“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Luke 3:16b
Biblical imagery is weird. I’m guessing most of us haven’t wielded a winnowing fork or cleared a threshing floor or separated wheat from chaff.[i] I know I haven’t. If you have, I’d like to know more about it.
Fire and water are at least familiar to us. But they have so many different associations that it’s hard to know how to make sense of them when we encounter them in scripture.
Sometimes we associate fire with destruction. I can’t get out of my mind the awful images from the California fires, especially the almost complete leveling of a town ironically named Paradise. Sometimes we associate fire with judgment – “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Our imagined versions of hell usually involve fire.
But remember that not too long ago we gathered on Christmas eve and sang “Silent Night,” each of us holding a little bit of fire as we remembered that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. We give the newly baptized a flaming candle and say, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Ordinary fire can have a divine power.
The same is true of water. We bathe in it and wash our dishes in it. We are soothed by the sounds of a gentle rainfall. But water can also take the form of a tsunami or a rising flood that sweeps away everything in its path.
Fire and water. So ordinary, so powerful.
This morning, in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, we hear John say that it’s one thing for a person like him to baptize with water. Jesus, though – Jesus will be different. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. That sounds powerful – and a bit ominous.
What is this baptism that Jesus brings? Let’s start with what it is not.
Baptism is not an opportunity to label different baptismal practices as “correct” or “incorrect.” Christian traditions have many ways of understanding baptism. Some baptize infants; others don’t. Some sprinkle; others dunk. Some believe that one baptism is effective for your whole life; others think that two baptisms are necessary – one involving water, another involving the receiving of the Holy Spirit, often made evident by speaking in tongues. If you have questions about some of those differences, please ask me, and I’ll do my best to share what I know. The differences are meaningful, but our methods do not make God love us any more or any less.
Baptism is not an invitation to judge others. Sometimes when we hear this language about how Jesus is going to save the valuable wheat and burn the useless chaff, we’re tempted to sort people into categories of wheat or chaff. Who do we think is so terrible that they will end up burning as chaff? Who will make the cut and survive as wheat? But as a colleague reminded me this week, it would be more valuable to see that each of us contains both wheat and chaff. Our Lutheran understanding is that we are all both sinners and saints. The good of which we are capable and the bad to which we so often turn – they are both part of us, deep down to our marrow. Only Jesus can do the kind of purifying that untangles one from the other.
Baptism is not a magic spell that keeps us from being hurt. I wish it were. After his own baptism Jesus will head into the wilderness for forty days of hunger and temptation. Later his own neighbors will try to throw him off a cliff. Religious leaders will accuse him of breaking God’s law.
There will be countless people who need to be healed and need to be heard, and Jesus will do that work until he is absolutely wrung out with exhaustion. He will try again and again to slip away from the crowds and have a moment of peace and prayer. He will seldom find that peace.
And of course there’s the cross. For Jesus pain and horror and death lie ahead. Baptism does not keep Jesus from all of that, nor does it keep us from running headlong into suffering.
So what is baptism?
Baptism is a promise that we are never forsaken – in this life or the next. It is the voice of God saying to each of us, “You are my Beloved, and nothing – absolutely nothing – will keep me from loving you always.” In the rite of baptism we promise as a community to support each other in making the world look more like what God wants it to be – a place of peace and justice. And though we know we will fail again and again, we trust in another promise of baptism – the promise of God’s forgiveness. That promise helps us keep going in the face of so much that threatens to discourage or defeat us.
Many of our hearts broke this week when we learned that Chatham fourth-grader Tessa Handerhan died Thursday night. Tessa mysteriously collapsed in early December and never recovered. The magnitude of the grief when a child dies is beyond words. I feel it without having known Tessa or her family. I know many of you do too. A tragedy like this one always brings questions. Why did it happen? Why would God allow it to happen? What possible reason could there be for a nine-year-old to die?
There are no clear answers to those questions. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but logic cannot withstand the mysteries of death and suffering.
All I can tell you is that we are not alone. God is with us in every circumstance, in joy and in grief. The best we can do is to sit beside those who are grieving – with our presence and with our prayers. To do so will seem ordinary and insufficient, but it is what we can offer. God is good at using what seems ordinary.
Last week I mentioned that the name for this season – Epiphany – comes from the Greek word that means “appearing” or “revealing.”[ii] It calls us to look for God’s presence in ordinary places and moments.
I was sitting at Starbucks yesterday doing some work, hunkered down at one of those long tables to finish today’s sermon and to study some of the readings we’ll hear in the coming weeks. I was praying too – for you, for our congregation, for Tessa’s family, for a dear friend of mine who is very sick. One by one, my tablemates left. (I was praying silently, so I don’t think I scared them away.) Eventually there were just two of us– I was there, typing away, as was a young woman who looked to be preparing for some kind of big test. One of the baristas came over and said they had made some extra hot chocolate. Would we like some on the house? Well, of course.
That hot chocolate was like a little epiphany. I didn’t have to pay for it. I didn’t earn it in any way. I just got to enjoy drinking it. The hot chocolate tasted a lot like grace.
As I sipped the hot chocolate, I watched a little girl come in with her parents. She was under two – barely walking – but she caught the rhythms of the music playing overhead – the Hamilton soundtrack, I think. And she started dancing. She held a green straw in each of her toddler hands and she boogied like it was her mission in life. She giggled with total delight. I smiled through tears, thinking of another family without their daughter. That little girl dancing looked a lot like grace. Defying the cold around us with the warmth of her joy.
God comes to us in the precious, ordinary things of daily life. In fire. In water. In bread. In wine. In a dancing toddler. In the tears of a neighbor. In a voice that whispers “You are beloved.”
Be alert, people of God. We never know where God will meet us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am indebted to Pastor Joanna Harader for her column in the recent edition of The Christian Century, which can be found here: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/water-and-fire-psalm-29-isaiah-431-7-luke-315-17-21-22
[ii]Thank you to Debie Thomas for her essay for Journey with Jesus this week: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2047