind of patience, a very special kind of patience, the patience of expectation, the patience of hope. For hopeful expectation is not merely waiting, it is waiting with a purpose and for a promise, a promise not of what we will do, but a promise of what will be done for us.

The purpose of a farmer’s wait, as well as its promise, is the crop. The farmer is purposeful in preparing for the crop, and looks to the promise of the harvest on the basis of his past work — the work of planting, and on the basis of God’s present and future work, the work of growth, nurtured through the sending of the early and late rains to nourish the seed as it lies in hiding underground and mysterious. There, in hidden darkness, it sends out roots long before the green blade spears its way through the clods of soil, and the miraculous sprouts of spring reveal what has been going on beneath the earth; and then on through the growth and ripening of summer to produce a crop a hundred-fold greater than the mere handfuls strewn upon the soil the year before. And this work of waiting, this waiting game, takes patience. It takes hope and confidence and trust — confidence and trust in the knowledge that while nothing may appear on the surface of the field until spring comes, that long before, throughout the patient waiting winter, God’s secret work is being done underground.

Nothing could be unhappier than an impatient farmer, a farmer without purpose or promise, a farmer who just can’t wait! This is a lesson that we human beings learned in the age of our innocence, when impatient Adam and Eve plucked the fruit of wisdom before its time, and learned by the sweat of their brows the hard truths of agriculture. For as human beings moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers they began to develop for the first time a sense of time itself — and with it, the limits of their mortality.

For agriculture requires foresight and patience, it moves with the seasons, it marks the times of the rising and the setting of the sun and the waxing and waning of the moon; and takes account of the early and the late rains. When human beings took that step in their cultural development, they also took a step into a world in which time took on a different sort of meaning, a meaning with which they were engaged at the level of their own survival.

For a farmer who wants a crop come harvest time must plant at planting time, not the day before the harvest. And the wise farmer must plan to make use of the seasonal rains, working to intersect and mesh with the workings of the cosmos, the seasonal changes of the climate, the very movements of the heavens and the earth.

So the waiting game is part of the farmer’s job, not incidental to the task. Imagine an impatient farmer digging up the seeds to check their roots, or, when the wheat first pokes through the soil, grabbing hold of it to make it grow by tugging on it! All that farmer will do is damage and destroy the crop. The wise farmer is patient and knows that the work of growth takes time, and that there are other things to be busy with while waiting for the crop to sprout, grow, and ripen.

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We too, the Church of God, are in the waiting game as well. We sow the seed of the word of God in the fertile soil of the world, a world hungry for the bread of the good news, hungry for spiritual nourishment, but impatient and demanding in its clamorous hunger. Some religious leaders in our world respond with similar haste and impatience. And it isn’t only terrorists who push God’s hand as they imagine they can hasten God’s judgement, or fanatical cultists who seek to speed the day of the Lord with nerve gas or bacteria.

Some even in our own Anglican tradition have fallen into the impatience of haste, the urge to take upon themselves the mantle of the just judge, to purify the world (or the Anglican Communion, at least) by getting rid of those deemed less than righteous by their standards, who use the word of God not to feed the spiritually hungry, but as a hammer to batter those they judge as sinful. In doing this they have neglected the wisdom of Saint James. He warned the members of the church not to judge each other, not to grumble against each other, but to stand patiently before the tribunal of the Lord, the only truly and completely righteous one, the one and only just judge of the world.

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This is the Advent time in which we live, the secret, growing, waiting time of the Church. We live in the in-between time of purpose and promise, the time between the coming of our Lord as a child to Bethlehem, and his coming as righteous judge of the world and all who dwell in it. Whether we experience this in-between time as frustrating because we don’t see anything happening, or not happening fast enough, or as full of purpose and promise will depend in large part on our relationship with God and with each other.

If we are full of the spirit of vengeance, the zeal for judgement, we will find the waiting difficult. If we are full of the impatience that will not allow the subterranean work of God to accomplish God’s goals in God’s good time, if — obsessed with self-study and self-examination — we insist on digging up and digging up the seed to see how well it is doing, so that it never gets a chance to put down roots and grow; if we become consumed with grumbling about each other, judging each other, or angrily tapping our feet at God’s delay and forbearance, we will find our lives filled with anxiety and grief. But if we adopt the patient hope of the wise farmer’s waiting, placing our trust in God’s ultimate victory over all that is less than perfect even in our selves, indeed most especially in ourselves, if we carefully set our hands to our work of husbandry and watchful care, concentrating on the work God has actually given us to do — to feed the hungry with earthly and heavenly bread — we will find at harvest time a rich reward.

We will find that all the things we thought were wrong have been taken care of — by God. We will find that the people we thought so dense and dull, so blind they couldn’t see what was right in front of them, will see clearly — and we ourselves will see things that we missed while we were busy picking splinters from our brother’s eyes.

We will find that we can walk in places we had once avoided, or that we thought off-limits, and that those who couldn’t walk at all are dancing in the streets to music we didn’t even know was playing.

We will find that all the people thought impure, all the afflicted and all the stigmatized, will be freed from the marks of separation that distinguished the in-crowd from the outcasts, and no one will be able to tell who was who, we will all be so changed, so transformed into a new likeness.

We will find that those who seemed deaf to God’s word will be the most attentive audience of all; and we will find that all of us, dead in our sins, will be more alive than we ever dreamed or imagined possible, as we sing and rejoice together at the harvest of the good news, a harvest as paradoxical as a spring flowing in the desert, as unexpected as the blooming of a rose on the verge of winter, as miraculous as the birth of God in a manger or in our hearts. +

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fire Insurance

Saint James Fordham • Advent 1a • Tobias Haller BSG
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to awake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.+

“You know what time it is.” With these words, Saint Paul assures the Romans that the cosmic alarm clock has gone off, it is time to wake up; that the night is far gone and the day is near, by which he means the day of the Lord. And every three years, as the church works through its cycle of Scripture readings, we hear these same words on the First Sunday of Advent.

Immediate urgency is the theme of Advent, whose watchword is Watch! Wake up! Be on your toes! But because we hear these words of warning over and over year by year, we risk losing the sense of immediate urgency they are intended to convey. The events of the last few years have shown us that we had best indeed be on our toes — who would have thought that such a terrifying apocalypse would come falling upon us from the skies one sunshine-bright and peaceful Tuesday morning in September? And yet we risk becoming complacent, as the government continues to issue vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks, color coded but unexplained, with no specifics as to when and where or what or how. And our weariness at being constantly on the yellow or orange alert causes us to lower our defenses instead of raising them, and we become numb instead of sensitized.

We risk the same with Saint Paul’s message, and the even more chilling message of the gospel. We risk falling into a spirit of complacency because, after all, these warnings were given 2,000 years ago and nothing’s happened yet — or so we think. But look at the horror of the Gospel message, and see if it doesn’t relate to how you felt that Tuesday morning six years ago; see if it doesn’t awaken some of that feeling of terror.

People are going about their lives, minding their own business, just as in Noah’s day. They are busy at their places of work, in the field or in the home. And then the attack comes, the attack from on high, and the mortality rate is fifty percent, one of every two is taken! Doesn’t that fill you with dread, dread of the judgment ready to fall and you haven’t got your case in order; dread of the fire to come, and you don’t have fire insurance?

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Well, brothers and sisters, the good news in all of this is that we do have fire insurance, fire insurance against the judgment and against the fire of hell. It is the fire insurance that Saint Paul describes as the armor of light. With this armor we can fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hell with the fire of love. For the fire of love burns hotter and brighter and longer than the fire of hate and evil. The fire of love is fed by the power of God, the power of Love which fulfills the Law that spelled out death and judgement for us in letters of stone; the fire of love that transforms the dead letter of the Law into the living spirit of action and charity.

It is by the firelight of love that we stay awake and watch for the coming of our Lord. We keep that fire burning, that protecting light that keeps at bay the monsters of the night, the evil that seeks our hurt and harm, the evil that dwells in the darkness of human hearts, including our own. It is into that darkness that the light of the fire of love must shine if we are to be armed and ready with the armor of light in the strength of Christ, to be prepared for his coming. For the fire of love does not just illuminate, it cleanses and purifies and protects.

When a forest fire threatens to destroy a town, what do the brave fire rangers do? We saw them do it just a few months ago out west. It is something that seems illogical at first: they start another fire! They lay down a new fire in the path of the fire they want to stop, a controlled fire to burn up the fuel and create a barrier against the uncontrolled fire that is threatening to destroy the town. This is how you fight fire with fire, fight the fire of hate and hell with the fiery armor of light, the fire of love.

Do you have the fuel of resentment in your heart? Put it in the fire of love. Let the fire of love consume the fears and angers that nourish the fire of hate. Do you have a loved one enslaved by drink or drugs, a husband with a wandering eye, a wife that’s a trial to you, a job that you hate, a child that has strayed from the right path, or parents that quarrel and never seem to stop fighting, a friend or family member with whom you’ve had a falling out? Do you have any of these painful resentments, of these hurtful quarrels or jealousies, stored up in your heart?

Well, put your pain and resentment in the fire of love, and let love consume the fuel of resentment that nourishes the flames of hell. Let the fire of love create an armor of light to protect you and shield you from the power of evil, the power that destroys.

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Let us look well to ourselves, for we cannot control the acts of others — we can only choose not to resent, not to curse, not to respond in kind. We can choose rather to walk away from quarrels and contentions, to return harsh words with words of welcome and truth, and to look within our own hearts and burn up and away all resentment and hurt.

And as we look into our hearts, we will see and know far more our own guilt, our own wrongdoing, as we look to the dark spots in our own hearts, where there is plenty of fuel to burn. Shakespeare, the greatest English poet and dramatist, captured this human task in an unforgettable scene in his most famous play, Hamlet. The Prince was striving to raise his mother’s consciousness to the evil she had done, allowing herself to ignore the obvious murder of her husband, and worse, to marry his murderer. And Hamlet implored his mother to look into her own heart. When she did, she saw her sins and wept, and said to Hamlet, she felt as if her heart was being cut in two. At which Hamlet gave that sage advice, advice that echoed the Gospel warning, to throw away the worser part.

We are challenged this Advent, and every step of our Christian journey, to look into our own hearts and find what is wrong there, then to cast off that dark work, to tear out the worser part and burn it, along with all resentments, in the fire of love.

Do I nurse thoughts of hate? Do I place myself first in pride, taking another’s place just because I want it? Do I take more care of myself than my neighbor, taking advantage instead of giving freely? Am I inwardly divided in myself between what I know is right, and what I want in spite of it all?

Jesus tells the disciples, that of the two men in the field and the two women at the mill one will be taken and the other left. And we, as we wrestle with our own inner faults, are we not each of us like two people, two people wrestling to do good but wanting to be bad? Aren’t our hearts sometimes torn in two by our desires at war with our better conscience? So as Hamlet said to his mother: throw away the worser part, let it be burned in the fire of love. If we place all of our fears and failings in the fire of love, it will burn them up, to protect us and insure us against the fire of hell.

Whatever is wrong, whatever is a work of darkness, resentment or quarrel or jealousy, strike it down and burn it with the fire of love, the refiner’s fire that purifies.

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Look at the world. We hope for peace, yet the conflicts still continue; the world is torn asunder; nation lifts sword against nation like nobody’s business. Many have fallen into complacency, satisfied with half measures, for this is the way of the world, eating and drinking, making love and making war, unprepared for the coming end which will sweep it all away, just as in Noah’s day.

We have no excuse to be unprepared. We have received not only a warning, but a promise. For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it and never shall, for the light of God burns bright with the fire of love. And we have been offered the shining armor of light that reflects God’s glory, a glory in which all of us can share through Jesus Christ, a glory into which we are baptized and sealed by the fire of love through the Holy Spirit.

God has revealed his glory to us, and given us a share in that glory, that fire of love that destroys the fire of hell, that armor of light that ensures our salvation, and overcomes the darkness of fear and death in the far gone night and the day drawn near, to reveal God’s glory in the face of Christ, the glory of the only begotten Son of the Father in heaven, full of grace and truth — and in whose Name we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come!+