Something God Can Work With

Posted: February 22, 2013 by Todd in Sermons
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Smokey3I preached this sermon at Grace UMC on January 13, 2013.  Here’s the audio and the scripture (Luke 3:15-23a).

Only you can prevent forest fires.   That’s the advice of the iconic Smokey the Bear.  Forest fires are not to be taken lightly and I do hope each of you takes fire safety seriously.  But Smokey has a secret.  What he doesn’t tell you is that forest fires – at least sometimes – can be part of the natural process at work.  Forestry experts tell us that fires can help regulate growth.  The build up of underbrush can prevent seeds from germinating and stop the growth of new trees.  Some forests – without periodic fires become too dense and are vulnerable to even more massive fires.  Caretakers of the forest even purposefully start controlled fires for this very reason.  The fires are usually followed by a period of extraordinary growth.  All that organic matter burned to the ground has enriched the soil.  Now, all of that would complicate Smokey’s message.  Try hard, kids to prevent forest fires, but in any case, there can be some under appreciated aspects to them.  It doesn’t exactly make for a great public awareness campaign.  [more…]

As we pick up in our Scripture reading this morning, we hear about a similar process – the secret that Smokey doesn’t like to talk about – there’s some benefit to playing with fire – a baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit.  It is painful, it destroys, but it is essential to growth.


We’ve been learning about growth for the past two weeks, following Luke’s gospel, after the Christmas stories, tracing Jesus’s growth to the beginning of his ministry.  Our theme verse has been Luke 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  The first week, we looked at the 12 year old boy Jesus teach us to do something amazing and astonishing in God’s house.  Last week, we learned that growing things tend to acquire excess in some form.  John told us that some people have way to much and others not nearly enough.  Cleaning up God’s world involves finding ways to transform our excess – God’s trash – into someone else’s treasure.  Today we’ll conclude our journey as we walk through the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit and see what remains on the other side.

Read Luke 3:15-23a


One of the things my friends and I liked to do in our spare time in high school was concoct money making schemes.  We started by selling these concise 1 page Chemistry reference sheets for a dollar to our classmates, but in the end that only amounted to 20 bucks or so, split three ways.  Then, we had a lawn mowing service that was profitable, but it required way too much hard work – actually mowing lawns in the fire of the sun.  We wanted to work smarter, not harder – and so the search was on for that ingenious business idea that would make us rich without having to do any work.  We didn’t need this baptism by fire – just the treasure, thank you very much.  Next, we tried running a $2 football pool – just taking an administrative fee off the top and that worked out pretty well until a teacher took up a copy of the weekly picks…which just so happened to have all the names and rankings of all our participants on it.  So much for working smarter.  We faced the heat in the principle’s office – who put an end to our business.  Our search was on for the next thing to try out.  That’s when we heard about an idea that would surely stand up to the heat of the marketplace.  The logic of this business model was impeccable – we’d be sure to make lots and lots of money.  Talk about turning trash into treasure.  We had stumbled upon a business idea that would create treasure out of thin air.  The theory was so sound that we started to dream about the sorts of things we’d be able to buy.  One of my friends even came up with a great tagline for our theoretical business: “Because it’s your money…and we want a boat.”  Well, here’s the golden idea.  It’s called Multilevel Marketing.  Some of you may be familiar with this concept.  It doesn’t really matter so much what the product is – its the ingenuity of the system that unlocks untold riches.  We didn’t come up with the idea.  Through our good fortune, we were invited to be part of an “exclusive sales network.”  We were given the names and addresses of four other partners in this network who were “upstream” from us.  All we had to do was mail a crisp $5 bill to each of these partners and then we could add our names to the bottom of this list, remove the top name from the list, and send out our own invitations.  Those above you on this multilevel ladder – who you pay money to are called your upstream.  Those below you – who pay you money are called your downstream.  Compared to the money that would surely come in, this would be a modest investment.  A mere $20 to our upstream partners.  We could use my parents envelopes, paper, and computer as long as we did it while my mom was away on a “Women’s Retreat.”  Our trusty upstream partners advised us to purchase (for a nominal fee) a mailing list with screened names of interested entrepreneurial types.  That would definitely increase our response rate.  And, of course, we had to pay for postage to send out a few hundred letters to the future downstream members of our exclusive sales network.  Then, we’d start receiving $5 bills in the mail.  That would be nice.  But it is when you get a few levels up that the money really starts rolling in.  We made some conservative estimates about our expected income. MLM Profits  If we got just a 5% response rate – we’d see astronomical profits.  5% seemed like such a reasonable thing to expect – we had after all purchased a list of names and addresses of people just itching for an opportunity like this.   We’d make nearly a million dollars for sure.  We actually asked ourselves if we might need to hire someone to open all our mail to count the money and take it to the bank.  In reality – the response rate might be more like 30 or 40% with such a great opportunity knocking.  But we wanted to be reasonable in our profit forecast.  After all, things might not go as planned.  We were mere high school students – out there really doing things in the marketplace.  Unlike Smokey the Bear, we weren’t afraid to play with fire.  We kept on trying things, each time with growing confidence that the treasure would come.  And so we sent our letters off into the world to see what would happen.  Soon, the easy money, we just knew, would start to roll in.


In our Scripture, we hear about two distinct types of baptism – baptism by water & baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit.  Baptism by water marks us as God’s own – it is a positive vision both for us and for the way God wants the world to be – the way God wants us to be.  Baptism by water is about the way things should and could be, already embedded in us.  Baptism by fire is about the way things are.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “baptism by fire” or “trial by fire” used in common everyday language.  It sort of sounds like the name of a reality TV show.  The etymological origin of this phrase comes from this very text.  Basically what we mean when we say “baptism by fire” or “trial by fire” is that something untested is exposed the the harsh conditions of reality.  It is the inspection that John the Baptist was preparing us for.  The fire will consume that which is not where God wants it to be.  That which looks like what God wants it to look like will remain.  Baptism by fire separates the wheat and the chaff – that which is of God and that which is not.


Well, the day finally arrived when we got our first response from our mailing campaign.  Unfortunately, it was a sternly worded letter from the postmaster’s office informing us that our “pyramid scheme” (their term, not mine) was illegal.  You had to actually sell a product, according to the law, we were informed.  Who knew – you’d think such business models would only benefit the postal service.  We were proclaiming good news to the people.  The postmaster was like Herod shutting us up in prison.

We had put our idea out there, as we had done before – real things into the real world to see how it fared.  We put it into the baptism by fire.  We knew what the results were supposed to look like.  But baptism by fire reveals the truth.  It tells us how things really are.

And, it didn’t fair so well in the baptism by fire.  The verdict was clear – this thing is full of hot air.   The forest was taken to the ground and nothing remained.  There was no there there.  We were told this quite explicitly by the postal authorities – you have to actually sell a product of value.  And it is true – this exclusive sales network we had bought into had no catalog of things to buy – only membership to the sales network and it didn’t take long for the fires of reality to reveal exactly what that was worth.  All of our hopes and dreams burned up in the flames.  It seemed that those dreams were chaff as well.

Now, it wasn’t what we were looking for, but some wheat remained after the fire.  The soil became richer.  We learned that there is no such thing as easy money.  We each went on to careers that aligned more with who we are at the core of our being.  It seems the fire revealed something of value had been there all along.


There’s a story that has been retold by many masters called “The Rabbi’s Gift,” originally written by Catholic priest, Father Francis Dorff.  The story goes like this.  There was a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  It was quaint and out of the way – it had a beautiful history, but its numbers had dwindled to just 6 people – the Abbot and five monks.  All were over seventy years of age. Desperate for any form of help, the Abbot thought to speak to the rabbi who would sometimes visit a nearby cottage.  The two old men commiserated about the sense of loss that they both felt – it seemed to pervade everything.  They talked for a while and before departing, the abbot pressed the rabbi again for advice.  He said, “I’m sorry, I have no advice to give you.  The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.”  The abbot decided to announce the rabbi’s words to the monks.  The speculation began.  The monks wondered what significance it might have.  “The Messiah is among us? One of us, here, at the monastery? Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Of course—it must be the Abbot, who has been our leader for so long. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas, who is certainly a holy man. Or could he have meant Brother Elrod, who is so crotchety? But then Elrod is very wise. Surely, he could not have meant Brother Phillip—he’s too passive. But then, magically, he’s always there when you need him. Of course he didn’t mean me—yet supposing he did? Oh Lord, not me! I couldn’t mean that much to you, could I?” (this quote from Art of Possibility, Zander)

They began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah.  Since the monastery was located in such a scenic location – there were visitors from time to time who came for a retreat or a walk.  They began to sense the aura of extraordinary respect between the old monks and just being in close proximity with that respect, left visitors a little transformed.  Soon, visitors came more often and would bring friends.  Conversations began between visitors and the monks.  Soon one of the visitors asked if he could join the monastery.  Then another, then another until within a few years, the old monastery on the brink of extinction was now a thriving order again and a beacon of light for the whole community.


I think one of the saddest human conditions is people who deep down – don’t think there is anything of value there.  Somehow, the truth of the baptism by water – the truth of the Rabbi’s gift – that God has claimed them hasn’t sunk in.  And so they do everything they can to avoid the other baptism.  They are afraid that the fire will reveal that there’s nothing of value inside.


One day while I was in seminary, some of my friends and I regressed a bit back to our childhood.  We decided to go to an arcade to play.  I don’t want to brag from the pulpit, well – yes I do – I’m pretty good at Skeeball.  As I played, it became clear that no matter what my score was, I got just 4 tickets.  Game after game, just for tickets.  Now, I can understand the machine giving a ticket or two as a minimum each time to affirm the participation of young kids.  But for my outstanding performance not be appropriately valued was outrageous.  Smokey the Bear was operating this arcade.   Now to a child, tickets at an arcade are more precious than gold.  And each child is truly of infinite value.  Baptism by water tells us this truth about ourselves.  Each child is worth not just four tickets – but a million tickets.  And that worth isn’t determined by our performance.  But if we never expose ourselves to the fire – to the harsh conditions of reality – to Skeeball machines that reveal the hills and valleys of the world – we’ll never actually believe the truth of Baptism by water.  Deep down, we know that value must ultimately be revealed by the fire.  All of us have been designed with this value – and that’s the tragedy of fearing the fire.  The fire is God forming us into something more beautiful than before.


Baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit isn’t a liturgical ritual.  First of all, it would violate our facility policies and the fire code.  It simply is.  It is the way things are.  It is the way God designed the world.  It is the harsh conditions of reality – but its harsh burn comes from the chaff and not God’s design.  And the burn will always reveal a unique creation of God within, no matter what we believe about ourselves.  I think it is likely that the critic within – if exposed to the flames – that will get burned the most in the harsh conditions of reality.  One of Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous quotes is called the “not the critic” quote.  He says:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Only the baptism of fire can unlock the fullness of baptism by water.  John’s baptism prepares us for Jesus’s.


Like the monastery, I believe that when we see the sacredness that we all carry within us and within each other – we’ll grow.  We’ll no longer fear the arena.  Not only have you been created in God’s image – but each creation is unique and special – able to play a part in God’s coming kingdom that no one else but you can play.  There can never be another you.  There are the little niches throughout our world that require such specialized blends of capacities, personalities, physicalities, and even – perhaps especially incapacities.   They just beg for uniquely qualified people to come fill them.  I don’t think they are set in stone, but I think when we run across them – we have a sense that this is what we are made for.  There’s an ah-ha moment.  Most often, I think it happens progressively, with ups and downs, 2 steps forward, 1 step back as we experience the harsh conditions of reality again and again.  It is influenced and shaped by the seasons of our lives.  Sometimes the fires are cataclysmic and take years, even decades, to begin to see any signs of rebirth.  Whatever the shape of the fire – it is a dynamic thing and takes time to find its purpose.  Theologian Fredrick Buechner says that “vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.”  I think the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit guides us again and again to these places.


This week, I was driving towards the church on University drive from downtown Huntsville.  There was a young man on the side of the road holding a sign advertising a Quizno’s sub sandwich store.  You’ve seen these people – holding up signs for the perpetual furniture sale.  Their sole purpose is to call attention to whatever business is paying them to hold the sign.  I had never considered how this job might require specialized talents.  I had always felt bad for them – who would want to spend their time holding a sign like that.  But this young man was different.  He had found his calling.  He had what appeared to be a discman and looked to be singing at the top of his lungs and was dancing around wildly and waving his hands in the air with a big grin on his face.  I’m sure he has other wonderful capacities.  I imagine that he had some incapacities that prevented him from doing other work.  But I didn’t feel bad for this guy – he appeared to be created for just that job.  His very being commanded the attention of gawking onlookers.  He loved to sing and dance openly and publicly.  A person singing and dancing commands attention.  It was amazing.  It was just what the job required.  Appropriately, the fire he entered revealed to me and to many others that day that Quizno’s subs are toasty.


When Jesus turned thirty – he was ready for his unique moment for which he had been created.  Now, I don’t want to be too flip, but I think it is at this moment, when Jesus began a Multilevel Marketing business.  It has a sort of Jewish flavor to it.  He recruits twelve people in the first layer.  Later, he tells them to recruit their own downstream – doing the same things that he has been doing.  But in this exclusive sales network – Jesus has value to add – there’s something inside the envelope.  Multi-level marketing is an ingenious concept.  But it needs something of value – which Christ provides.  It’s the keys to the kingdom – a way of life that leads us to the Promised Land – back into the arms of God.  It’s something only Jesus could do – show how God wants us to live, how God wants our entire world to be.  Only he had the ability to live it out fully in the flesh.  Only he had the courage to expose the beautiful, Beloved creation of God fully alive within him to the harsh conditions of reality.  It was a painful, destructive fire that told the truth about our world.  This world will persecute and crucify love and justice when fully and courageously embodied in human form.  Only he had the absolute faith in God the Father that somehow, God would deliver the chosen.  That’s the resurrection.  That which God has created, no fire can ultimately consume.  It finds its way to the resurrection.  Only the twelve year old Jesus – in that unique life stage – could runaway from his mom and dad for three days in such a way that invited God’s favor.  Only John the Baptist – a man so unattached to the clutter of this world that he ate locusts and honey and wore camel’s hair clothing could prepare us for the baptism of fire to come.


And each of you is in Jesus’s downstream – and not a one of you is empty – each of you have your own unique value – you add something to God’s kingdom.  You have a limitless value and limitless downstream, but to unlock it, you’ve got to walk through the Baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit.

The baptism by fire reveals who we truly are – the unique image of God cocktail that no one else could ever duplicate.  It takes time for the fire to burn the chaff.  In fact, I think it is a life-long process.  Get started and expose yourself to the fire – start doing that which you’ve been equipped and created to do as best you understand it.  When it doesn’t work out – rinse, lather, and repeat.  That’s how the fire reveals the wheat.  Play with fire and start again from what remains after the burn.  Each time, you’ll get closer to the true creation of God.  Baptism always reveals God.  On the other side of baptism is the resurrection – it is the soil – richer from the burn, it is scheming high schoolers with a clearer sense of vocation, it is you doing what only you could do, closer and closer to the needs of the world and the image of God within at each pass through the fire.  It is Jesus of Nazareth, who has increased in wisdom and years and in divine and human favor – ready to start his ministry, at the age of 30, the work which he was uniquely equipped to do.  And it changed everything – it turned the world upside down, inaugurating the very reign of God in our world, and the downstream effects continue to unfold in our own day.  And it enlists each unique one of us to find creative ways that God can work through us.  There’s no such thing as easy money.  We’re counting on you to do your work.  Christ is counting on you.  We must enter the fire again and again to become something God can work with.



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