Water, Fire and the Holy Spirit
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22
January 13, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. John Paarlberg
When I was in seminary I had a student field assignment in a Hungarian Reformed Church --in the Reformed tradition we practice infant baptism as well as adult, believer baptism. The pastor there told a story of a baptism he celebrated. As he poured the water over the child’s head the baby began to cry. “There, there,” said the infant’s father. “Nothing happened. Nothing happened.”
Let me be quick to say that that is not a Reformed doctrine of baptism. We believe that something does indeed happen in baptism, as I am sure you do, too. But exactly what happens and how it happens, when it happens—that is much more difficult to say. We say that baptism is “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” or even “a means of grace,” which is to say that the Spirit of God acts in baptism, that God’s love is communicated—really, substantially, truly. Just how that comes about remains something of a mystery. God certainly doesn’t act at our behest. The church doesn’t control God’s Spirit. We don’t dispense God’s love. The Spirit blows where it wills; God acts in freedom. Yet we trust in God’s promises. In and through the sacrament of baptism God acts. Something happens.
It’s also pretty clear in the New Testament that something happens in baptism, something powerful, dramatic, maybe even disruptive. Mark says the heavens were torn open at Jesus baptism. Both Matthew and Luke include these words from John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; …. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Water, fire and Spirit are powerful forces, powerful biblical images. And not necessarily gentle, cozy images either. The picture here is not that of curling up beside a warm fire or soaking away the day’s tensions in a soothing bath. This is a fire that destroys and water that drowns.
Recall some of the biblical stories associated with water. The Spirit hovers over the waters at the dawn of creation. There is the story of Noah and the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, where ‘Pharaoh’s army got drownded’ as the spiritual says. There is the story of Joshua and the people of Israel crossing the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana; Jesus and the woman at the well where he offers her living water; the healing at the pool of Bethsaida where the Spirit troubles the waters. Biblical stories about water are stories about power and risk and drama. Water is often an indication that something significant is about to happen; things are going to change.
Water refreshes, cleanses, delights. It means life and new life. But we also know the power of water in hurricanes, floods and tsunamis. Water erodes, engulfs, destroys and drowns. Water is both life-giving and life-threatening. And the water of baptism is both blessing and threat. It signifies new life, but for new life to be born something has to die.
Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6: 3-4). In baptism something in us is not only washed away, but drowned. “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul (Ro. 6:11).
In many baptismal liturgies that is reflected in the renunciations and affirmations. The one being baptized is asked: Do you renounce the power of sin in your life and in the world? “I renounce them.” Who is your Lord and Savior? “Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior.” Baptism is a baptism of repentance, a turning around, the drowning and death of the old self and the birth of the new.
John baptized with water, a baptism of repentance. “But the one who is coming,” said John, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.…. his winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3: 16-17).
The image is of one holding a winnowing fork, or perhaps, as I’ve seen it done, a large, shallow, open basket filled with grain, tossing the grain into the air again and again, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff, the light, worthless stuff, and catching the valuable, heavier grains of wheat in the basket. And then sweeping up the chaff and throwing it into the fire.
Winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff, is another image associated with baptism according to John. Not separating the good people from the bad people, but separating the good from the bad in each of us.
You are about to be shaken up and sifted, says John, tossed into the air to allow the wind of the Spirit to blow away the parts that get in the way of what God wants us to be. Then the wheat, the good stuff will be gathered up, but the chaff, the non-essential, the worthless will be thrown into the fire.
“The one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? In Jesus’ baptism the Spirit is associated with the affirmation of God’s love: The Spirit descended in the form of a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Yet it was that same gentle, loving, dove-like Spirit that then led Jesus into the wilderness to wrestle with the forces of evil; that same Spirit sent him on his mission to proclaim that God’s kingdom had come near. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me he said “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed to free” (Luke 4:18). The Spirit led Jesus to live a life that was about so much more than his life. And in our baptisms we are called to live a life that is so much more than our own life. We are called beyond ourselves. Yes, the Spirit is gentle and loving but the Spirit can also be disturbing, disruptive, empowering.
I’ve been led beyond myself to do such things as tutor immigrant and refugee children at Arbor Hill elementary school, visit with Palestinians in the West Bank, volunteer in a food pantry, seek reconciliation with someone I’ve wronged, travel to Nicaragua to help rebuild homes— not necessarily great things, but, I hope, small things done with great love, as Mother Theresa said. Why would I do such things? There are many motives, but the short answer is: Because I have been baptized. The Spirit led me.
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is to be empowered to be God’s co-workers in a wounded and weary world. The Spirit leads you to places you would not otherwise go, calls you to undertake tasks you would otherwise not dare, to engage in struggles and conflicts you would otherwise comfortably avoid.
But underlying all of it is the voice from God: “You are my beloved.” That is both the climax of the story and the source of everything that follows from it. The alpha and the omega is the affirmation of God’s strong and steadfast love.
We heard it in the words that Isaiah spoke to a dispirited and despairing people: “Now thus says the Lord: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. . . . You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1–2, 4). We hear it again when God speaks another very personal and particular and specific word at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God lovingly enters into the life and history of a nation or a community or an individual and makes a particular choice; “I have called you by name, you are mine.” “You are my Son.”
Henri Nouwen writes that “when I know that I am chosen, I know that I have been seen as a special person. Someone has noticed my uniqueness and has expressed a desire to know me, to come closer to me, to love me… When love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one and it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded.” (Life of the Beloved, pp. 44-45.)
What God said to Jesus, God says to each of us at our baptism: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” In baptism we are not celebrating the concept of love, or the general idea that God loves everyone, but that you in particular— you, your own unique, unrepeatable, individual self are named and loved by God. I think that is at the heart and foundation of everything we believe about baptism.
I spoke earlier of the renunciations and affirmations in baptism, of saying no to evil and saying yes to love. But maybe it should be the other way around: affirmation first; then renunciation. God’s love comes first. And when we know the power of that love, when we rest in that love, then our lives are turned around and we say no to the powers of evil.
It is God’s love that washes away the old life and kills in us what needs to die.
It is love that sifts the good from the bad and burns away the chaff.
It is love that gets us outside of our selves.
It is love that leads us to travel a new road.
It is God’s love that brings us to new life.
Luke is the only Gospel that explicitly connects Jesus’ baptism and the descent of Spirit with prayer. “When Jesus … had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended … And a voice announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
James David Duncan is a writer, nature lover, fly-fisherman, mystic, and a non-church going lover of Jesus and lover of the Gospel. He bemoans the way prayer has been trivialized and distorted and even exploited by politicians and celebrities and others. Think of Presidential prayer breakfasts, or ‘sending our thoughts and prayers’ to those who have suffered tragedy.
Duncan makes reference to Jesus’ command in the Sermon on Mount in Matthew 6:6, not to pray on public street corners in order to be seen by others, but to pray in secret in your closet. He writes: “The only unfailing guide I’ve ever found through the innumerable blind alleys of my life as a writer, man, husband, father, citizen, steward or believer, is the love burning in my heart. For me, prayer is about one thing: making contact with that love. Though it burns in there like a candle flame, hot, bright, beautiful, love’s flame is fragile: so fragile, I feel, that the wrong kind of prayer can snuff it out; so fragile, I sense, that it absolutely needs the stillness of ‘the closet’ Jesus recommends in order to burn brightly. So… to every …proponent of mass piety and public prayer, I say Matthew 6:6 forever. If prayer now means we talk to the Flame of Love on TVs and street corners, telling It what we desire rather than seeking Its guidance, then [I want nothing more to do with prayer.] …. If the wordless yearning or brokenhearted sigh of the Muslim and Jew and Buddhist nun and wordless child…at prayer is not equally pleasing to the One True Listener, [then I want nothing more to do with prayer.]… If prayer is now a means of wooing votes, if prayer has ceased to marvel at an unspeakably sublime Mystery and is now a public gloat [then I want nothing more to do with prayer.]
“Keeping one’s love burning, and living in accord with that burning: this, to me, is prayer. And love, as the gospels describe it, is not the glorification of self, but the renunciation of it for the sake of the beloved, whether that beloved be God, the words of Jesus, a woman, a child, [or a ravaged piece of God’s beautiful creation].
“When prayer comes to mean asking for ends that please me, first and foremost, God help me stop praying: help me love something or someone instead” [God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Great Barrington, MA: Triad Books, 2006), pp. 112-113.]
I am less clear about the details of baptism--exactly what happens, how it happens, when it happens, but I’m more certain that at the heart of baptism is love: God’s free, unlearned, gracious love. You are named, known, called and loved. You are God’s beloved, called to live in accord with that love.
I’m grateful for the doctrine of baptism, particularly for the Reformed doctrine of baptism, my own tradition. I hope you are grateful for tradition’s understanding of baptism. But I experience my tradition’s doctrine, not as a complete and perfect explanation of what baptism means, nor as a fence or boundary beyond which I may not wander, but rather as a sure foundation, a solid place to stand: a strong and constant reminder that I am rooted and grounded in love. A love that sifts, purifies, cleanses and frees me from myself, sending me out unafraid, into a world that God loves.