I really struggled this week to work out what I was to say this morning. I really wanted to talk about a particular subject, but the bit of the Bible that we are looking at this morning didn’t seem to say much about it.
Let me explain. Last week, Marg spoke about one of the ways that God works in our lives, with us. We explored the idea that God refines us. She shared with us the story of the lady who went to see a silver smith to find out how silver is refined, and discovered that the silver worker has to stay and watch the silver as it is refined, and that the refiner knows when the silver is ready because she can see her reflection in the silver. And so, we know when it feels like we are going through fire that God is not absent, but is there, with us, closely attentive, and we know that we are being made more able to bear God’s image.
During the week, Keith Harding shared with me that he felt that God was saying that God refines, revives and renews. And so, with Marg having helped us to think about God’s refining last week, I thought that this week we might look at God’s reviving, and then, next week, look at God’s renewing.
But, then I looked at the Gospel for this week, the story we heard this morning of John the Baptist’s teaching to the people in the desert outside Jerusalem. And it didn’t seem to have much to do with God’s reviving. It seemed to have a lot to do with judgement and fire. In some ways, they seemed to be the opposite of reviving, they seemed to be to do with putting to death.
For example, at the beginning of the passage we have the pictures of the fruit trees. Those that bear good fruit are spared. Those that do not bear fruit are chopped down and burnt. Again at the end of the reading, Jesus is described as coming with a winnowing fork, a tool used at harvest time to remove the good grain, which is gathered, from the remaining chaff, which is burnt.
And then, in the middle we get John giving practical examples of what it means to show good fruit. He very clearly says that it is not enough to say that you repent, you have to show it by changing the way that you live. And the examples are very practical things that would have meant a big change in the standard of living of those he was speaking to. There is nothing here about religious observance, or about going to the temple more often. Give away the extra things that you have to those who do not have enough. Choose to restrict your own income in order to act fairly and justly to other people. This is down to earth, easy to understand, difficult to do.
So, some really good, challenging stuff, but would has it got to do with being revived? But, I still had this nagging feeling that that was what God wants us to think about this morning.
So, I started to mull over what being revived means. Like the lady who went to see the silver smith to find out refining looks like in the real world, I started to ponder over what reviving looks like in the real world, to see if that might give me some pointers as to what God wants us to understand about reviving.
So, what might someone need reviving from? I could think of a few possibilities. The first one that came to my mind is that they had got all dried out and faint from over heating and lack of water. I think of pot plants in my house that I’ve not been very good at watering. They often need reviving with water, sometimes they get beyond the possibility of being revived and have to be thrown out.
The second that came to mind was of somebody that had got too cold. Maybe someone who had been caught out in the snow without a coat. They have got hypothermia. The body is protecting itself by cutting down the blood flow to the outer parts of the body. First sleep starts to creep over, and death is not far away. Surely they need reviving, they need life to be restored to them.
It was as I thought about this situation in the real world, somebody having got so cold that they need reviving, and how that reviving might happen, that I began to see that maybe John is teaching about God’s reviving work after all.
As I said, one of the symptoms of hypothermia is sleepiness and confusion. The body tries to stop the heat escaping by keeping the blood as far inside the body as possible. Unfortunately the brain is in the head, which is rubbish for keeping heat in, so blood stops going there. But if you’re out with someone who is being affected by the cold, you need to keep them moving. If you come across someone who has fallen asleep in the snow the first thing you do is to see if you can wake them.
And, it seems to me that John’s preaching could be pretty well characterised as a slap in the face, and a shout to wake up to a person who is drifting off to sleep. Wake up, says John, you’re in danger, you’re going to die, you need to wake up. The axe is at the root of the tree, you need to wake up.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, “Wake up oh Sleeper, arise from the dead,“
But just waking up isn’t enough for someone who is freezing. They have to get out of the situation they’re in. If they’re in wet clothes because they’ve fallen through the ice into a canal then they need to get out of the wet clothes and into some dry ones. If they are stuck out in the wind and the snow, then they need to get out of the bad conditions.
And surely this is what John is teaching as well. You need to change what you’re doing. It’s no good just waking up to the danger you’re in, you have to do something to get out of it. The things that you have being doing wrong you need to stop doing. You need to start doing fruitful things instead.
But actually, once someone has started down the road to hypothermia, even if they wake up, even if they get out of the cold, they are going to need some help from outside themselves. They are unlikely to be able to be revived from their own resources. They are going to need to be warmed up if they are to live.
John recognises this too. He knows that the baptism that he has been giving to people, the baptism of water, the baptism of repentance, isn’t enough to revive them, to return them to life. They will need Jesus’ baptism, the baptism that gives them the resources from outside of themselves that they need to live, to be fully revived. They need the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. The baptism of the warming, reviving, energising, Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God.
So maybe this part of the Bible does have something to say to us about God’s reviving work after all. If being revived means being woken up, being removed from the place of death, and being filled with the energy of new life, then John is clearly teaching about revival, about God’s work of reviving.
So what is God saying to us about being revived?
What about the wake up bit? Are there aspects of our lives that are asleep in the cold? This might be in our own individual lives or in our church life. Is there evidence of good fruit? If there isn’t fruit, is it because the blossom has been caught in the frost? Are we willing to be open to God saying to us that our lives, or parts of our lives, are at risk of dying because they are asleep? Are we going to be alert and look out for the things that God is doing in our lives and communities, or are we going to miss them because we are asleep?
What about the change of behaviour? What things do we need to stop doing, and what do we need to do instead? In this season of Advent, as we focus on being ready for Jesus’ return, are we doing the things that faithful, watchful friends do when they are expecting the return of one who is dear to them? Do the ways in which we use our money, or talk to our neighbours, or treat each other reflect God’s image clearly?
What about allowing God to warm us up? Where is the fire of the Holy Spirit shown in our lives? Where can we see the energy and life of the Spirit’s gifts and fruit expressed in the life of our church and in our own lives? Are we satisfied that we are warm enough? I’m not. I’m not satisfied. I know that I am still too cold. I believe that this church is still too cold. Some months ago I was praying here and I felt God tell me to pray for the warmth of this church. I have to say that I have not been as faithful or persistent in that prayer as I should have been. I’m sorry for that. I believe that God has more heat for this church, if we will ask for it and be open to receiving it.
At each of the three stages there is a choice to make. Do we want to wake up? Are we willing to change our behaviour? Will we be open to the work of the Holy Spirit?
If we answer no at any stage then we will not experience the reviving work of God, we will not experience life in all the fullness that God has for us, and we may die.
If we answer yes to these questions then we open up the opportunity for new life to flow through our own veins, through the veins of this church fellowship, and through the veins of our communities.