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Unquenchable Fire – Br. Keith Nelson

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Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 3:7-18

There was a time before the web of language was woven
before the rope of words
before symbols, those fine, strong threads, were spun –
it was long, long ago, but you remember.
Arouse your ancient memory and inward beholding,
You Homo Sapiens, You Wise One, to behold:
Fire.

Before the web of language, the rope of words or the thread of symbols, fine and
strong, there simply was the bare Thingness of the Thing that bears the name “Fire.”

Stoke the embers of recognition, burning deep in our primordial night.
Unforgettably, in our bones, the barest imagination of it
warms fingertips, summons blood, quiets the mind, enfolds the gaze…
or prepares the legs to flee.

But now, You Child of God, search deeper, touch the bedrock of being, and
recollect another Fire:

Before smoke or ash or kindling
Before the first hearth or altar
Before the first offering
Before pure and impure
there was a Fire you cannot see or touch but that you are made to long for.
Before wrath or fear –
Before mercy or love –
Before death or judgment or heaven or hell –
Before the beginning and after the end: there was this Fire,
The Unquenchable Fire in the Heart of God,
a God Who is Love.

Few things are so simultaneously immediate and ethereal as fire. Fire grounds us in the earthy simplicity of creaturely need, even as it beckons our spirits to rise and dance along with it. The fine, strong threads of symbol have woven Fire into the warp and weft of all that is human. In the life of the Church, the symbolic poignancy of fire has offered a treasury of grace and meaning. But the faithful have also brandished fire’s metaphorical meanings like a torch to threaten or to damn. First century Judaism smoldered with a complex mixture of fiery themes as many increasingly awaited a Messiah. As followers of Christ appropriated these themes, his much desired Second Coming shaped their hopes. Destroying fire from heaven became a sign of the Last Judgment, and the attendant destruction of the cosmos as we know it. God’s imagined anger, wrath, or vengeance were likened to destructive, uncontrollable fire as they read the Prophets and received their own apocalyptic visions. But the creative, life-giving, unquenchable fire with which God longs for our faithful surrender – the gentle fire of the gospel of Love – remained alive and burning alongside these fierce and challenging streams.

I’d like to suggest that the Church loses its sense of perspective if it fails to remember that fire is, essentially, a symbol of God’s Power. Not wrath, not anger, not vengeance, but Power. Not even Power over, but Power for and power with. God’s power inspires the fierce urgency of our need to choose the Way of Jesus over self-willed separation. This fire is real, because it illumines the consequences of our God-given power of freedom. We must handle it with sober caution. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”; this fire reminds us of that truth.[i]On the other hand, the Power of God is unshakably rooted in God’s forgiving love and mercy: “The LORD your God in in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love,” sings the prophet Zephaniah.[ii]This fire too, is real, because it bestows on us the power to give ourselves away. In the words of the Song of Songs, “Love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.”[iii]

From God’s vantage point, I would venture to say that these fires are one and the same. Under the influence of its heat, even now, fear melts into reverent awe; love warms and trembles with breathless wonder. Fear becomes not servile and stunting, but formative and holy. Love no longer tears at ego or whimpers for rewards, but becomes a new gravitational center, a permanent posture of unbounded self-gift. This is the true fire of God’s righteous Judgment, burning like an ember in the manger; like a shower of new sparks at our Baptism; and like a furnace of irresistible power at the final Unveiling, enfolding all things in Christ, who will be all in all.[iv]

For now, we (mostly) know the power of holy fear and holy love as a dynamic tension between opposing forces. Holy fear gives rise to swift repentance for our sins and the humility of conversion’s endless work; but it can exhaust us to stand guard at every moment, vigilant for the Lord’s return. Meanwhile, Holy Love can feel like unrequited longing, the unfinished symphony of life on this side of eternity, the promise of rest to an insomniac. While we see through a glass dimly, three out of four candles flicker in the dark. While fear is crouched at the starting line ready to sprint, love is patiently running a marathon.

Luke’s depiction of the ministry of John the Baptist quite intentionally engages this dynamic tension. Later words and events in Luke’s gospel amplify or comment on this passage in light of the unfolding ministry of Jesus. That ministry both is and isn’t what John prophesies it to be. John invokes the power of fire three times, as he reads the work of love that is yet to be. John’s and Jesus’s words have much to teach about the union of holy fear and love.

John is a prophet – for us Christians, he is the figure who sums up the energies and message of all the Prophets of Israel – John, the Forerunner of the Lord. Jesus, too, is called a prophet by those in his cultural milieu, but his life and ministry will far exceed the bounds of that traditional role.

Here are John’s first fiery words: “Even now the ax 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.”[v] Jesus will also teach about good fruit and bad in Luke’s chapter six: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit.”[vi] There is a similar emphasis on the consequences of thoughts and actions and the undeniable evidence of our fruits, bearing testimony to the quality of intention in our lives. But Jesus will tell a parable about a barren fig tree that could easily be a commentary on John’s hard stance:

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on it and have found none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.[vii]

Jesus’s fundamental stance is to wait; to tend; to apply therapeutic rather than punitive measures; to favor time and fertilizer over the axe. This is the love of the gardener – not to consign the tree to destroying fire until every other measure has been exhausted.

Here is John’s second mention of fire: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[viii]

John’s words plant a seed that blossoms fully at Pentecost. The writer of both Luke and Acts will depict the descent of the Holy Spirit as powerful wind and divided tongues of life-giving, creative flame. But between John’s prophecy and Pentecost, the ministry of Jesus is elusively summarized by Jesus in Luke’s twelfth chapter: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”[ix] A version of this saying is found in Matthew, as well as the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, which reads, “Jesus said, ‘I have cast fire upon the world, and behold, I am guarding it until it blazes.’”[x]

Setting aside this enigmatic fire for a moment, we may ask, “What’s this baptismal imagery?” Jesus has already been baptized, by John, in water. He now refers to the ultimate test of his calling: the final week of his life, in Jerusalem. Jesus will be immersed – drowned – in the fire of his Passion and crucifixion. He will pass through the fires of human wrath – at the cost of his life.

I read the enigmatic fire that Jesus brings to the earth as is his Love – a Love utterly purged of sentimentality, thoroughly resistant to human manipulation, and impossible to control. This is a Love with teeth, not a hearth fire but a wild fire. On the cross, it will seem to be extinguished. At the Resurrection it will leap forth from darkness and ash. At Pentecost it will be bequeathed to each and every one of Jesus’s followers as living flame, making our hearts its resting place.

Finally, here is John’s third mention of fire: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[xi]

I have spoken of the complementarity of holy fear and holy love. But at this point I want to refine this point in a crucial way. Love is eternal: radiantly glimpsed in the midst of life, radiantly beheld in the life to come. Fear is provisional – good at the necessary role it performs until there is no more need. Perhaps Love stands before us and pulls, while fear stands behind us and pushes. While these two exert a complementary tension in life, all the evidence at hand points to a vital transformation of that dynamic in the life to come. John offers us some clues.

Chaff is a dry, protective casing. While synonyms for chaff include garbage, dross, rubbish, or trash, its character is much different only moments before the grain and husk are separated – when husk is essential. What if the grain and chaff in question are not righteous or wicked individuals, as one common interpretation presumes, but the Love and Fear, which, together, have helped us navigate the perilous journey? It is our Love that God wants in his granary, however falteringly we have expressed it in life and however mixed our motives have been. Love is eternal, and at the last, our Love will participate in the eternity of its Source.  Fear, even holy fear, is provisional. When we are enfolded into the heart of God, holy fear will have done its work. But the unquenchable fire that will consume it will not be a garbage incinerator, but the Fire of God’s very heart. The fact that John would probably not have understood his own words in this way does not preclude us from hearing in them the good news of the Messiah.

This is a strange Sunday in the course of the liturgical year. Expectant joy and visions of terror slosh together in a heady perfume. Trees and rivers clap their hands at the coming judgement of the Lord. Roses nestle, improbably, alongside bristly pinecones. The brightly burning promise of Christmas draws ever closer. And against all sense and reason we cry out for  holy fire to descend, to ignite, to consume, to consummate. This is the white-hot flame that the poet T. S. Eliot describes in words, now immortal, inspired by Julian of Norwich:

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.[xii]


[i]Psalm 111:10 & Proverbs 9:10.

[ii]Zephaniah 3:17.

[iii]Song of Solomon 8:6-7.

[iv]Colossians 3:11 & 1 Corinthians 15:28.

[v]Luke 3:9.

[vi]Luke 6:43-44.

[vii]Luke 13:6-9.

[viii]Luke 3:16.

[ix]Luke 12:49

[x]Thomas logion 10.

[xi]Luke 3:17.

[xii]T.S. Eliot. “Little Gidding” V, fromFour Quartets. Eliot borrowedthe now deservedly famous quotation, “All shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” which refers to the final consummation of all things in Christ, from Julian of Norwich, a 14thc. visionary and anchoress (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 27).

An insightful reflection on this oft-quoted phrase of Julian’s, by the Rt. Rev. Graham Jones, can be found here: https://www.orderofjulian.org/Article—All-Shall-Be-Well

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