Saturday, December 15, 2018

"Conflagration" - December 16, 2018

Luke 3:7-18
December 16, 2018

            During my last year of seminary, I took what turned out to be one of my favorite courses.  It was “The History of Christian Preaching”.  There were only two of us in the class, so we met in the professor’s office once a week over lunch – and she provided dessert.  We read sermons from the early Church all the way up to the early twentieth century and discussed them from a variety of angles: Were they faithful proclamations of the gospel?  How were the scriptures interpreted and applied?  Was the speaker’s rhetoric appropriate to the setting?  Do we know how the hearers responded? 

There was a final exam with one question:  Of all the preachers whose works we encountered over the past months, which one would we most like to have heard, and why?  I went with Girolamo Savonarola.  He was a monk who lived in Florence, where he was burned at the stake on May 23, 1498.

            What got him burned was preaching that sounded very much like John the Baptist’s.  Repentance was his message, and he demanded to see signs that it was real.  He saw the need for heartfelt sacrifice on behalf of the poor, and demanded that it be shown.

“O my brothers, to you I say: Renounce your extravagance, your paintings, and your vain ornaments.  Make your robes less full and of thinner material.  Do you not realize that your extravagances are taking alms away from the poor?  O brothers, O children, it is necessary to speak frankly in this way, that no one may say: “I did not know about it,” and so excuse himself.  I am obliged to speak thus, [“Woe be unto me if I preach not the gospel!”]  Woe to me were I not to say it!  I declare to you that if you will not listen to the voice of God, He will punish you. …

     O merchants, renounce your usuries; give back other people’s belongings and the things you have dishonestly taken; otherwise you will lose everything.

     O you who have anything superfluous, give it to the poor, for it is not yours… the poor too ashamed to beg, who so often die of hunger, while you have so much in excess. …

     And now, O priests, I must come back to you; I mean the bad ones, for I am always reverent to the good ones.  Renounce, I say, that unspeakable vice, renounce that accursed vice that has so greatly provoked the wrath of God upon you.  If you do not, woe, woe to you!  O lustful ones, dress yourselves in hair-cloth and do that penance which you need!  And you who have your houses full of vanities and pictures and indecent things and evil books, …poetry contrary to the faith, bring them to me to make a bonfire or a sacrifice to God.  And you, mothers who adorn your daughters with so much vanity and extravagance and fancy hair ornaments, bring all these things here to us to throw into the fire, so that, when the wrath of God comes, He will not find them in your houses.  And thus, I command you as your father.  Now, if you will do this in these matters, as I have told you, you will be sufficient, you alone, to placate the wrath of God; otherwise I should regret to have to bring you bad tidings.”[1]

And so were lit the famous “Bonfires of the Vanities” that destroyed much of the artwork of the early Italian Renaissance, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes by the act of gangs of teenage boys who broke into the houses of the Medici and other nobles who had fled the city.

            Into the fire went the paintings and the musical instruments and the mirrors.  The jewelry was melted down and the gold and silver used to help the hungry and the homeless.  The public squares blazed up, and he took it as a sign of the kingdom of God chasing out the kingdom of this world.  After all, had not John the Baptist spoken of the coming of Christ as that of a refining 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. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”  [Luke 3:16-17]

I don’t remember the details, but I do remember when I was in high school that there was a televangelist who held a big event where he invited people to show up with their heavy metal and disco records and to toss them onto a big fire.  If you’re really, really turning your back on such things, you might as well get rid of them rather than keep them as a temptation.  Savonarola has had his imitators to this day.

            Most repentance, though, is neither that dramatic nor that simple.  As John the Baptist advised people, to truly repent is to do what you are called to do with integrity and honesty, whatever your situation.  It’s not a once-and-done matter, but a way of life.

“Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”  [Luke 3:12-14]

Really, to become caught up in the dramatic and fiery moments is often still to be concentrating on yourself.  “What must I do?”  “What should we do?”  Repentance is to turn your gaze away from yourself and look instead at the needs of others.  What is going on in their lives?  What is it like to be them?

            The Messiah came, as John said he would, and his coming burns away the useless and undesirable parts of human life.  His coming, however, was not as someone who was concerned at all about his own comfort or his own dignity.  How comfortable is it to be born in a stable?  How dignified is it to be wrapped in strips of cloth and left in a feeding trough?  Had he been born in our own day, he would have been one of those children born without any prenatal care, lucky if there is a midwife to help out, and defined as “at-risk” in government reports or news articles.  It wasn’t for himself that Jesus came among us, but for the sake of all humankind.  He didn’t come to destroy, but to build.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 
[John 3:17]

            Those who would follow him have to expect a change of perspective that reflects his.  They have to expect a turning around of their minds (which is the precise meaning of the word that the Bible uses, “metanoia”).  They have to expect to start seeing what they did not see before and experiencing the love of neighbor and even the love for enemies that Jesus showed.  Jesus’ followers have to take to heart – which is not an empty expression – the words of Paul, who experienced the deepest kind of repentance and renewal himself, and said:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. 
Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.” 
[Philippians 2:3-11]

           So, folks, friends, sisters and brothers:

                       "Penitenza!  Penitenza!"  Repent!  Repent!
                       Rethink, reorder, reorganize.
                       Start over, begin again, clean house.
                       Rejoice, renew, restore, restart, refresh, reboot.
                       The kingdom of God is at hand!

[1] From “Penitenza!  Penitenza!” found at

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