Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
[This is the] story for this first Sunday in the Epiphany season. That’s why we still have our stars out, because the season of Epiphany is about the coming of the light, symbolizing the story of the Magi, and we think about moving through winter and the increasing light during each day as we move toward spring.
The story of the first Sunday of Epiphany traditionally in the church is the story of the baptism of Jesus, and I’m going to share with you from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, the story that leads up to the baptism, about John the Baptist
I always like to ask when reading a scripture like this, ”Why do you come to church?” The people who study churchgoers say the number one reason most people come to church is to hear good news. They want to hear something encouraging, they want to be lifted up. They hear so much bad news the rest of the week—crime and war and violence and unemployment and poverty and De’Anthony Thomas turning pro! We need one place where we can get good news, and people are hungry for that—something to give them hope and comfort, a place where we can feel good about ourselves.
One of the things that we heard when we started our practice of doing prayer triads over the summer, back in 2008, in preparing for our future story, deciding what we wanted to do as a church when we grew up, from many groups was that they liked that in this church we don’t talk a lot about judgment, condemnation and hell and sin, that we don’t lay guilt trips on people or try to change people, like it is cheering for my favorite sports team.
But this season of Epiphany starts off with this story of the baptism of Jesus. And there they were gathered by the banks of the cool waters of the Jordan River to hear John preach before Jesus’s baptizing. What do we hear? “You brood of vipers!” The very first words out of his mouth, all about condemnation and fire and judgment and hell and sin and the wrath of God and all of that stuff. We are like, “This is good news?” It’s no wonder that John gets thrown into prison. The preaching of John the Baptist offers about as much comfort as Edward Snowden at a White House gala. And we have to recognize irony in the text because the Pharisees and the Sadducees are the religious leaders; they’re the clergy of that day. They’re the men of the cloth (literally men, of course, in that time). They were the ones who were put up on pedestals. They were the good, holy, righteous people. And as far as John is concerned, anyone who is connected with the religious establishment is corrupt. The time has come for God to wipe the slate clean, to start over again fresh. Very much in the anti-temple, anti-religious establishment message, and it makes those of us who are employed by the religious establishment very nervous.
And so he calls the folks out to the Jordan to be baptized, that is to be purified by God, there by the Jordan River. And while he is doing that with water, the one who follows him, he says, will do it with fire. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that to be a particularly comforting image either. And I’ve always taught, going through seminary, always thought that it was some theologian like Reinhold Neibuhr who said that the gospel afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted. Right? It’s kind of what the gospel does. I read the Register-Guard on Friday, Don Kahle’s column on the editorial page, and discovered that didn’t come from any theologian, it came from a humorist in the early 20th century, a guy by the name of Finley Peter Dunne, who said it in 1902. He was commenting on the power of newspapers and said it’s newspapers that comfort the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. I see other preachers nodding their heads—you didn’t know that, right? I think it was Martin Marty who made it popular, that notion of the gospel. Well, it’s still very true, I think, for the gospel, and folks in Jesus’s home town discovered that when Jesus came home to preach in his home church at Nazareth. He gets up and uses his text of Isaiah 61, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor” and everyone nods, “Oh that’s so nice, he speaks so clearly we can hear every word he says, what a fine boy that Jesus is. Mary should be proud. If only Joseph could be here to see this.” And if Jesus were smart, he would have stopped right then and gone out to the coffee hour and had the cookies and shaken people’s hands and everyone would have gone home feeling good.
But of course if you know the rest of the story, it doesn’t end there. He goes on then to tell these stories out of their tradition when God delivers the good news through a foreigner, through a heathen. And they get the drift—that it’s about the blessing of God bestowed upon someone else, and they don’t like that. And they’ve got a mind to throw him off the cliff. You see, sometimes the gospel burns. And from our perspective, looking back, we wonder “How could they have been so blind?” Well how would you respond if I told you that Jesus had returned, and that he was wearing an OSU Beavers’ T-shirt? It would be shocking!
We talk about the Sermon on the Mount as being a wonderful, nice message from Jesus. Have you read it lately? It’s got tough stuff in there. 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, you will be liable for judgment. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to lose the members of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. That is not nice, easy stuff, it is tough stuff.
And then comes the real clincher, as if that weren’t hard enough, when Jesus says, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” That’s easy for you to say, Jesus—you’re the Son of God! It’s hard stuff. I love the quote I’ve used often from Mark Twain: “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.”
Being a Christian, living as Jesus taught us to live, is not for pushovers. The baptism is serious business. Every now and then I get a parent who comes to me, who wants Johnny or Susy , age eight or nine, to be baptized. “They’re ready, they’re mature in their faith, they’re ready.” OK, maybe they are. But I have to be honest with you, in my mind baptism is a lot like sex—you’re not ready until you’re 35. That’s what I told my children! You should tell yours. Because, like your parents, Jesus only did it once (baptism, I am talking about baptism) and he was 30. Whereas the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his ministry, just as it marks the beginning of Christian life for us, we must never forget it leads him to Jerusalem, to the cross. While certainly no one else is called to make that kind of sacrifice, God does not call us to be martyrs. But still, we are called to take the tip of the cross, to follow him, and that means a different set of priorities. That means changing our values. It has an impact on our finances, on the choices in life that we make.
So “bear fruit worthy of repentance” John says. And this is not kid stuff. The World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order wrote a definitive study on baptism over thirty-forty years ago, in which they said “baptism is an unrepeatable act,” that is, to be re-baptized would be to suggest that the grace of God was not sufficient the first time around. That it’s about what you do that makes it effective rather than about what God does that makes it effective. 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. Now I have done it, I have re-baptized people, if somebody comes to me who has felt that strong need because of what’s going on in their spiritual life. I always emphasize, you understand that this is not because of anything you have done in your life that means that God is not going to forgive you. If you were baptized previously, once is enough. It’s about what God has done for you, and it does not depend on what you have done.
And baptism is also an undeniable act. You cannot undo your baptism, you cannot say it never happened. Once you have been baptized, you carry that with you, the name of Christ for the rest of your life. From that day forward you never cease to be a witness for Christ. As Glinda says to Dorothy, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” We carry that with us; our only choice is what kind of witness will we be.
To associate baptism with fire instead of water makes a lot of sense. Fire leaves a mark on you. Water takes the mark out; we are cleansed, hopefully, when we bathe. Unless we’re talking about boiling water , which would be more like fire . The Hebrew view of God is that of an all-consuming fire which no human being could experience and survive. And so in that story of the burning bush (we had one of those pictures in our music slides, Moses in front of the burning bush), he’s afraid to look. Confronted with that luminous presence of God, he hides his face.
When Isaiah, the story we’re going to use from Isaiah 6 in our commissioning service this afternoon for our two youths being commissioned to go overseas, in that story Isaiah in his vision sees God and he says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” And then one of God’s attendants takes a burning coal from the fire, from the altar, and touches the lips of Isaiah, and says “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” This is baptism by fire. It is the same purifying fire that cleanses each of us baptized in the name of Christ. It is the same heartwarming fire which the two on the road to Emmaus experienced. You remember in that story of Luke 24 when they unknowingly encountered the risen Christ and later did proclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us?” It’s the same tongue-releasing fire that descended upon the apostles at Pentecost, filling them all with the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of what John said, that he would baptize them with fire and with spirit.
Another image for baptism by fire came to me from listening to a story on NPR. It was in their Story Corps series. Story Corps is a recording booth that travels around the country (it was here in Eugene a couple of years ago), where people just come and they tell their stories. In this one episode, a mother was being interviewed by her daughter. The mother had survived a horrifying plane crash. You may remember this from 15 or 20 years ago. A DC10 lost its rudder. If you know anything about flying airplanes, losing your rudder is not a good thing: the pilot had no control to steer the airplane. In a maneuver that no one taught him–it wasn’t in the manual, “What to do when you lose the rudder”– he alternated power between the engines left and right. The thrust of the engine would cause the plane to turn. And he managed to steer it by that means to an airport in Iowa. But knowing that he couldn’t maintain the level of the wings, they called for all the emergency vehicles within a hundred miles. So they had all these EMTs and fire trucks waiting for this plane. And when it comes down—over 300 people on board this plane—indeed one wing clipped the runway and the plane cartwheeled down the runway. Fire, explosions, the fuselage breaks apart. More survivors than deaths but there were people killed. Thirteen walked away without a scratch, walked away out of this broken fuselage. And this mother was one of those. One of the paramedics on the scene says to her, “God must have saved you because you have not yet fulfilled your purpose in life.” Now that in itself would be a good baptism-by-fire kind of story. But that’s not the point of the story. Because she went away from that and for days and weeks and months this perplexed her, troubled her. She could not figure out “What kind of purpose do I have in life, that saved me but didn’t save any of those other hundred people that lost their lives?” And she struggled with that for the longest time. Now you have to keep in mind that the EMT was not a trained theologian, a biblical scholar. He was an emergency medical person. And so she finally came to the conclusion, she rejected that idea. Instead, she decided that if there was anything that she was to learn from that harrowing experience, it was this (and keep in mind, she’s sitting there with her daughter as she is telling this story, and her voice breaks, and she says): to cherish each and every day with your loved ones. That you live every day with no regrets, because you never know when it will be your last.
That was her lesson. And I think about that. Here’s just this everyday mom, who’s gone through this harrowing, life-changing experience, and from that learned the preciousness, the beauty, the value, of this wonderful life that God has given to us, and to share that with your loved ones each and every day. That is baptism by fire.
As we journey through this Epiphany season, guided by the light of Christ, we are invited to reflect on how our baptism has opened the heavens to us, that we might be filled with the fire of God to see how incredible this life is, how wonderful the love of God is for us. And we are called to search for that presence of that spirit in our midst, burning away that unnecessary, unwanted fat of our lives that that kernel, that grain of life might be put to good use as intended by God. We are challenged to shine as the bodily existence of God like that light on the hill, that “little light of mine”, giving witness that God is alive and that the spirit of God is still descending upon God’s people who walk with the beloved of God. And when we accept that invitation we become a community of good news, a place where people will find comfort and hope, encouragement and love. It is in and through the baptism of Christ that we discover the power of God that burns within us. As the French theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin said: “Someday after mastering the wind, 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, man will have discovered fire.”
May that be the fire that burns within us and that shines from us, to share with all the world.