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Baptism's Fire

Sermon - 1/13/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 3:1-17

The story of the baptism of Jesus is found in the third chapter of Matthew's gospel:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’


Let me ask a question this morning to stimulate your thinking:  why do you come to church?  What brings you here?

People who study church-goers (there's a whole group of folks who study you -- you odd people that come to church J) say that the number one reason people come to church is to hear good news.  To be uplifted, encouraged.

We hear so much bad news the rest of the week -- crime, and war, unemployment, global warming, and Jonathan Stewart turning pro [Ducks star running-back!].

We need to have that one place, that one time during the week when we hear good news.  People are hungry for good news.  Something to give them hope and comfort, a place where we can feel good about ourselves.

One of the themes that we heard in the prayer triads in the Fall -- those 10 weeks of prayer in which people were engaged [as part of our Visioning Process] -- was that people like coming here because we don't focus a lot on sin, judgment, we don't fill people with guilt or shame.  AND IF YOU WOULD COME TO CHURCH MORE OFTEN YOU WOULD KNOW THAT THIS IS TRUE!  J  Maybe that wasn't a good example J.

So this season of Epiphany starts off with the tradition of the story of Jesus' baptism.  And we gather by the banks of the cool, refreshing waters of the Jordan River, to hear John preach before Jesus is baptized.  And what do we get?  Wrath of God!  Fire of condemnation!  The very first words out of John's mouth are "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. . bear fruit worthy of repentance. . .even now the axe is laying at the root of the trees, every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire".

This is good news?  No wonder John gets thrown in prison.  His preaching offers as much comfort as a life insurance salesman at a funeral.  Probably not what we want to hear.

You recognize, of course, the irony in this text.  Pharisees and Sadducees are the religious leaders, the ones most likely to be seen by the people as being righteous and holy -- the 'good' people.  And we, you know, those that make our living by this -- the professional folk in churches -- this kind of preaching makes us a little bit nervous.  For John, as far as he is concerned, anyone connected with the religious establishment is corrupt.  The time has come, he says, when God is going to start over again.  Wipe the slate clean.  Burn it all with fire.

So he calls folk out to the Jordan to be baptized.  To be purified by God in preparation for this coming time.  Whereas he says he is doing that with water, the one who follows him, he says, will do it with fire.

And that's not a comforting image at all, to be baptized by fire.  But if you stop to think about it, the gospel message often is not comforting.  The people in Jesus' home congregation of Nazareth discovered that.  After he had been away for a time, off to school or something, came back and they wanted to hear him, and so he comes and he reads the scripture.  And remember that familiar text from Isaiah 61:  "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind".  And everyone said 'My, how he reads the scriptures so well.  We could hear every word he says, what a fine young man.  His father would be so proud if he could only be here to hear him'.

If Jesus had been smart, he would have quit while he was ahead, gone off to coffee hour, ate the cookies, shook hands, told stories, and everyone would have gone home feeling good.  But that's not the way the story goes, is it?  If you remember that story in the 4th chapter of Luke's gospel, Jesus goes on to expound a little -- impress people with his knowledge of what he has learned.  And he tells them stories -- part of their own tradition.

A couple of stories of how God bypassed the good people of the church to bestow blessing upon a couple of Gentile heathens.  People on the outside.  And they get the drift of what Jesus is saying to them.  And they're not happy with that.  They have a mind to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Sometimes, you see, the gospel burns.  From our perspective looking back, we wonder 'How could they have been so blind'?  But how would you respond if I told you that Jesus has returned, and he's wearing an OSU beaver shirt? J

We talk about the Sermon on the Mount as being this wonderful message from Jesus which we should try harder to live, right?  Have you read it lately?  In it Jesus says things like:  "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.  If you're angry with a brother or sister [have you ever been angry?], you will be liable to judgment.  If your right eye causes you to sin [ever look at something you shouldn't look at?], pluck it out!  If your right hand causes you to sin [ever done something you shouldn't have done?], cut it off!  It is better for you to lose one of your offending members than for your whole body to go into Hell".

This is tough stuff.

And then if that weren't hard enough, Jesus gives this clincher:  "Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect".

Now, I don't know about you, but that's a pretty high standard.  How are we supposed to live up to this?

Mark Twain says:  "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand that bother me, it's the parts of the Bible I do understand that bother me".  Isn't that true?

Being a Christian, living as Jesus taught us to live, is not for push-overs.  Baptism is serious business.  Every now and then I'll have a parent come to me and say 'You know, Johnny or Susie is ready to be baptized', even though he or she is only 8 or 9 years old.  You know, they're ready, they understand.  And I say "Really?".  "Have you read this?".  Do you really think that they understand this?

In my mind, baptism is like sex:  you're not ready until about age 35 J.  That's what I tell my kids J.  Like your parents, Jesus only did it once.  Baptism, baptism J.

Whereas the baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his ministry, just as it marks the beginning of Christian life for us, we must not forget that ultimately it led to his death.  And while certainly no one else is called to make such a sacrifice, we are called to take up the cross, just the same.

That does not mean that the Christian life necessarily will be one of suffering, but it does require a certain denial of one's self.  And a definite re-ordering of one's priorities.  To put God first in their life.  Bearing fruit 'worthy of repentance', as John said.  This is not kids stuff.

The World Council of Churches committee on faith and order wrote in their definitive study, after a number of years of working together among all of these wide, divergent Christian groups, a study of baptism.  And they wrote that 'baptism is an un-repeatable act.  That is, to be re-baptized would be to suggest that the grace of God was not sufficient'.  You didn't get enough of it the first time around, so you need some more, right?  Or that baptism is about what we do to make it effective, rather than what God does.  And if that were true, we would all be in need of continual re-baptism.

But because baptism is about what God does, not about what we do, it does not need to be repeated.  Once is all it takes to show that you have been accepted by God.

Baptism is also an undeniable act.  You cannot 'un-do' your baptism.  You cannot say it never happened.  Once you have been baptized, you carry the name of Christ with you forever.  And from that day forward, you never cease to be a witness for Christ.  You can only choose what kind of witness you will be.

So to associate baptism with fire instead of water, as in this text, makes a lot of sense.  Water doesn't usually leave a mark on you, unless you sit in a bathtub so long the ring is around you, I suppose.  But fire, on the other hand -- when you're burned, you're scarred, in many ways. 

The Hebrew view of God was of an all-consuming fire which no human being could experience and survive.  And so if you remember in that story of Moses and the burning bush, when Moses hears the voice of God, he turns away -- he cannot look at it for fear of his life.

And in the story of the call of Isaiah, when Isaiah has this vision of God, he says:  "Woe is me, I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts".  And then one of God's attendants takes a live coal from the altar, touches Isaiah's lips, and says "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out".  That's baptism by fire -- to be purified.

It is this same purifying fire that cleanses each of us who are baptized in the name of Christ.

It is the same heart-warming fire which the two on the road to Emmaus felt when they unknowingly encountered the risen Christ, and later they proclaimed 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he was talking to us on the road, opening the scripture to us?'.

It is the same tongue-releasing fire that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost, filling them with the holy spirit, in fulfillment of what John had said 'that he would baptize them with fire and the holy spirit'.

I have a new image for this baptism-by-fire.  Listening this week to National Public Radio, I heard a story.  They have a feature they play every now and then called "Story Corps", in which there is this miniature recording booth that travels around the country, and people go and just tell stories.  For prosperities sake, I guess.  Someone listens to those, and they play pieces of those stories on the radio.

In this one episode, a mother was being interviewed by her daughter about when she survived the plane crash in Sioux City, Iowa.  If you were around in the late 1980's, you'll remember it.  I think it was a DC-10, large plane, and the rudder on the plane broke.  If you know anything about flying, you know that is not a good thing.  The only way the pilot could control and steer the plane was by alternating power between the left and the right engines.  In that manner, something that no one had ever documented is even possible, managed to guide the plane to this airport in Sioux City where all the emergency personnel were waiting.

And this woman, as she's telling this story to her daughter, relaying how the plane comes down and one wing hits the ground and then the plane cartwheels down the runway and breaks apart, she said as they were coming in, the pilot said to them "This is going to be a very rough landing.  Brace yourselves".  And then he kept repeating that -- "Brace yourselves, brace yourselves".  And then all hell breaks loose.

Over 100 people were killed in the ensuing crash and fire.  This woman was one of 13 who walked away unscathed, at least physically.  And as the emergency personnel rushed to the scene and someone found this woman, said to her:  "God must have saved you because you have not yet fulfilled your purpose in life".

Now is that not what baptism is about?  You know, to be called by God, to have a purpose in life?  And I suppose it is.

But this mother said that this bothered her.  For days and weeks she thought about that, and the more she thought about it, the more upset she became, because she couldn't figure out what grand purpose that she would have that God would have saved her and not those 100+ people.

And finally, she said, she rejected that idea.  And she said instead, what she learned from that harrowing experience was this (and at this point in the interview, it was the first time that her voice began to break as she says to her daughter):  "To cherish each day with your loved ones.  That you live every day with no regrets, because you never know when it will be your last".

That's baptism by fire.  To discover that reality.

As we journey through this Epiphany season, we are guided by the light of Christ and invited to reflect on how our own baptism has opened the heavens to us. 

That we might be filled with the fire of God, to see how incredible this gift of life is that God gives to us. 

How wonderful this love is that we share with one another.

We are called to search for that presence of the spirit in our midst, burning away the chaff -- unnecessary stuff of our lives -- that the grain of that kernel might be saved and put to good use and nurtured in us.

We are challenged to shine as the bodily existence of Christ, giving witness that God is alive and that the spirit of God is descending upon us still.

All those who walk with the beloved of God receive that spirit.  And when we accept that invitation, we become the community of good news.  A place where people will find comfort and hope and encouragement and help and love.

In and through this baptism in Christ we discover the power of God that burns within us.  As French theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin said: 

"Someday, after we master the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, we will have discovered fire".

May that fire that burns within you, and lights your life, be the fire that goes with you all your days.


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