Water & Fire

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, TX.
The lectionary readings for the Baptism of our Lord are here.

Do any of you, like me during this relatively short yet seems so long time from Thanksgiving to New Years struggle with keeping up with what day it is? Even when our world isn’t disrupted by a pandemic, the out-of-routine-ness of this time of year messes with my ability to keep up with the date, time, and what happened when. Didn’t we just talk about Jesus’ baptism? Haven’t we been repeating stories a lot lately? And didn’t we just talk last week about Jesus as a kid? How is he grown already?

Our brains are designed to understand time linearly and sometimes, we seem to get caught in these spirals of memory that leave us a bit discombobulated. My son, the youngest of mine and Jim’s combined family, turned 32 this past week. He didn’t ask my permission to grow up, he just did. And it surely doesn’t seem like 32 years have passed since he was born but that’s what the calendar says, even if I can’t make sense of it in my head.

So, I’m going to try and keep us all on a straight path here as I bring back up a couple of sermons and readings from recent weeks that will hopefully help us all get on the same page today. With last week’s sermon, I wanted us to focus on the reality of Jesus as a person, a baby, a child, an adolescent with parents and friends and family and community activities. One of the more striking verses from last week’s reading that a few of you have noted was that Jesus went with his parents and was obedient to them and the gospel writer Luke associates this obedience with Jesus growing in wisdom.

Jesus, the incarnation of the very God who created us and everything, the universe and beyond, came as a vulnerable baby to be raised by parents and grow as a child and adolescent and young adult. Jesus fully God and fully human, submitted himself to the authority of these parents as he grew in wisdom.

And, as we first read on the third Sunday of Advent and then again today, Jesus submitted himself to the authority of his cousin, John the Baptizer, a prophet and messenger of God.

So, yes, it was just a few weeks ago that we read some of these same verses along with the part where John calls those he is baptizing a brood of vipers. And I promised you that it was a message of Love. Really.

God’s assurance to his children has always been that when we change our heart, when we choose God’s Way, in other words, when we REPENT, God rejoices over us with gladness and renews us in his love. God’s desire isn’t to destroy us in wrath but to embrace us in Love, drawing us always closer toward him.

In our day and age, we don’t consider baptism as a radical act but John’s call to baptism in his day and time was quite radical. Baptism, the ritual immersion in water, was part of the ceremony of non-Jews converting to Judaism. It was a ritual cleansing away of the old way of life so one could begin living the new way. But John tells even the Jews to repent and be baptized. John is saying, “this is a new thing, God is making things new for all of us, let’s wash ourselves clean of the old ways and step into what God is doing here and now.”

And as he proclaimed this new thing, folks wondered if John himself were the One God had promised to send to his people. John emphatically tells them he is not, that someone greater will come one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

When all the people had been baptized it is only then that Jesus also was baptized. Jesus didn’t put himself at the top of the list, the front of the line. The One who is more powerful than John put himself last and submitted to the same baptism we are all called to as God’s beloved children.

So what about this baptism by fire thing? I think we get too caught up in equating fire with God’s anger, and I’m not saying it isn’t in scripture, but the overwhelming majority of the time when fire is mentioned in our holy scriptures both the Old and the New Testaments, it isn’t about wrath or anger but about purification and growth.

Fire purifies, we boil water to make it safe to drink, we cook food to make it safe to eat, precious metals are purified by melting them, steel is strengthened by heating it, new land is made by volcanoes, forests and grasslands are renewed by fire. Yes, fire can also destroy but that is not how the writers of our scriptures used it most of the time.

Gods spoke to Moses through a burning bush in which the fire did not consume the bush.
When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, he went before them as a pillar of fire. At Pentecost, flames sit on the disciples and do not burn them.

And in our OT reading today, God says through the prophet Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

We also talked previously about just what winnowing is: the process of blowing a current of air through grain in order to remove the chaff, the husk that covers the actual fruit. The image of Jesus with his winnowing fork is an image of purification and growing in wisdom. What’s burned away in the unquenchable fire is that which gets in the way of our relationship with God. It isn’t separating good people from bad people, it’s about purifying the good that is already in all of us as we are created in God’s image.

Jesus submitted to the authority of God through baptism as an invitation for us to follow him in this submission. Our twenty first century, western world thinking tells us that submitting ourselves to anyone is a sign of weakness. Jesus shows us it is the way to wisdom and strength.

Our ego is the chaff that gets in between us and God. But this ego problem isn’t something new and modern. The very first humans whom God had tasked to care for his garden decided they didn’t have to submit to every rule of God and look where it got them.

In Jesus’ time, those living under Roman Rule would have equated submitting to the oppression of not only the Pax Romana but also the Pharisees of the temple. Part of this “new thing” that John was inviting others to be baptized into was a new understanding of submitting in relationship with God. The God who made us and formed us, the God who says to us “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” invites us into the relationship we are created for with the understanding that God is God and we are not.

At our baptism, we, or our parents on our behalf, enter into a covenant with God as we answer a series of questions that frame our submitting to who God is and Whose we are:
We are asked if we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and all sinful desires that draw us away from the love of God. These are the chaff that cover the image of God in each of us. This is what God wants to separate us from and burn away.

And after submitting to the winnowing process, we are asked if we will turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior, putting our whole trust in his grace and love, and promising to follow and obey him as our Lord?

When we submit, when we follow Jesus, we are adopted into God’s kingdom so that we, like Jesus, hear God say, “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” When we submit we have the reassurance that God is always faithful to us even when we choose our own way and that when we return, God will always welcome us in love.

Jesus shows us what living in submission to God looks like in flesh and blood and he invites us to follow him in obedience, growing in wisdom as God’s beloved children through the whole of our life, in all that we do and in all the time in which we live.

Our children may grow up without us realizing it, time may pass too quickly at times and we can’t seem to keep up, but God gives us permission and yes, calls us to continuously grow in wisdom and grace, remaining obedient to him regardless of our age. We are always his children. Amen.

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