Saturday, 12 December 2009


I'm thinking about Luke 3:7-18. A friend mentioned a brood of vipers and I went to look it up, early yesterday morning, and it's been rattling around in my skull since.

It's not an easy text, you see. I don't have to preach on it this Sunday -- and I don't think I'm really made for the pulpit anyway. But difficult texts like this make me itch, and I scratch away at them.

It's a bit of a hellfire sandwich, this passage. The middle bit is alright, really.
And the crowds asked him [John the Baptist], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

That's not so bad, really. I don't measure up to that (I have at least three coats) but I can see the principle behind it, I can accept that I should act that way. I think maybe I do a little better with the food. John's response to the tax-collectors and the soldiers is similar: act justly. That seems pretty plain to me, even if it isn't always easy to do faithfully.

But look at what comes before: those parts of the tree that do not bear good fruit will be cut off, thrown into the fire. Look at what comes later: a baptism of fire, the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. Scary stuff.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
This is good news? Getting burned in unquenchable fire? Being cut off from the tree?

So I read back a bit. Just before this passage we have some information that gives time context, and then this:
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

It's that last bit I'm interested in. Isaiah says all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Not just the people who manage to be good. Not just the people who manage to follow the commandments. Not just the people who believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah, the Son of God, God's incarnation on earth... all flesh.

That doesn't seem very consistent, does it?

But if Isaiah can be a poet, surely John the Baptist can, too. Maybe these texts aren't as contradictory as they seem. Maybe the tree which will be cut and tossed into the fire is not one of flesh, but one of actions. Maybe the winnowing of the grain, the chaff which will be consumed doesn't refer to people who miss the mark, but to their thoughts and deeds.

What happens to a piece of paper if you put it into a fire? It gives off some light and some heat, goes up in smoke and dissipates. Is this imagery about the erasure of our mistakes? The generosity of God in overlooking our sins, in taking all that we think and say and do and saying the screw-ups don't count? A selection process, a purification process, pruning all that which is not good in the eyes of God and leaving only love?

Perhaps. But then where do the "bad bits" go? Eternal, unquenchable fire? Is this what salvation looks like?

Modern science tells us that if you burn a piece of paper it doesn't cease to exist, not really. It doesn't exist in a form we'd identify as paper, any more, but each atom still has to go somewhere. They still exist, they've just been re-configured, re-arranged, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle taken apart and scattered on a table.

Maybe this baptism of unquenchable fire is not a process of erasure or purification but one of transformation. Even our mistakes, through God's grace, can be transformed into good. Our thoughts, words, deeds; our relationships, our projects, our dreams; our bodies, scarred and hurting or hale (whole!) and healthy: all will be changed, all will be forged into God's loving purpose, all will be made anew. We are not cut off. We are not rejected. We are transformed. That's how strong God's love is.

And all flesh shall see his salvation.


Ernest said...


A difficult text indeed!

Promises of Hell, Fire and Brimstone for those who are thrown into it. My view on Hell is not necessarily burning in it, rather a permanent separation from the Love and Glory of God in eternity, which is the promise to us if we repent and follow him.

Some aspects of scripture which has been taken literally in the past, but are I believe are understood in a different way - as all scripture is read and interpreted for successive generations to be applied to their lives in their conditions today.

I think that "All flesh will see the Salvation of the Lord" is a promise to us - which gives us hope. Which we all can have in God's great mercy.

Not an easy path, but I cannot find anywhere in scripture where it is promised to be easy.

Digging into scripture and even taking it apart word by word is sometimes, not a past time for the faint hearted or easily deterred - but doing it is essential to our growth and attempt to come understanding of God's purpose for us, which is unfathomable and completely unpredictable.

I have learned never to plan on anything, as it will invariably turn out differently - I live from day to day in expectation and hope - perhaps that is what we are here fore?

it's margaret said...

Well --you just did preach! Quite well, too!

Sometimes I think the writers and compilers of the gospels used John as an icon of comparison. John is full of transactional stuff --do this, and earn salvation. That is simplistic, yes, but it is what he is saying --clean yourselves up! the big guy's a-coming.

Compare that good news with what Jesus says --who forgives and forgives --walks among us before we have repented, receives us as friends before we "get it," before we clean ourselves up....

In this time of pre-Christmas preparation, a little bit of Old Covenant/New Covenant comparison is a good thing... so we know what is changing, and John the Baptizer is certainly preaching the Old Covenant way.

The New Covenant is about Grace.... before we are ready --while we are sitting around in the field, going about kneading bread and the like....

What think ye?

Song in my Heart said...

Ernest -- how about "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" ? Although to me right now it doesn't feel particularly so. Maybe it is heavy and light at the same time, impossible and effortless at once. I'm attempting something huge, something I know will fail, and yet... compared to the alternatives it seems to be the only way forward.

Margaret, I have difficulty with the old/new dichotomy. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. In my heart that means God's love for us is eternal, and existed before the historical events of the Incarnation. We might be time-bound but God isn't! But sure, certainly, people's understanding changed. We're not so much talking about the God of Armies people had come to expect, our ideas about victory are not necessarily the same as God's.

I'm not familiar enough with scripture to be able to generalise about John. I have further thoughts but will have to come back to them later.

it's margaret said...

Song --yes, dichotomy--dualism. Yes, I have real trouble with that too. And, it is particularly poor of me to imply that there is no grace in the Old Covenant.

But the thought that we can 'fix' it --which is what John's thought implies --we can 'do' it, clean up, follow all the rules... earn our way to salvation.... that is what I am sooooo tired of. Be good and God will save you. Quite different from the promise in Jesus. He begins with God loves you. That is the compare/contrast I was driving at.

Blessed Monday, Song.
Thank you again for your post.