Wreath on fire

“…may the righteous flourish;
  and let there be an abundance of peace” (Psalm 72:7)

audio for sermon ‘Wreath on fire” by Martin Malina

The season of Advent was always a big deal at our home when I was a child. I remember looking forward every year to Advent—the season of candles, wreaths, waiting and anticipating Christmas coming.

Fire transparent, Fire contained, Fire reflected (photo by Martin Malina, 2022)

On our wooden coffee table in the middle of the living room we would place a large wreath with real pine boughs intertwining four, tall candles. Of course, these candles were a lot shorter by the time the fourth week of Advent rolled around having lighted them every day. And the pine boughs had gotten quite dry. The needles were falling off.

It was during the last week of Advent one year when, after lighting all four candles, my mother, brother and I had to go into another room for a short time. When the fire alarm went off, at first I couldn’t think of what it could be. But then the awareness struck all of us and we dashed back into the living room.

The whole wreath was consumed in a gigantic plume of fire and smoke reaching up to the ceiling. Thank God for the water nearby that saved us.

John the Baptist warns the religious leaders of the day, in today’s Gospel reading, that the one who is coming will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire”.[1] The advent wreath on fire appeared unquenchable, believe you me! 

Today we light the candle of Peace on the wreath. The biblical word for peace is ‘shalom’. What does ‘shalom’—the peace of God—mean?

The advent wreath on fire wasn’t a calming vision of peace, one that we normally seek at this time of year. We may not expect and may not want to read a passage from the bible these days that paints disturbing images about the coming Christ. 

I am drawn, rather, to focus on the “… intimate comforts of mangers, fireplaces and hot chocolates.”[2] I would rather my advent wreath not explode in a plume of unquenchable fire. I want to see the soft, flickering light, snuggled up with a blanket and a good book on the couch. I don’t think I’m alone in seeking a reality closer to Hallmark images of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. 

Yet, a world already awash in the soft glow of Christmas, this Sunday’s gospel jarringly redirects our focus. The Gospel presents a dirty and smelly John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, and screaming threats at the religious leaders visiting him in the wilderness. Where is the good news in this?

Before we skip over John the Baptist in our rush to get all cushy with Christmas, let’s pause for a moment. And consider this: While only two of the four gospels talk about Jesus’ birth, all four tell about John the Baptist. So, there’s something here we need to pay attention to. We need to ponder why his story is vital to our Advent journey.

Ancient wisdom for people of faith warned against what was called a “pernicious peace.” One of self-indulgence, self-absorption and self-preoccupation with being comfortable. A peace that ultimately does not satisfy. In fact, too much of this spelled a dangerous escape from reality—a pernicious peace.

What do you notice first about John the Baptist? What detail about his persona first draws you in? I’m drawn to the wild honey image. I love honey. But I must confess I associate the pleasure and benefit of honey with an early childhood image that has stayed with me—Winnie the Pooh. But this childhood warm-fuzzy image must be revised. Because it doesn’t square with the reality of the honeybee and its grittier, larger truth.

In her Advent devotional, Gayle Boss describes how bees survive winter. They cluster together and shiver their wing muscles in a carefully arranged dance to keep the queen and the honey at the center of the hive warm. 

Some bees are even born to know only this long, cold season of life: “They will know only the dark hive,” Gayle Boss writes, “the press of their sisters’ bodies …They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.”[3]

There’s a constant movement, not easily perceptible to us humans in the formation of honey and the beehive. There’s movement, a community that endures difficulty and toil during the dark winter. Yet in the toil, there is hope for the future. And this is the ongoing work we give during Advent.

The pastor says: “The Peace of the Lord be with you all.” And the people respond: “And also with you.” Where is this said in the liturgy every week? Those words mark the beginning of the Communion part of the service. Those words and gestures launch us into Holy Communion.

We share the Peace. Sharing the Peace is an action towards and with one another. Then, in our tradition, we come forward. We move our bodies on the way to the altar to receive the gift.

Peace is not a state of being, but a movement. Like the bees shivering their wings to keep the queen and honey warm. Peace is a movement, ongoing. A path. A way of peace. This is the shalom of the bible. 

The Hebrew concept of peace was described as peace between God, the people, and the environment. When we share the peace of Christ at the beginning of the Holy Communion, “we are calling for this shalom to be present in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world. Shalom [therefore] means hospitality and welcoming the stranger in our midst.” And after the Eucharist—the Holy Communion— “we go forth as agents of reconciliation, carrying the peace of Christ with us.”[4] Even and especially when we find ourselves in the wilderness of our lives.

So, what is your “wilderness”? Is it a physical suffering? Is it dealing with mental illness, an emotional pain, an addiction, sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, shame? Is your wilderness the loneliness of the season, the feeling of abandonment, isolation? What is your wilderness?

We all likely have a few advent wreaths on fire, figuratively speaking, somewhere in our lives. And we may feel like all we are doing is trying to put out all those out-of-control fires. But John the Baptist warns the religious leaders, even suggesting that the “wrath to come” is not something from which to “flee”. Repentance is not escaping into a Hallmark world of denial and avoidance. True repentance happens when we face the wrath, the wilderness, the suffering in faith and hope. 

God takes the lead. God comes to be with us in our wilderness wandering. Jesus is the Living Water[5]that saves us. Jesus chose to go to where John the Baptist was—into the wilderness of his life, to be baptized. God chooses to go there—into the wilderness of our lives—to bring healing and wholeness.

This is wonderful news! God doesn’t flee from the wilderness. It is the place where God’s presence is experienced. This is the path of peace. It’s a journey. May we find our nourishment and strength moving toward the goal on this winding path.


[1] Matthew 3:1-12

[2] Donna Lynn Gartshore, “Where did you go?” Eternity for Today (Winnipeg: ELCIC, 29 November 2022)

[3] Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginning (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016), p.15–16.

[4] Donald W. Johnson and Susan C. Johnson, Praying the Catechism: Revised and Expanded Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2021), p.160.

[5] John 4:13

2 thoughts on “Wreath on fire

  1. Thank you for taking the time to share your sermons and ideas. I have found them to be creative and fresh. From one pastor to another. Thanks!

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