Sermon; Epiphany 1 (Baptism of Our Lord); Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
If today's gospel sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because we heard part of it back on Advent 3 when John was out there baptizing people in the wilderness and calling them a brood of vipers. On this day when we celebrate Jesus' baptism, we hear again John talking about baptisms of water, the Holy Spirit, and fire. We hear him talk about the one to come after him whose winnowing fork is in his hand to gather the wheat and who will burn the chaff in unquenchable fire.
We also hear of the events after Jesus' baptism – primarily of the Holy Spirit descending upon him like a dove and the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And here I want to read the short passage from Acts that is also assigned for today from 8:14-17:
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
These two passages, the gospel and Acts, generate several questions about baptism: What does it mean to be baptized? Why do we get baptized? Why did Jesus get baptized? Is there a difference between a baptism of water and a baptism of the Holy Spirit? What does fire have to do with any or all of this?
In the Episcopal church we affirm any baptism done by water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. It doesn't matter if you're Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Brethren, Mennonite, Baptist, etc., if you were baptized with water and the Trinitarian formula, we recognize it. As the Creed says, “We acknowledge one baptism . . .” But passages like Acts and Luke can muddy the waters. People begin asking whether or not infant baptisms are valid. Some people put stipulations on baptism saying it must be a Spirit-filled baptism and require signs (like speaking in tongues) to prove it has taken place, among other earthly parameters.
I disagree with both of those positions because 1) it attempts to force God to behave a certain way, and 2) it requires signs for us to believe (ie, if you didn't speak in tongues, you aren't really baptized). There is a misguided belief that when you receive the Holy Spirit something grandiose happens. Whether it is speaking in tongues or whether it is having tongues of fire appear on your head or it is having a bird descend from heaven, people want to see something spectacular. But it just may be that the spectacular thing we want to see doesn't happen in an instant, but over a long period of time.
Baptism, among other things, signifies our new life in Christ. Through baptism we renounce Satan, evil powers, and sinful desires. Through baptism we turn to Jesus Christ, putting our whole trust in his grace and love, and promise to follow him. These are not easy things to do because 1) it's a constant battle to resist evil, and 2) we have to learn to give up control.
Part of that renouncing and turning means letting God, through the holy Spirit, work on us. It means letting God change us into who we are called to be. It means being placed in the refiner's fire until the chaff is burnt away leaving behind the wheat of God. Letting God work on you means giving up some control.
Being baptized by the Holy Spirit and giving up control means that we become open to hearing God's call and open to being led by the Holy Spirit. Being baptized by the Holy Spirit means that we can expect to spend time in the wilderness. In fact, the next thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism is that he is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. It is there where some people think he clarified his call from God. If we look at it like that, then we can see wilderness times as times when we should be listening more intently to God. It's a time God is working in us to prepare us for what's coming.
The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness as they were being prepared for a deeper relationship with God. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness clarifying his call. Seminary has been described as a 3-year wilderness experience. I spent two years in a search process that I would call wilderness that helped prepare me to come to Saint John's. I'm sure you all have your own wilderness stories where things seemed difficult, but in looking back, you can see how God was changing and preparing you for what was next.
The fire John speaks of does the same thing. We have an image, I think, of this unquenchable fire as being bad. Certainly there are times when fire is bad and damaging. Coming from the west I think about the wildfires of California or those that ran through Oregon, Washington, and Montana, or the wildfire outside of Boulder, CO, this past month. The big story before the arrival of COVID at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 was the devastating fires in Australia.
But fire can also be cleansing. In the aftermath of the Australian fires, plant and animal life are making a return to the once-charred areas. The same thing happened in Yellowstone after a major fire. There are some trees, including lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus, Banksia, and the Giant Sequoia, that need fire to germinate. We may not like it at the time, but that fire leads to new growth, whether in the wild or within parts of ourselves.
But like I said earlier, this baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire doesn't necessarily have to be a big, dramatic event. I think that's where we get hung up. People seem to have this idea that unless you see tongues of fire dancing on top of heads, or people speaking in tongues, or falling on the ground “slain in the Spirit,” it isn't real. But the only difference between the Australian or western US wildfires and my neighbor's burn pile is size. Ultimately they accomplish the same thing – they both burn away dead, useless material so that new growth can take place.
As Episcopalians I think we fall more into the small burn pile than the wildfire category. We are baptized by water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with chrism, marked and sealed as Christ's own for ever. The most excited we get is when you get wet as I walk around the church flinging holy water willy nilly.
But that slow burning fire begins with the match of baptism. As we attend Sunday worship regularly, the words of the Eucharist wash over us and shape us. As we participate in Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ nourishes us. As we are faithful in prayers and fellowship we learn what it means to live as Jesus lived. As we gather to study Scripture, break open and delve into God's holy word, we learn how those ancient words are relevant to our lives today. Baptism is the match that starts the fire; it is our daily life of thought, word, and deed that is the bellows keeping the fire going.
That fire may not be a raging blaze, but that fire and the Holy Spirit will change us and guide us, burning away our chaff so that we may be changed into what God is calling us to be.
May we continue to work to live into our baptismal covenant.
May we continue to slowly burn away that which separates us from God so that we can produce new godly growth.
May we continue to be spectacularly changed into God's likeness from glory to glory so that we, too, may hear God's words: With you I am well pleased.