(Psalm 40:1-4,6-8; Mark 1:4-13)
I’ve titled this sermon, “Bathed in water – Bathed in fire.” We’re exploring the meaning of baptism this Sunday in the season of Epiphany.
I want to explore this intriguing thing that John the Baptist says just before Jesus comes along to be baptized. John the Baptist says to the people he’s baptizing in the river Jordan, “I’m baptizing you with water, but soon someone is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Now, that’s how the Gospel of Mark puts it, but the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give us one more detail, that’s helpful. They say, “I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit … and with Fire.”
So there is a baptism by water and a baptism by fire – or by the Holy Spirit. And I want to explore these as being about two aspects of our spiritual lives as Christians.
Now, I’ve gotta say from the outset, it’s been amusing to me this week to be working on a sermon entitled “Bathed in water – Bathed in fire” … because here in Walla Walla this week what we’ve been getting bathed with is snow. Baptism by snow and sleet and a whole lot of cold.
You know what they do in Russia around this time? The Russian Orthodox Church in the season of Epiphany here after Christmas they share the tradition that we roughly follow where we retell the story of Jesus being baptized, and that can be an opportunity to reaffirm our own baptism.
But what they do in Russia then is go out to the shore of a lake, that’s entirely frozen over (we’re in the dead of the Russian winter here) and they take a chainsaw and cut out a hole in the ice, like if you’re ice fishing, but they make a big hole in the shape of a cross, you know, so the water’s exposed in this big cross. And they plunge right in to get baptized again. Whew! Now if that don’t make you feel the Spirit…
That kind of baptism is like baptism by water and baptism by fire all at once. Shocking, awakening, fierce, cleansing, purifying – it takes courage.
That, I think, is the emotional impact of the way the Gospel of Mark tells the story of John baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. This is the opening scene of the Gospel of Mark. Mark doesn’t have the patience of Matthew and Luke who begin their Gospel stories by go on and on about Jesus’ birth and everything leading up to it, and all his ancestors going way back and all this prophecy stuff. No. Mark doesn’t have patience for that Garrison Keillor kind of rambling storytelling.
His gospel is in a hurry.It’s throwing us into the cold water. It’s urgent. He’s got a message he’s gotta get across, that’s life or death.
So the opening scene is this wild prophet out in the desert eating bugs and honey and telling everyone, “Get right by God right now because God’s realm is breaking in.”
Jesus comes to him. John takes him and plunges him into the river. Jesus comes up from the water, the skies split, the Holy Spirit breaks in and embraces him and seizes him and thrusts him out into the wilderness, where the devil hounds him to turn to the dark-side. Jesus shakes free of those forces of darkness, and he gets to work with the work of this in-breaking Realm of God. In a couple of years Jesus is dead. And for hundreds of generations to come people remember him, follow him, live and die by him, find freedom and salvation through him.
And baptism has got something to do with all this. And how Mark tells this story about Jesus’ baptism has got something to do with the meaning and the mystery of baptism.
So there’s baptism by water, we are told, and then baptism by fire, or by the Holy Spirit.
John the baptizer basically says to the people he’s baptizing, “I’m bathing you in water so that you may have a change in heart, so you may slough off what is old, so you may reorient your entire self, so you may receive forgiveness and be reunited with God, your Creator, who made you in God’s image.”
What happens when Jesus goes through John’s baptism by water? He receives the message from God, “You are my beloved child. You delight me.”
As I reminded us last week, the opening of the Gospel of John says, “Any who has trust in Christ,” any who follow him to the baptism with which he is baptized, “receives the power to become children of the living God.” Baptism by water is the cleaning off that’s needed, like cleaning out our ears so we can hear this message.
Or another image is from the Eastern Orthodox tradition: a dirty mirror. We are made in the image of God, and so our true nature is a mirror for the light of God. And sin is all the gunk that sticks to us and we grab on to that blocks this reflection and covers up the mirror.
So a baptism by water washes off all that grime, so we can receive the light of God’s love and reflect it back out. We may not even remember that there’s a mirror in our nature behind all the mud that’s been slung at us and that we’ve smeared on ourselves. Underneath there is a lucid, luminous reflection of divine light.
You are a beloved child of the living God.
But it’s also in our nature to collect that gunk and even attract it like a static charge attracts dust. That’s true even when we’re washed off.
So the next stage is the baptism by fire, which you could say is the heat of this reflected light continuing to burn away the dirt we collect and burning away our inclination to get attached to it.
That’s the story of the rest of our lives.
For Jesus the baptism by fire happened immediately. He comes out of the water and receives the Spirit with this beautiful message about his true nature as God’s beloved child. But the next moment the same Spirit drives him out into the wilderness, where the Devil hounds him. It takes fire for him to resist.
Now Mark doesn’t bother with the details of what happens in this trial by fire. But we know from the other gospels that what the Devil tempts Jesus with is the trappings of earthly kingdoms.
The Devil tempts Jesus to use his power to enrich himself, to engorge himself, to inflate himself, and to project himself out like a king who makes other people do his will, who can make people live and make people die, make people love him and make people fear him.
And this is where we get out of the realm of just personal spirituality.
A baptism by fire means a confrontation with all the forces in the world that keep us from receiving the love of God and that keep us from reflecting it and seeing it in others. Many of those forces are social.
This is Martin Luther King Day, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring in the good Dr. King. King’s life and his teaching and the movement he worked in has everything to do with this social aspect of the forces of sin.
Today we can’t forget that this man of Christ and the movement he represented were all about becoming free from the social forces of sin that deny the personhood and dignity of every child of God. We can’t forget that he called for a baptism by fire. We can’t forget that he called out to America itself and said, “America, you must be born again.” We can’t forget that he called out the “triple evils” in our country and in our world: the evil of racism, the evil of economic exploitation and materialism, and the evil of war and militarism, (“Where Do We Go From Here?” from A Testament of Hope, 250-251, ed. James Melvin Washington, HarperCollins 1991, pp. 250-251). We can’t forget that those evils were what rose up against him, this man of peace, and made him pay the ultimate price for calling for a baptism of fire.
Here was someone who walked in the way of Jesus. King followed his king all the way. And as such he knew the meaning of baptism: he knew the mercy of the baptism by water, and he knew the challenge of the baptism by fire.
Now, there’ve been a few moving parts to this sermon. And I want to be sure that there is a good word here for you wherever you’re at in your life and in your walk with God.
There are times when we need to be bathed in water – we need mercy, we need a soothing bath that gently cleans off our mirror or cleans out our ears so we can hear God’s voice calling us by name as a beloved child.
And there are times when we need to be bathed in fire – we need a more strident challenge to burn through the forces that deny God in ourselves and in our world.
And let’s not forget about the baptism in ice and snow – there’s a time for that, when we need a plunge in the cold water to get sober and wake up.
But where ever we are at, the Holy Spirit is with us, guiding us, goading us, give us courage to pass through what we need to pass through.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered January 15, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)