Talitha Arnold: The Fire This Time

I did not want to write this sermon. I did not want to deal with this scripture from Matthew. Not on the Second Sunday of Advent. Not three weeks before Christmas when churches will be filled with people wanting to hear the shepherds cooing over the baby Jesus, but are instead confronted with gaunt, fashion-challenged John the Baptist yelling at them to repent. It’s already a struggle to keep the congregation from singing Christmas carols or putting up the Christmas tree. Do we really have to talk about this steely-eyed, sun-wrinkled prophet preaching, “Repent, repent or be ready for the fire”?

Another preacher once said of John the Baptist, he’s not someone you’d invite to a dinner party. Why then do we let him show up three weeks before Christmas? Couldn’t this passage wait until Lent?

There’s another reason I didn’t want to preach this sermon or deal with this scripture. I know about unquenchable fire. I live in the western United States – Santa Fe, New Mexico, to be exact – where this past April two fires broke out in the mountains north of here, merged into the largest fire in New Mexico history, and burned out of control for months. The normally crystalline blue skies of northern New Mexico were grey with ash and smoke. Hundreds of people were evacuated, including members of the congregation I serve. By the time the rains finally came, fire had consumed 400,000 acres of some of the loveliest forests and meadows you’d ever seen.

No human lives were lost, but the death toll of other creatures was unfathomable – deer, bear, bobcats, rabbits, lizards, snakes, and the fish in the rivers and streams now polluted with ash. The fire also devastated historic Hispanic communities that date back to the late 1700s and early 1800s and destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of Nortenos who depend upon the forests and grazing land for food, wood, and other resources.

It wasn’t the first such fire in northern New Mexico. In May 2000, a “crown fire” in the Jemez mountains near Santa Fe burned 50,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 20,000 people from the city of Los Alamos (the birthplace of the atom bomb). Ten years later, the Conchas Fire again threatened Los Alamos and burned 150,000 acres - the largest fire in the state’s history up to that point.

At the time of last spring’s Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire in northern New Mexico, 20 other fires were also burning throughout the state. This year, as in the last two decades, wildfires have raged from California to Nebraska, Texas to Alaska, and they’re bigger and hotter than anything we’ve seen before. Moreover, fire season in the West used to begin in June, not April. Now it’s year-round. Last year, a week after Christmas, a wildfire swept through a subdivision in Boulder County, Colorado, killing two people and destroying hundreds of homes and buildings.

Fire has always been a fact of life in the mountain and desert West. For centuries, it was nature’s way of restoration and renewal, burning away the underbrush to let stronger trees grow and the forest flourish - not unlike John’s call to repentance and the need to clear away the deadwood of our lives to let new life grow.

But the past decades of these unquenchable fires are something new. Seventy years of fire suppression and poor management have resulted in sickly matchbox forests that stretch from Arizona to Alaska. In addition, the West is in a megadrought, the driest period in 1,200 years that sucks the moisture out of both trees and grasslands. Megadrought leads to megafires, scorched earth infernos that burn the dirt until it’s as hard as concrete. As a result, once the rains come, fires are followed by floods.

If it sounds apocalyptic, it is. And if it sounds like John was right – that we humans bear at least some responsibility for bringing on such unquenchable fire. We do. For over four decades, study after study has demonstrated our human role in climate change and global warming. Like John the Baptizer, climate scientists were voices crying in the wilderness, calling for repentance, beseeching us to turn from our ways of life that led to death, and warning us of the consequences if we didn’t.

And as John experienced, their warnings have often gone unheeded by political, religious, and business leaders and by many of the rest of us. Such disregard has consequences, in John’s time and in ours. “Even now,” John cried, “the axe 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.” What was true for John’s listeners is also true for us. At least in the West, we are being baptized with fire.

And we can’t blame God or Mother Nature for this fiery baptism nor for any of the other results - floods, hurricanes, sea surges, king tides - of our human role in warming the planet and changing the climate. Like the crowds that flocked to John, we have responsibility for our choices and the impact those choices have on creation and on our neighbors all around the world. For those of us in the West, along with our prayers for rain to end fires, we need also to pray for the strength and will to repent.

Unquenchable fires, calls to repentance, cries in the wilderness, and gaunt, fashion-challenged, fire-breathing John the Baptist. So, do you see why - especially three weeks before Christmas - I didn’t want to engage this scripture or preach this sermon?

But three weeks before the birth of the One who showed us God’s love by pointing to the birds of the air and the grass of the field, the birth of the One whose ways of life and love overcame all our ways of death, the birth of the One God gave us because God so loved this world - may this hard scripture call us to repent, to turn from death to life, not only for ourselves but for this planet and for generations yet to come.

May John’s cry in the wilderness bring us back to the Creator of heaven and earth. May his cry change our lives that we might love this world - its peoples, its grasses, its forests, its fields, this earth - as God so loves.

Thanks be to God. Amen.