(Isaiah 40:1-8, Malachi 3:1-5; Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:7-9)
One of the realities of life in the wilderness is that fire is very much a threat. To the extent that there is any life at all, there are wildfires—in all but the harshest deserts, in the grasslands, and of course in the forests. We knew this well in Colorado: when wildfire season comes, you prepare, you keep watch, and you pray. It may not be you, but there will be those who see their whole lives burn. There always are. Whether you’re thinking about the threat or not, whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s always there.
One of the things that made me shake my head when I was at Trinity was how many people weren’tthinking about the threat, and in fact were actively refusing to. The fire danger for us was astronomical due to millions of acres of dead trees, killed by the mountain pine beetle; everyone was supposed to have their trees sprayed every year, to protect them from the beetle, and to thin the trees around their homes and other buildings, to slow the spread of any fire. Many homeowners, though, refused to do either. They didn’t want to cut down any trees, and they didn’t want to pay the money for spraying, so they just ignored the problem; and all their trees died.
By the grace of God, we didn’t see the whole county burn down; indeed, by his grace, it still hasn’t, and by now I’d guess most of the dead wood is gone. But as the threat of fire loomed, judgment for decades of mismanagement of the land, there were many voices warning of that judgment and demanding repentance; and most people understood that those voices were good and right. When judgment is real, when the warning is true, proclaiming it is not cruel or unkind—it’s a necessary act of love for others.
This is why John the Baptizer—or John the Forerunner, as the Orthodox call him—speaks so sharply to the Pharisees when they come down to see him. He doesn’t care to trim the message to fit what they want to hear; he’s not focusing on meeting their expectations, or judging his success by whether or not they’re happy with him. Instead, he’s telling them the truth. He’s proclaiming the comfort of Israel, but that message of comfort is also a warning, and they need to listen up.
His language here is striking. David Rohrer
, teaching pastor at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, captures it vividly from his childhood experience of wildfires:
The image that comes to mind for me is the fires that burn various parts of the foothills in Southern California each year. One of my memories of growing up there is watching these fires destroy just about everything in their path.
After the dry summer, the chaparral plants were like fuel waiting for ignition. When that spark came and the Santa Ana winds fanned the flame, this fuel burned hot and fast. As these fires voraciously consumed chamise shrubs and sage brush, the chaparral animals fled before the flames, trying to find safety. John is making use of a similar image. In effect, he says, “You are like a bunch of little snakes coming out from under a burning bush.”
Calling them vipers is harsh. Not only are vipers poisonous and destructive, but snakes were associated with the enemies of God going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. John is looking out at those who considered themselves the best among the children of God, and he’s calling them children of the Devil. He knows they aren’t coming in sincere repentance; he sees their hypocrisy and calls them on it. But here’s the key: he isn’t just condemning them, he’s trying to grab their attention and shock them into listening. There is still time for them to hear his message, to understand the significance of his baptism, and to repent of their sin—or else, the judgment.
That’s why we have this oddity at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. All four gospels present John as the fulfillment of the promise of Isaiah 40; in the gospel of John, we see that that association comes from the Baptizer himself, as he uses that passage to tell the Pharisees who he is. That, of course, is a word of hope and comfort—God is announcing the end of judgment and the day of his favor. He is coming to deliver his people from slavery and bring them back from exile. This is good news.
But. Mark does something with this that none of the other gospels follow. He introduces the quote from Isaiah, and then he quotes Isaiah, but in between, he sticks another passage altogether. This sort of structure is pretty common in Mark—commentators have dubbed it the “Markan sandwich”—and it’s designed to emphasize whatever is in the middle. So here, right in the middle of this good news from Isaiah, right when his hearers would have expected the word “Comfort,” first they get this piece of Malachi 3.
Why is this important? Well, Malachi 3 is talking about the same thing as Isaiah 40, but in a profoundly different tone. He’s echoing a verse from Exodus 23, where God declares
, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” There’s the promise, given for the first exodus, after they have already escaped Egypt for the wilderness. But then comes this: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.” There’s the warning: God will guard and guide you, but only as long as you’re faithfully following him. If you don’t, watch out.
And so here we have Malachi, and here we have Mark pairing him up with Isaiah. “Comfort, comfort my people . . . make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together”—but
, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” When the Lord comes, he will come like a conflagration—a refiner’s fire, that burns away all the dross and all the rubbish. For the righteous, he will be a purifying flame, but for the unrighteous, he will be a blaze of judgment, as their lives burn to ash before their eyes. No one is exempt; as Paul says
in 1 Corinthians 3, all of us will be tested with fire, to show what sort of work we have done and what sort of lives we have lived.
Wildfire season is coming; we know it, and because we know it, we need to warn others. It’s coming at the end for all of us, as we will all stand unguarded before the Judge of all the earth to be tested by the fire of his holiness, to face the reckoning for all we have done; and most of us will face it many times before that, as our world keeps trying to burn itself down, letting the passion-fire of its lusts and its hatreds set everything ablaze. Even earlier this week, I’d been thinking we’ve seen an awful lot of blood and death in the news lately, and then came the horrifying atrocity in Newtown, like a cherry of plague atop a sundae of moral disease. It’s wildfire season, once again.
This should not surprise us; and while it should make us weep, it should not make us lose heart. To borrow from Abraham
, the Judge of all the earth shall do right. As much as we moderns flinch from the idea of any sort of judgment, the word of judgment is part of the word of comfort, and necessarily so, because the essence of God’s word of comfort is that all will be made right
—which means that all that is wrong will be cast away. Which in turn means that all those who hold fast to what is wrong, who would rather be cast away than repent, will go with it. Randy Stonehill, after a ministry trip to Bangkok, wrote a song asking, “Can Hell burn hot enough to pay for all this suffering, the murder of the innocent? Can Hell burn hot enough to balance out these scales?” While I grieve that such a question could ever be asked, I have no doubt: it can and will.
At the same time, God’s judgment isn’t only for those people out there, it’s for us; when we look at the news from Connecticut, we are seeing nothing alien to any of us, but only the same darkness that twists our own hearts. We would not all be the same monster, but we are all capable of the same monstrosity; we all need the insight of G. K. Chesterton, to understand that when we ask what’s wrong with the world, the answer begins with us. And so we need to recognize that for us, and for everyone, the only alternative to absolute judgment is absolute redemption in the blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Our comfort: there is an alternative, there is a way out, there is salvation. Our warning: there is only one. All other roads anyone might ever take, the wildfires sweep over them, and they are no more. Only Jesus is the way through. Let’s pray.