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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
That's what I tell my kids J.
Like your parents, Jesus only did it once. Baptism, baptism
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
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
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
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
"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.