John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Luke 3:7).
Over the thanksgiving holiday I spent a fair amount of time raking and bagging leaves. Trees that stand lush and green in the spring and summer punish me in the fall by letting go of their former beauty, leaving layers of brown debris for me to gather.
My neighbor was doing the same thing in his own yard. However, he has a stone fire pit into which he dumped his leaves and burned them. My kids, while doing forced labor with me, asked with thinly disguised envy, “Why can’t we burn our leaves?”
It’s a fair question. Burning leaves is legal in Cobb County. The issue isn’t that we can’t, but that we don’t. I’m not comfortable starting a fire in my own yard. That’s just me. I like the fact that fire can get rid of my leaves. But fire can do other things that I don’t like. So we rake and bag, rake and bag.
Fire is peculiar that way. It can be a source of light and heat. It can be fundamental to survival in a wilderness place. The warmth draws people together, builds community, allows for the making of “smores.” But fire can also burn and destroy.
John the Baptizer was a fiery preacher, but fiery in a way that drew people to him. I find this puzzling. John’s language was blunt and vivid and confrontational. He spoke of his congregation as a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7). He warned people that if their lives failed to produce good fruit they would be cut down and thrown into the fire (3:9). And yet, crowds went out to him from all over Judea (Mark 1:5) .
In seminary I wrote a paper on a fiery Baptist preacher who drew huge crowds in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1920s. J. Frank Norris openly excoriated immoral Fort Worth politicians; he ridiculed modernists, preaching against evolution with a live monkey next to the pulpit. Norris was at the center of scandal, tried for shooting a man to death in the church office. It was ruled self-defense and Norris was acquitted. This man was a blow-torch of a preacher. But he was mean. Plenty of spit and fire. Not much Jesus.
I suspect I’m not alone in connecting a fiery preacher with condemnation and unkindness. That’s too bad really. The unfortunate result of that connection is the lack of fire in many Christians. Most of us are very careful to avoid being like John the Baptizer. We avoid being fiery Christians and work hard at being relational and relevant.
The fire that scalds and singes and destroys is uncontrolled fire. There is a kind of fire that gives light and warmth and draws people in. That’s the kind of fire that the coming of Jesus ought to ignite among us. It burns just as hot as any flame, but it gives life to all who get close.
Maybe we should be less fearful of fire and more at home with spiritual zeal. The presence of Jesus ought to spark something in the soul that others will notice and be drawn toward. You can burn bright without scorching what’s around you. John told people to anticipate the coming of one who will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Passion, zeal, fervor – these are good things. Are they evident in your life?
Lord Jesus, you have called us to be salt and light. But we fear the zealot and shun the fanatic, and our fear renders us bland and even cold in this world. Cause us to burn with expectancy, eagerly looking for signs of your presence among us. Let the heat of our life with you be a source of light and warmth that draws in others, we pray. Amen.