John’s Fire & Spirit
By Fr. Bill Wigmore
(This sermon was delivered to a group recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.)
Well once again welcome & good evening – how’re you all doin’ tonight?
Tonight’s the second Sunday in Advent –
and as we said last week, Advent is roughly the 30-day
season that comes just before Christmas.
It’s a time of preparation –
Of getting ourselves ready for a change –
The change that God brought about 2,000 years ago on Christmas Day;
and the changes that need to take place in our hearts today.
And so each year, the gospel readings help get us ready;
And each year, long about this time, we receive our annual visit
from a very strange-looking dude by the name of: John the Baptist.
Now any time a Baptist shows up,
you can be pretty sure he’s gonna start quotin’ you some scripture! –
And this Baptist doesn’t disappoint!
He quotes Isaiah the prophet, saying:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
John’s message is the same every year.
Get ready for what’s coming.
And at first glance, John seems like a really odd choice
to be picked as one of God’s messengers.
If he showed up in most churches today – the way he’s dressed,
he’d never make it past the first set of ushers!
He’s sportin’ a loin-cloth made out of camel’s hair! (That’s really gotta itch!)
And instead of bringing a big, box of cookies for the church choir,
he’s totin’ a bag full of bugs – locust and a few crickets –
– some wild honey drippin from an old can of Bugler.
He’s probably parked his Harley right out on the front lawn.
What kind of a crazy Baptist is this?
And that’s just what the people of his day were also asking –
So John’s starting to draw quite a crowd.
People are coming from Jerusalem and from all over –
They’re streaming out into the desert to see what this strange looking guy is up to.
And the thing we might miss about this scene
is that all these people should never be going there.
These people are Jews, they’re supposed to be going to their Temple –
That’s where God’s supposed to be — and that’s where
they’re supposed to go to offer him sacrifice.
But something’s terribly wrong in their Temple –
God doesn’t seem to live there any more!
So here’s John, standing knee-deep in the river Jordan
and announcing God’s coming to meet you here –
Now hurry-up and get yourself ready!
John’s message is sometimes translated as “repent”–
but the Greek word used in the gospel
really goes a whole lot deeper than that.
He’s really telling people they need to change –
And they need to change radically.
Half measures will avail them nothing!
So one by one the people come.
And after they do their Third Step there on the shore,
they step off the bank and step out into the river.
John plunges ‘em down deep –
No gentle drops of holy water sprinkled on their heads –
He sends ‘em down – way down below the surface –
and they come up out of that water feeling
new, and clean, and ready to live a whole new life.
So let’s leave John standing & dripping there in the Jordan,
and turn for a minute to tonight’s other reading –
because it too introduces a pretty strange character –
He’s a wise but also a little bit of a wild-man by the name of C.G. Jung.
And Jung is sometimes credited with being the one
who set the whole AA recovery thing in motion
through an alcoholic patient of his named Rowland Hazard.
Rowland’s story appears in the Big Book, but he’s not mentioned by name,
and his story doesn’t often get too much attention.
Tonight, we’ll try to make up for that!
It seems Rowland was truly one of us –
He was a drunk who’d tried every treatment available –
But he always wound up schnockered and in trouble again.
So Rowland’s family had money
and they sent him all the way over to Switzerland to get treated by Jung,
one of the very best shrinks in the world.
Rowland goes willingly – he wants to get well –
and he does all the treatment that’s prescribed.
He gets in there and works really hard –
He analyzes his dreams and he does
all his inner-child stuff –
Rowland thinks he’s finally gotten a handle on this drinking
thing now – so back he comes to the States.
And he does stay sober for: maybe a month!
But then Rowland’s drunk again –
and as the Big Book says, he doesn’t know why.
So back he travels to Switzerland for a second time.
He goes back there to see the one guy in the world who he thinks can help him –
And what happens next proves the real turning point for him
and maybe it ought to be for us too: Jung refuses to treat him.
He tells Rowland that he’s tried helping him –
He tells him he’s already given him everything that psychiatry had to offer –
but that wasn’t good enough.
He pronounces Rowland an alcoholic of: the hopeless variety.
Rowland’s standing there stunned. Hopeless!
His very last hope – the great Doctor Jung – just stamped a great big H on his forehead!
So after a minute or two of doin’ the deer in the headlights thing,
he asks his famous teacher:
“Is there anything – anything at all that I can do?”
And here’s where Jung makes his great contribution
to our understanding of what recovery is really all about.
He tells Rowland that what he needs to do is to change.
He needs to undergo a very, very deep sort of change –
Maybe in the same sort of way that John was telling his people
that they needed to change –
But Jung called it by a different name –
He called it a psychic change – and psyche means soul –
Rowland needed a spiritual awakening in his soul –
an awakening that involved (and I’m quoting now from the Big Book)
huge emotional displacements and
re-arrangements (of) ideas, emotions, and attitudes
Those things that were once the guiding forces of his life –
now they need to be cast to one side,
and a completely new set of conceptions and motives need to dominate.
Jung said he’d seen alcoholics and addicts recover through such a change.
“Here and there, once in a while,
a conversion experience happens.”
Now Rowland’s face brightens a bit and he says,
“Well, Doc, looks like I’m in luck!
See, I go to church, so maybe that’ll do it for me.”
But Jung bursts his balloon and tells him
that going to church probably ain’t gonna work,
just like going to the Temple wasn’t working for
the people back in the days of John the Baptist.
Some of us need changes far deeper
than most churches are usually willing to take you.
So now back to the Jordan – and here, enters Jesus.
The story says he’s been up north in Galilee,
but now he’s come down to be baptized by John.
“You oughta be the one baptizing me!” he protests.
And then, sounding kind of like a Nike ad, Jesus says: “Just do it.”
And so, John does.
Jesus slips beneath the waves, and what Jung would tell us
is that the water in this scene represents the unconscious.
Jesus enters what the Big Book calls the 4th level of our existence-
He enters a new consciousness – a new awareness of who he is and why he’s here.
Water is a powerful symbol
We’re made mostly of water –
In the womb we float in it –
When we’re born we’re washed with it –
Water keeps us alive and without drinking it, we’d die –
And even when we do die,
we’re washed in water one last time.
We can’t usually see what’s happening under water –
Just like we can’t usually see what’s happening
in our own un-conscious –
But we can experience the 4th dimension of reality that’s there inside us!
We can experience the unconscious!
As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what we human beings are made for!
And if we don’t experience it – if we don’t connect vitally with that Power deep within, then we’re gonna be restless, irritable and discontented.
The psalm says to God: Our souls don’t find their rest –
until they rest in you.
So when Jesus comes up from the water –
the story tries to tell us that something very deep has happened to him down there.
What was un-conscious in him – now becomes conscious!
The writer tries to expresses it in the form of a vision. He says:
Suddenly, the whole sky opened up –
and Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down in the form of a dove –
And then, when God’s spirit perched right on him,
he heard a voice say: “You are my Son, the delight of my life!
Chosen – and marked by my love.”
Earlier this week I helped support some people
going out on what’s called a Vision Quest.
Ten or twelve men and women, one by one,
heading out alone into the wilderness
to see what’s inside them and to connect with it at a whole new level.
They were each going to go and sit on a blanket for one to four days and do only one thing: Beg God for a vision! They’d fasted & prayed –
Almost all of them were people in recovery –
Some had just a few years – some had twenty or more.
I ran into an old friend at the camp – a guy I hadn’t seen in years –
He now has thirty years clean and I’m coming up on 35 sober –
We laughed and said – Of course we’d wind up here –
Where else are you gonna go
with that much sober time under your loin cloth?
And we agreed there isn’t too much happening in our temples these days;
But God can still be found in the wilderness –
he’s waiting for any and all who’ll step off the edge and come to him.
“I baptize you with water –
but there’s one coming after me
who’ll baptize you with fire and with spirit.”
I think that’s pretty much what Jung was trying to tell his young friend Rowland.
“I can’t help you, because what you really need is the power of God in your life.
And what you need is a God who lives not in your head –
but a God who burns deep down in your soul.
A God who comes to you like fire – and who sets your heart aflame.”
(We all used to drink what the Indians called: fire-water –
These readings are saying:
we’d better discover an even bigger fire burning inside us if we hope to recover.)
I was praying about how to end this sermon- (and by now some of you may be too!)
and I thought it called for some kind of a story –
Hopefully, a story about fire & spirit
that could maybe pull some of these loose ends together.
So after saying that prayer, I opened a book sitting next to me –
and the very first thing I saw – and I promise you this is true –
is a short piece by Robert Johnson called:
The Spirit Man on Mount St. Helens.
(See Inner Work by Robert Johnson, p.219)
It was a vision Johnson had when he was a young man.
And Johnson is both a follower of Jesus and follower of Carl Jung –
so let me read you a few passages:
One evening I made a campfire on the side of Mt. St. Helens,
where I had spent many happy summers in childhood before the volcano erupted.
I squatted on my heels looking into my campfire at dusk.
Even today I can remember the vivid colors of that evening and how they thrilled me.
The orange of the campfire, the dark blue color of the evening sky,
the purple-gray shadows on the mountain.
I felt a great sense of joy, beauty, peacefulness – but also expectancy.
A young man, about my own age, came walking up
and stood just on the other side of the fire.
I was on my heels by the fire; he was standing quietly;
and we just looked at each other for a long time.
Then to my astonishment, the fire moved and transported itself down into Spirit Lake, way at the bottom,
and burned there as a tiny orange speck in the midst of that indigo blue water.
Then the fire came back and burned before me.
The young man took one step – into the middle of the fire.
He absorbed the fire into his bloodstream so that he had fire
circulating in his veins rather than blood.
We stood there for some time, I looking in awe at these events,
and then he said:
“Come, I’m going to show you how the world was made.”
(And here, Johnson’s vision deepens
and the spirit-man shows him a colossal diamond formed out of fire –
and that diamond has streams of energy erupting all around it –
there’s energy exploding from the top and coming into it at the
bottom – It’s as an endless flow of power and light.)
And then Johnson says he was embarrassed to tell what he said next –
but he tugged at the sleeve of the spirit-man,
and being a very practical American, he said rather irreverently,
“This is fine, – but what’s it good for?”
Johnson said: The spirit-man looked at me in disgust:
“It isn’t good for anything. Just watch!”
“That silenced me,” Johnson said.
We watched, and I felt that the colors – the light…
the infinite energy and brightness were etched forever on my memory
and had almost entered into the physical cells of my body.
He took me back then, and I sat again on my heels before the campfire.
He stood again in the fire.
Then he stepped back and, and let the fire flow out of his arteries
back into the little campfire on the ground.
The fire went back down to the bottom of Spirit Lake and went on burning.
Then the fire returned.
The young man turned around without a word and walked back out
into the twilight from where he had come.
The vision ended, and I found myself back in my “normal,” mundane, physical world.
Johnson says, “It’s difficult to know what to do with a vision like this.”
And the church also has had a hard time figuring out what to do
with the vision of Jesus there at the Jordan –
God coming to rest on him in the form of a dove!
Every so often, some idiot will claim he’s actually discovered a feather
from that holy, little bird! –
And when people believe that,
they wind up worshiping a wing and totally missing the metaphor.
Human conscious probably gets set back another hundred years
and Jung turns over in his grave!
“But here and there, once in a while, a conversion experience happens.”
Here and there, once in a while,
people come to see into that 4th dimension of God’s existence –
and once they do they’re never the same.
Rowland got sober and so have a million more just like him.
We read the story of John the Baptist every year to get us ready for Christmas.
God’s coming into the world and coming into our lives in a whole new way.
We need to get ready –
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
And when we do that – Really do it !
When we make the kind of deep changes that Jung urged Rowland to make
then watch the visions start happening to us too:
Watch every valley and every low spot in our lives all of sudden, be lifted up.
Watch every obstacle and every mountain we need to climb – watch it be made low.
Watch all the mood swings that used to drag us down –
watch them start to level out
And watch as all the rough places in our lives become a plain.
Dive into the water – Don’t stand on the shore! – Just do it!
Take the steps!—
Go deep and find the fire and spirit burning inside you –
And then, in just a few more weeks, Christmas will come
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
And all flesh – including our own – will see it together.
Copyright 2008 Bill Wigmore. Used by permission.