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>1 In those days John the Baptist came to the Judean wilderness and began preaching. His message was, 2 “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near. ” 3 The prophet Isaiah was speaking about John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him!’”
4 John’s clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. 5 People from Jerusalem and from all of Judea and all over the Jordan Valley went out to see and hear John. 6 And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River.
11 “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God
So we’ve been talking about the Holy Spirit. Pressing in to life of God within us. We’ve realized that we can’t do this life on our own and if we’re going to live out the words, works, and ways of Jesus that we talked about in the sermon on the Mount, we need help from Heaven. It’s not going to come because of something we did. It literally is a miracle. It’s why religion is so dangerous at times, because it can take this supernatural work and make it about what we can accomplish. Then we’ll be sucked into the cycle of striving, failure, shame, striving, failure, shame, and on and on we go. I’ve been there. And so have others. And many decide to throw away religion all together. You know what, what’s the point. I am just burnt out, always trying, never arriving, etc. So we just give up God’s way… Some give up on god altogether, some pick and choose different spiritual principals and philosophies to live by.
I believe there is true power fo live out the Jesus way, even amidst great difficulties. So we can join Jesus in his story of redemption now, even amidst COVID-19 and whatever else life throws our way. We don’t have to wait. The kingdom of God is near NOW! That’s the message that John the Baptist preached. The kingdom of God is near now. You aren’t just hoping for something that’s to come, but it is here now. And that’s the message Jesus continued to preach as well. The kingdom is near now. And it’s coming to you where you are, no matter who you are. And it makes a difference today. It’s not just hope for a distant Heaven as NT Wright states. God has launched a heaven-end-earth movement, and though we look forward to God’s future work with hope, the kingdom is also near now.
I believe we need to hear that message today. God hasn’t stopped working. He’s not on a hiatus, a vacation. It’s one thing to say God is at work, but frankly my soul has lost touch with that truth recently. I’ve been processing so much of the grief, and have lost many of the rhythms that have helped me connect to God’s kingdom that I’ve largely missed God.
It’s like when my kids have a meltdown of some kind, which seem to be plenty these days as we’re learning to live and love each other in different ways now that we’re home together all the time. But, when they go into meltdown mode. Kicking, screaming, crying, etc. I, or Jaclyn, we’re right there with them. We haven’t left. We haven’t abandoned them. But they’re throwing a fit and no matter how much I whisper, or even scream at them, I might as well be 100 miles away because they aren’t hearing me. Eventually they settle down, and we can connect again. I never left them, but they just needed time to work out whatever was going on.
I think it’s like that with God some times. He doesn’t leave us. But to us it feels like he’s 100 miles away. Because we’re so in our mess, in our grief, in our junk. It’s hard to zoom out. And sometimes it just takes time. Time to settle down. Time to think. Time to recalibrate. Sometimes we need to say sorry and humble ourselves and get our ego out of the way… And then we see oh, God you’re right there. And like a patient, nurturing parent, God is like “yes, I love you, I am with you, are you ready to talk now?”
I talked last week about my Costco meltdown. About nearly loosing it in the paper towel isle. It wasn’t really about not getting paper towels. It was just the tip of the iceberg of some of the stress and frustration of the last few months. And I had a bit of a fit. Why can’t I just get some freaking paper towels. I want to be able to go to the store and get what I need. But it also symobolized a lot of the other losses of life we’ve experienced. I want my kids to go to school, I want our church to be able to meet. Im upset our plans were disrupted. I want to be able to go to the grocery store and not feel the need to put on a hazmat suit. I don’t want to worry about my kids playing with the neighbors. I want my quiet middays back. On and on. We’ve lamented that before. And we need to. Putting on a happy face and spitting out some Christian cliches won’t help us. We need to feel this thing deeply. Psalm 13 is a great example of this.
>1 O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?
>2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
> 3 Turn and answer me, O Lord my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
> 4 Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!” Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall. 5 But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
> 6 I will sing to the Lord because he is good to me.
So yes we need to feel our pain. But we can’t live there. Now, I am not suggesting that all of you need to move on to hope right now. Maybe for you, it’s just a matter of reminding yourself there will come a time when this is not all you will feel and you do your best to utter these words of hope. Or maybe, like me, the Spirit is beginning to clear the fog and you can fully begin to say “I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me.”
The point is, the Kingdom is near, whether you are experiencing that or not. God is always present and at work no matter what you think or feel. And part of faith is pulling this reality from Heaven, leaning into this even when we don’t see it and feel it. And that friends is the work of the Spirit. Remember John 14:26 Jesus told us the Spirit will remind us of His words, works, and ways.
Ok, so what does this have to do with fire? John tells us here that there is one coming that will not only baptize you in water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. What’s he talking about?
So three P’s this morning – Presence, Passion, Purity.
Exodus 13:21-22 tells us,
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”
So we’ve said God is always present and at work. Even if we don’t see it. What jumps out to me here is that God graciously led his people in the midst of their sin and brokenness; through war, famine, and all sorts of trouble. The pillar of fire was a reminder that God was with them. That he was their light, their ability to see in the darkness. I don’t know about you, but I’ve looked to some other things for light lately. My faith has grown dark. I’ve thrown some fits. The truth I need to hear this morning is that all along God has been present and at work.
Not only did God’s presence travel with them through a pillar of fire, but Numbers 9 tells us that the fire filled the tabernacle as they camped. So not only is the fire of God lighting their path in the midst of darkness, but the fire of God is with them at home.
A lie we often believe is that God cannot be present in hardship. That when we encounter hardship that must mean that God has withdrawn his presence and is no longer at work. Friends, God is not threatened by our hardship, by our mess, by our sin. God hasn’t stopped working. Presence is one of our foundational values because I believe it taints everything we do. If we se God as far off, threatened by our sin, waiting for us to get it right before we approach him, we oppose the very essence of the gospel, of the redemption story.
Jesus moved into the neighborhood. He took on flesh. He entered our mess. He dwelt among our humanity, our brokenness. He wasn’t threatened by the “worst” sinners of his day. A primary pillar of the redemption story is that God is present. God is Emmanual, God with us. Not God with us when we do x, y, and z. But God is with us now.
And as we’ve said before not only us God with us, but God is in us, through the Holy Spirit. The fire of God filling the new temple, our bodies, our vessels. No longer is God dwelling within the tabernacle or temple, but the fire of God is illuminating and igniting our hearts and souls.
Presenence. God is always present and at work. He’s not afraid of our mess, our troubles. And He is still filling the temple, the temple within, with the fire of his presence, and guiding us onward through our troubles with his light.
The reality of that bring us to our second P, passion. I don’t know about you, but when I come face to face with the reality of God’s presence with me. When I am reminded that God hasn’t left me, that even in my fits and complaining, in my grief and lamenting, that God has been present… that ignites a deeper passion in my life for the Kingdom of heaven. When the Holy Spirit reveals the truths of Jesus to me, my heart burns.
Luke 24:32 tells us about some Jesus followers that met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t realize it was him initially. He unpacked the Scriptures to them. He shared the redemption story with them. As they reflected on that encounter they commented saying, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”
We were created to have a burning heart. Life has been hard recently. It’s easy for hardship to lead to bitterness, or hard heartedness. As we face the troubles of life, and accumulate bumps and bruises along the way, we risk having a calloused, cold, hard heart. Ever met anyone like that? I mean it’s in each one of us. But you’ve probably met an older person that’s cranky, quick tempered, emotionally distant, and so on. I bet if you were to peel back the onion a bit you’d find a life of unprocessed pain… an accumulation of bumps and bruises along the way. Someone said hurt people, hurt people.
Jaclyn and I recently watched the miniseries, The Pacific. I am not a huge war movie fan. Primarily don’t like violence for the sake of violence. But, the ones that are more or less faithful accounts of history, I can tolerate as a means to better appreciate history. But there’s still a soberness to it. I don’t want to be desensitized. Anyway, there’s a scene in the series that has gripped me quite a bit. Solidiers are swapping out positions on the front line and as one company passes the other on the road, you see the men coming back from the front lines and the physical and emotional weight that war has put on them….
The series does a brilliant job of diving into the way war changed many of our soldiers. Pain is pain but still I have a hard time comparing my challenges to what they faced, but the point is we can become hard from repeated trauma, conflict, and bruises in life. And sometimes it’s a survival mechanism. We harden up in order to protect ourselves from the pain. That’s understandable…
I believe though the Holy Spirit keeps us tender, keeps our hearts burning, our passion alive. This a sign of the Spirit at work in our lives, not necessarily as you critique hour by hour or day by day, but overall in your life, are you remaining tenderhearted? As you dodge the bullets of life, suffer the wounds and scars of life’s pain, trouble, disappointments, how’s your heart? Is it still enflamed? Or have the embers died down? Are you still tender? Or have you become calloused and hard hearted?
Last week, I wanted to quit. I had lost my passion. Im going to talk in a second about a means the spirit used to reignite me, but I always tell Ed and some of our men that I’ve grown with over the years, that I want to continue to grow in tenderness and gentleness and live with a burning heart. I want to be a 75 year old man that’s more tender, gentle, selfless, affectionate, emotionally aware, and spiritually alive than I am today.
2 Timothy 1:6 Paul writes to Timothy,
6 This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. 7 For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.
Fan into flames. Fire requires a stoking, a fanning. Fires die down because a lack of attention. The Spirit is present with us, but don’t lose heart. Don’t neglect to fan the flames. Tend the fire of your soul. Otherwise we risk allowing the build up of unprocessed pain to harden our hearts and quench our passion.
Passion is another one of our values as a church. It’s not just about trying hard, or having fun, or excelling in life. I believe passion is a spiritual gift, a miracle from the Holy Spirit. That we remain tender hearted and enflamed in the love of God, that we learn how to process our pain well and fan the flame of a burning heart!
John Wesley wrote:
My fear is not that our great movement, known as the Methodists, will eventually cease to exist or one day die from the earth. My fear is that our people will become content to live without the fire, the power, the excitement, the supernatural element that makes us great.
Ok, so our last P. Purity. Here’s the deal. The Spirit is a gentle nurturer. Jaclyn did an excellent job helping us with that last week. But God loves us too much to leave us the same. Yes He is present in our mess, in our heard heartedness. But he loves us too much to leave us there. He meets us with all our impurities and muck, but is not content to keep us that way. This is what John was talking about here. Yes the kingdom is near, but what does John say next? Repent. Turn. Open yourself up to be changed. Expose yourself to the fire.
Fire makes us bendable, flexible, and open to be reshaped and changed. Yes, it requires a lot of heat. It burns a little, or sometimes a lot. But this is the cost of discipleship, of true change. And while I don’t believe ultimately punishment or threats are God’s method of motivation for us, the truth of Scripture is that some will follow Jesus, open their hearts to the purifying fire of the Spirit, and build their lives on the rock of the Kingdom of Heaven, and others won’t and ultimately suffer some kind of destruction as a result. I am not going to avoid that reality. You see fire can be very useful. It can be harnessed to create, eat, shape, form, build. But it can also be used to destroy. And I want to submit my life to the fire that shapes and molds me, rather than the fire that destroys.
Some commentators believe that these words by John regarding the baptism of fire are ultimately meant towards those who fail to follow Jesus and His Kingdom and face a fire of eternal judgment. But others believe this has to do with the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. I believe both understandings here are valid. I am leaning a little more on the latter this morning. Matthew is writing here to remind us of the difference between a life that is lived following Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and a life that is lived on ones own terms and power. That’s a pretty big reality throughout his gospel. Even those who appear to be religious often are living lives of piety, not purity.
Convcition and corresponding purity of those who allow it, are one of the Holy Spirit’s primary roles. And sometimes that means repenting. Hearing hard truths. And turning the other way. Purity and conviction is willing to step into the place where we say, God start with me. Deal with the sickness, the wickedness in me. Yes, there’s evil out there. Yes, the world is not as it should be. Yes, there’s all these things coming against me. But as much as I want to call the fire of God down to deal with those things (which Jesus’ disciples suggested in Luke 9)… Jesus starts with us. He implicates us first. Before I condemn the wickedness in the world, oh Spirit of God, come and shed light on the wickedness in me.
This happened for me this week… I called one of my best friends. And I told him that I was struggling. Struggling under the weight of all this. Struggling because I was upset that we go and start this church and bam four months into it we are hit with a global pandemic. I’ve been angry and frustrated about that. As if all our plans were not thrown out the window. I’ve been complaining a bit. Stuck. Little vision. And I talked to some other folks who have been encouraging but overall I was just feeling like people were patting me on the back. “Hey, you’ve got this. I’ve been there. You’re doing a great job, etc…” And I am grateful for that, but I just didn’t feel like that was helping. So I told my best friend that I wanted him to be honest with me. I don’t want you to fluff me up, make me feel good, coddle me. I want your honesty. I am going to explain how I am feeling, and some things as I see it, but I want you to speak what you see and hear. I needed some heat, some fire, not just hugs.
Some of you know I ride the Peloton bike. One of my favorite coaches is frequently saying during the ride, “this ain’t daycare.” This ain’t daycare! But you know what I wanted my friend to do, honestly? I wanted him to tell me to quit. That’s the honesty I was looking for. I wanted an excuse to quit. To give up. And I hoped he would validate it. I didn’t expect what he would do. He challenged me on a few areas, and provided some heat. This was big boy stuff.
And I am not just throwing around macho stuff here. Sometimes the only way we’re going to change, the only way we’re going to bend, is through the fire. Now, it’s important to remember our first two truths though. God is with us in the fire, and he’s working on our hearts. You see, that gives us the ability to withstand the heat. Sometimes the fire is God initiated fire, and sometimes it’s just the heat turned up from life. But the truth is, God is with us, and he’s looking to do a work on our hearts. Fanning the flame.
How will you respond to the fire? When the heat is turned up? Will you allow yourself to be convicted? To be bended? Will you give the spirit access to tenderize you? To ignite you? I was talking to my therapist the other day and in reference to a certain pain he asked me how I was feeling, and I said, “it feels like a muscle is being torn off. This attachment that I am shedding in the midst of this fire, this thing isn’t bending, molding easily. It’s painful!”
And when my friend spoke some hard words to me. Immediately I knew he was right. The Spirit was using him to jolt me out of my fits of complaining, my hopelessness, my lack of vision. And after he got done sharing some things a moment or two of silence elapsed. I didn’t know what to say. My friend says to me, “what you thinking?” And I paused, and took what felt like an hour to utter the words, “you’re right. I have failed. I need help. I don’t know where to go from here.”
Those are some of the hardest words to say to another human being, to yourself, to God. I woke up the next day, and I felt totally different. Fog has begun to lift. Things have started to look clearer.
And Friends, God is not done with the Mill Church. You might be like, well yea Pastor I never thought he was! But for me, I needed this reminder. God is not through with us yet. He’s present and at work in the Havertown area. He’s inviting us to join him in his redemption story. To be present to others. To sit with them in their pain, as they go through the fire. He’s inviting us to band together as a family with a collective passion for our community and for Jesus, to love the Havertown community well, to love Jesus well. To process our lives together, not just so that we can say we talked about it, but so that we grow with tender burning hearts! To be people open to purifying work of the Spirit as he makes us more like Jesus. Humble, teachable, slow to speak, quick to listen, ready to admit we need help. Yes I want to do some good works in Havertown. Let’s bless our community in some way. We’re going there.
But what’s the greatest work we’re doing? It’s about family. It’s about creating a safe space for others to be known, to process life in the context of a loving family, all the beauty and mess, in the midst of our troubles. Let’s be a church for those are don’t go to church, for those who have been hurt by church, for those who are done with church. That’s why we exist. But we are going to stretch each other as well. We are going to love each other so much that it’s not OK to stay where you are. This ain’t daycare. This isn’t just pat each other on the back, have a refreshment and move on. We want to see marriages restored, families strengthened, addictions overcome, children loved and developed, all generations coming together. Older people mentoring younger people. Couples married for 10, 20, 30 or more years mentoring newlyweds. Mental health emphasized, Addiction recovery programs… whether partnering with other organizations or meeting the needs ourselves, we are going to fight the things that destroy families and relationships, that stand in the way of Jesus’ redemption story, and help build things that strengthen families and relationships….
all the while becoming the family of God as a signpost to the world around us. Jesus told us they would know who we are because of our love for each other. Because of the way we relate together, they will know us.