Very appropriately for a Second Sunday of Advent, the Lord today counters our discouragements in waiting for Jesus to come, at Christmas, and at the end of the world.
One reason it is encouraging are John’s words about the Pharisees and Sadducees. This may not sound like something so special, as pharisees and sadducees are long gone – except that they aren’t. Every human society has its pharisees and sadducees: well-meaning pseudo-leaders who are so busy inventing new moralities, and bossy-booting everyone into living out the novelties they’ve invented, that they neglect their basic everyday duties of loving God – or the Truth – with all their heart, mind and strength and their neighbour as themselves. What Agatha Christie calls a bad case of nosey-parkeritis.
The influence and activity of some of our trendsetters can discourage us: what is simple, little, old-fashioned Christianity compared to the glamour of power and endless novelty? Yet to take this view would be to utterly misunderstand Christianity. As John the Baptist points out, Christianity is an ever-eternal passionate fire, that no power can stop, no threat intimidate, no press release can put out. The power and creativity of this fire of Christ – the Holy Spirit – is the foundation of all being: nothing exists without it, and no heart can ever be filled without it.
And as John reminds us, Christianity means being baptised into this fire: our sins burned up by it, our coldness set aflame by it, our darkness made bright by it. Christians are people who walk around not with a fire in their belly, but with a fire in their heart – with guts, the guts of true love, which makes us free enough to give our lives in service of our neighbour.
Which brings us back to our Sadducee-types. John reminds us that when they die, Sadducees and pharisees will burn very well, because their message is like chaff – light fluff of little substance or nourishment to anybody. If unrepentant, they will be cleared away by the Lord: the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out. True Christians, and servants of the Truth, they will burn too, he assures us: but not in Hell, where those who selfishly rejected love suffer as they are continually burnt by a love that they hated in this life. They will be burnt in heaven, by the Heart of Jesus, never again alone, or cold, or unconsoled, or in the dark.