Fire & Water: The Baptism of Our Lord
Has anyone here grown up on a farm? A few, most likely. But has anyone here had to work on the threshing floor, separating the wheat from the chaff with a winnowing fork? Most of us probably can’t relate. The process is simply, but it’s hard work. All the stalks are thrown onto a bare floor, where they are beaten or rolled so that the heads of the wheat separate from the stalks, or chaff. Once that’s done, then a pitchfork is used to sort sift the wheat from the chaff: It’s all thrown into the air, and the breeze blows the chaff away, and the grain falls to the floor. The grain is saved, while the chaff is thrown into the fire to be destroyed. And so within this curious reading in Luke, we get John the Baptist — who was preparing the way for Christ — talking about this whole winnowing process. And we generally get the idea that Christ will come to separate the good people from the bad people. And Christ will extract judgment. And it’s curious because it’s all in the context of our baptisms. John says I baptize you with water in Vs 16. And we know the water that John is speaking about is a symbolic or metaphorical “cleansing” of us. We need to be “clean” and pure for Christ. We need to be prepared — and again, that was John’s job. But baptized by fire? What does that mean? Especially in the context of this winnowing. We get the scary image of a big farmer God, with a pitchfork in his hands, separating that which he wants to save verses that which gets thrown into the fire. That’s a baptism I want nothing to do with. But there are some interesting notes here: We know something divine is happening. And sure, we know all about Pentecost — when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles as tongues of flames above their heads in Acts 2. And so we know the Spirit is involved in this process in which John the Baptist speaks, but it sounds a little different from our idea of fire as the Spirit. Again, in the context we read in Luke, John is telling us that he can baptize you with water — to cleanse you and get you ready for Christ — but, make no mistake, it’s Jesus who will give us the Holy Spirit when we’re baptized in Christ… but it’s also quite clear that those who choose not to receive Christ have another fate awaiting them on the threshing floor. And so there is John the Baptist talking to all these people along the banks of the Jordan River in what we could call northern Israel, and they’re like, “Yeah, give me the water but spare the fire,” and John obliges by baptizing them in the Jordan River. And along comes Jesus… And along comes Jesus… Along comes Jesus, and in Verse 21 and 22, we see that everyone is being baptized, and Jesus approaches John and asks to be baptized as well. In Matthew’s Gospel, we know John is surprised. John says, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus says it’s necessary. And this marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to note that we often see God’s spirit depicted as fire and as wind. We already talked about the fire at Pentecost, and we know the wind — the ruach, in the Hebrew — is the breath of God. That breath of God is the Spirit of God, and it’s the Spirit that not only is upon the great chaos of Genesis and begins to separate the air and water and earth in the Creation Account, and it’s the breath of God that fills Adam’s lungs, giving him life, also in Genesis, and it’s the Spirit that blows over the Red Sea, separating it for the Hebrews to safely pass through in Exodus, and so many other references; and it’s the Spirit, too, that blows to separate the wheat from the chaff. So if we’re looking at this theologically, it’s the Spirit that moves to separate the wheat from the chaff — the good from the bad, and that comes by way of Christ, our savior and judge. I will be with you We read earlier that this concept of fire and water were prominent long before Christ’s birth. We heard the voice of the prophet Isaiah in Chapter 43 saying these words: “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched, and the flame won’y burn you… …I am your savior.” Do you hear that? I am your savior. Through fire and water. The good and the bad What does all this mean? In this Old Testament reading from Isaiah, God says, “Don’t worry; I got you…” I remember as a child my dad putting me atop his shoulders and going for long walks. He was so big and strong to me; so capable. I was afraid of heights as a boy, but on his shoulders, I had no fear at all. I was secure, I was held, and I knew nothing bad could happen to me. That is the image of Christ right there. What do I mean by that in the context of the fire and water that we’ve been talking about? We might have good and bad things that happen to us. And we might have good and bad things that we do, too. But when we have Christ, we understand that this baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire that John is telling us about is really about separating the good from the bad within ourselves. Joanna Harader, a Mennonite pastor in Kansas, writes it this way: “The Messiah will take all the stuff of our lives and toss it up into the air, allowing the Spirit wind to blow away the parts that get in the way of who God wants us to be. The wheat will be gathered, and the chaff will be burned.” It’s not so much about us being thrown into the air and sorted out by the big, gruff farmer God; it’s more about the good and bad within us that is being separated by a gentle and loving Spirit. Do you see that? We will be fruitful through the Spirit. Again, held safely and tightly and securely in Father’s hands. Lifted up high upon His shoulders. Where we can be safe from the rising waters and the burning fires. Listen to the language that was read over us during our very own baptisms: “…Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ's holy Church. We are incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God's gift, offered to us without price.” That’s grace — this gift given without a price. Doesn’t cost us a thing… That gift — our very Baptisms — is this acceptance into God’s own fold. And given the power and the strength and the courage to resist temptation and sin, to stay pure and ready for Christ, to do good things for the Church and our world, and to be and do good as our only response to God’s amazing grace and love and mercy. To be not just stored away, but to be treasured by our heavenly Father. Right how we were created to be. Genesis 1.31: “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” ‘All people’ I like to point out often the words “all people” whenever it comes up in the Bible — Old or New Testaments. And if you’re sick of hearing that week after week, well, then I’m doing my job well. As Jesus is about to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, we hear in Verse 21 Luke tells us, “All the people were baptized.” None were turned away. We might say, “Well, pastor, doesn’t that just mean ‘all the people who were there at that day?” I wasn’t there. I might not really know that. But Luke makes it a point still to tell us that. And it’s important because elsewhere in the New Testament, we are constantly bombarded with those words, “all people.” We know Jesus came to save the world — not just some of us. That baptism is offered to everyone — all people. In Acts, we see the very Jewish Peter and John as they run into Samaritans. Samaritans are what the Jews might call mixed-breeds from the northern part of Palestine. And mixed-breed means unclean. Yet they have been baptized by water already. All people… And Peter and John pray over them that they may receive the Spirit, too. Fire and water! Even non-Jews. And of course we learn later that the Gentiles — all those outside of Palestine — will also be given the Spirit. A whole new community — a whole new world — created through the wind that brings them together. Conclusion When this happens, and Jesus is finally immersed in the Jordan River, we witness something supernatural — divine — happen. First — and most importantly — Jesus prays. Listen beginning with Verse 21: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’” Let’s look at it systematically: Jesus was baptized. Then Jesus prayed. While he was praying, heaven was opened. 1. See, Jesus obediently entered into the waters. 2. And when he came out the other side, his response was to pray. 3. And when he prays, heaven opens up and blesses him. 4. It was Jesus’s prayer that causes heaven to open to him. The same stands true for us: We pray, and heaven opens up to us. For Christ, he receives both the public affirmation that Jesus is God’s son AND receives the endowment of the Holy Spirit in a bodily form like a dove. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “In you I find great happiness.” How I would love to hear those words from our heavenly Father… Wouldn’t you? What would you give? Well, not to worry… See, it’s already been given to you. At no cost. We are beloved. Baptism by fire? No worries there, either. When we carry within us the Holy Spirit, and when we act in the Holy Spirit who is within us, we’re ready for whatever comes: floods or fires… The Holy Spirit lifts us to help gt rid of the chaff in our lives. The Spirit lifts us, not to separate us; but to help us do God’s will. We’re safe on the strong and solid shoulders of our Savior. Held eternally. And all for love.