Baptism by Fire – January 10, 2010

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:1-17

January 10, 2010

“Baptism by Fire.” You’ve heard that expression before. It’s been around a long time. It probably comes from the time of John the Baptist. At the very least it was made more popular by him through this scripture we read today. In speaking of Jesus, he said, “I baptize you with water, but one is coming after me who is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.”

I want you to think about what that means. “Baptism by Fire.” And first I want you to think about how we use that expression today. A “Baptism by Fire” is a way of referring to a time of great trial or difficulty. It’s often thought of as a time when some great learning is gained or when an important goal is reached. But those things are achieved through an experience of pain or grief or suffering.

Maybe you can think of such a time in your life. Perhaps you can remember a “Baptism by Fire” that you’ve been through, and the life lesson you learned through that difficult experience. What would that be? Was it a time when you had to work very hard to reach some goal? Was it a time when you went through some physical suffering, but at the end you realized you grew through the experience. Maybe for some of you it was in a time of war. Those experiences are often thought of in that way. What would be your baptism by fire? (Maybe you’re going through one right now.)

Then add to those thoughts the words of John about Jesus. And the descriptions of John himself, for that matter. Of Jesus, John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Then look at the way John himself was described. Remember during Advent when we looked at the book of Malachi. That’s the last book of the Old Testament, and it describes the coming of the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. Look what Malachi writes:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them.” (Malachi 3:2-3)

That’s part of this metaphor. Fire does those things. It purifies metal. It burns away the chaff and leaves the grain. It strengthens steel through the process of tempering. That’s the kind of imagery associated with the coming of God into the world in Jesus Christ. Both John and Jesus are described using that imagery. And we are part of that! Becoming a follower of Jesus means that this idea of a “baptism by fire” will be part of our experience.

That’s what John’s ministry was about. His was the “voice crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” And that scripture from Isaiah paints a picture of dramatic change. It describes valleys being filled up and mountains being leveled. Do you remember that? Isaiah is trying to give us a picture of that dramatic change that’s to take place at that great “turning point in history,” when the Messiah comes into the world. And we are part of that dramatic change!

In preparing the way, John called the people to repentance. Now I want you to think about that. Repentance doesn’t mean simply “being sorry for our sins.” Repentance means change. When my kids would do something bad, I used to have a thing I told them. (They’re not here anymore so I can talk about them!) Sometimes they would say “I’m sorry,” and it would seem “less than sincere.” And I would say, “Don’t be sorry. Don’t do it!” I didn’t mean I didn’t want them to be sorry. I meant that I didn’t want them just to be sorry. I expected a change!

Repentance is like that. “Don’t [just] be sorry. Don’t do it!” Repentance means that. It means a turning away from that sinful path of seeking our own desires, and looking to God’s kingdom. It means taking a new direction. That’s what John called for. And sometimes it was hardest on those who were most “religious!” He had some rather “uncomplimentary” things to say to them. Then he said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit that befits (shows) your repentance!” Sometimes when we are being the most religious it is the hardest to see where we need repentance!

So what does it mean to “bear fruit that befits repentance?” We spent a lot of time in the Summer and Fall talking about the “Fruits of the Spirit.” Remember them? The Fruits of the spirit are the “outward signs” that we are “walking by the spirit.” Do you remember that? (I’m thinking about duplicating those messages and binding them together. If you’re interested in a copy let me know.) So what are the outward signs of the change in our lives? They have to do with how we choose to treat people? Remember? They are about how we choose to prioritize our lives. Think about that for you. What are the signs, the differences in your life, as you have been changed by your experience and your relationship with God? And have those changes continued throughout your life as you’ve grown in your faith?

Well, our faith teaches us that pain is part of that process of growth. I know we don’t want it to be. And some people would tell us that once we believe, we won’t have that pain. But that’s the deal. We will experience adversity in our lives. We will experience difficult times. The idea of “Baptism by Fire” will continue to be part of our lives. And we will continue to “grow through that adversity.” Paul tells us that “we even rejoice in our sufferings.” Why? “because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:3-5)

So “Baptism by Fire” is a good thing. And it’s something we experience throughout our lives. I’m glad for that expression because it speaks about the great change that takes place in us through the coming of the Messiah. We are part of the picture Isaiah painted. We are part of that great change that has come to the world. But it’s not an easy change. God calls us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. He calls us to be “extraordinary people.”

I’ve asked us to use this day each year to think about all that. I’ve asked us to use this Sunday designated “The Baptism of Jesus” as a “Recommitment Sunday.” I want this is a time when think about our own commitment to him and to his kingdom. It comes at the beginning of the year, so it’s a good way to start. We can think of it as sort of a “spiritual resolution.” And as we do so, I want us to think once again about the vows of commitment that were spoken at our own baptism. You’ll find them on the back of the bulletin. These words (or similar words) were spoken at your baptism, either by you or your parents. And if by your parents, they were later spoken again by you at the time of your confirmation. They are “formalized words.” But they speak of the personal commitment we have made to our Savior.

So I’d like us to take a few moments to think about these words. And then I’m going to ask us to stand and answer these questions again. And as I do so in this formal way, I would ask for you to consider this as a recommitment of your life to Christ. That’s the inner, personal thing that’s represented in these words. And if you think about it, that’s the most important part of this.

We’re going to do that, and then I’m going to “reintroduce you” to the waters of baptism. I was reluctant to do so the first time we did this. But the more I think about it, the more the words of my old Theology professor David Willis have come back to me. He said, “Baptism should be a traumatic experience.” Because it speaks of dramatic and traumatic change. The waters serve to remind us of that.

Every New Years Day, people at Ocean City go for what is called, “The first swim of the year.” It’s also been called the “polar bear swim.” Why would somebody intentionally go into those icy waters? For lots of reasons, I’m sure. But maybe for some it’s a reminder of life. It’s a self-imposed “rite of passage” that marks dramatic change, the turning point of one year to the next. And maybe that’s not all that far from the understanding of this sacrament! (Maybe I should have some ice cubes floating in this water!!)

So, turn to the Baptism Vows on the back of your bulletins and think about all these things as we remember our commitment to Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

– Baptism Vows and the Waters of Baptism