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Preaching Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Eugene L. Lowry's proposal that a sermon is to be plotted, not outlined, (The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980), underlies this treatment.1 In brief, Lowry uses the dramatist's tools of tension and resolution to make a sermon an event in which the gospel happens rather than a thing that merely talks about what once happened. His five stages (adaptable according to circumstances) are: 1) Upsetting the Equilibrium; 2) Analyzing the Discrepancy; 3) Disclosing the Clue to Resolution; 4) Experiencing the Gospel; and 5) Anticipating the Consequences.
1) Caring and comfort are what I--and most people, I am convinced--attend church to receive. A cool cup of water for my thirst, a moist cloth for my fevered brow--recalling my baptism in images like these speaks to a deep need in me. Talk of a "baptism of fire" seems to belong on a battlefield, not by the Baptizer's riverside. But because Jesus, our best Friend, brings to us a baptism of "the Holy Spirit and fire," there must be a blessing, not mere burn-out, in this for us. (Note: a title for the sermon might be, Not Burn-Out, But Blessing.)
2) My first impulse--and, again, I am not alone--is to try to make my own kind of sense out of this, to grasp and control it intellectually. But fuller understanding won't put our hearts at rest; quite the opposite! (Mark Twain is on target: "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.") While water offers refreshment (a cold drink), cleansing (a warm bath), and new life (the "water" of the womb), fire lives by destruction.
John the Baptizer will not let us forget that truth. Steeped as he is in the tradition of Old Testament prophecy, he proclaims a Day of the Lord that will bring fire--the "unquenchable fire" that burns up the useless and worthless chaff--as God's tool which cleanses by destroying (cp. Amos 2:4f., Mic 1:3-7, Zeph 1:17f., Mal 3:1-3). In light of this day's proximity to Dr. M. L. King, Jr.'s birthday (indeed, Dr. King's birthday may be celebrated in many churches on this day), it is fitting to recall the apocalyptic note many "Negro" spirituals have borrowed from these prophets; one of them has the promise--or threat!--of "No more water [as in the Flood], it is fire next time." Decades ago, the late James Baldwin warned white America of the rising rage of oppressed African Americans in a book that, in its title, echoed that song: The Fire Next Time.
You might well expect, at this point, an impassioned plea for racial justice, intended to fire people up to "keep the dream alive." Many misguided preachers will offer just that. The older (and the more honest with ourselves) we are, the more we can look back with disappointment and weariness to the times we have been fired up, perhaps even regarding the race issue, only to find ourselves burned out, sooner or later. It is a rare person indeed who can burn with a fine, steady, lasting flame; most of us flare...and then fizzle. With that kind of track record, it is no wonder a baptism of "the Holy Spirit and fire" can make us uneasy and uncertain, if we think it means we are being set up for a self-improvement project. We know ourselves too well!
A preacher might be tempted to cast about for a more positive image, and find it in the Old Testament's priestly tradition--in the sacrifices (burnt offerings) in Israel's worship, which brought restoration into the family of God, and/or thanksgiving to the giver of all good. But that sacrificial system is a long time ago and far away, and it is alien to our minds and hearts. More to the point, we sense that the destruction, if it is to happen, must take place within us, not on an altar. So that's a dead end; it, too, offers no real comfort. It seems we are hopeless.
3) Believe it or not, this is exactly where we need to be, because it is only when we have given up on ourselves that we can truly turn to God, who in Jesus waits to offer us himself. If I believe the fire is mine to embrace and nurture, I can only be burned! It is not mine, though; it is and remains God's gift. So I come, in the nakedness of my need, "Just as I am, without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me." It is Jesus, the Beloved Son, who gives us this baptism, and keeps on giving it just as surely as the Spirit comes to us in many and various and surprising ways, day by day. It is Jesus' gift, not our project. What a relief!
4)Lift your gaze (as the exegete, Richard Boyce, has invited us) to the broader scope of Luke-Acts, and see two passages which, taken together, reveal God's work in Jesus and through the Spirit. (The passages may even be cited as additional texts, or bases, for the sermon.) In Luke 12:49f., Jesus says, in predicting his Passion, that the baptism of fire falls first and foremost on him. On the cross he suffers the destruction, on our behalf! So our baptism certificates are not like a permit for burning we might get from City Hall.
And then, in the second volume of this twin work, in Acts 2:3, at the beginning of the story of the Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, we see what that baptism truly is for Jesus' followers. It both enlivens the people and destroys barriers of understanding between people. It destroys what stands between ourselves and God. It is a gift, to warm and light us within, as God in Christ continues to give and renew it in us.
5) It is significant, I believe, that John addresses people in a group, as a group; and that the Spirit's fire comes to the gathered believers in and as a group, not individualistically. To say it in an aphorism, we need the body to be baptized. That corporate aspect of baptism is too often ignored.
And we need a body to be baptized. It is not just our spiritual natures, but quite specifically our bodies that have also been claimed by God in baptism. Because that is true, we can and should affirm not only the "higher" gifts and contributions of the intellects, the eloquent, and the charismatic. We can and should affirm, as well, the "ministry of presence" offered by those who put their bodies where their presence can make a difference--alongside the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the victims of all the "isms." Saying something on their behalf is ministry, but so is being there. (St. Paul could be cited, from Romans 12:1: "...present your bodies as a living sacrifice...," along with the specifics he gives in the rest of that chapter.) Life being what it is, it is a certainty that we will "get burned," perhaps often. (The preacher can cite examples from recent experience--his/her own or that of a personal acquaintance.) Hand in hand with Jesus, the sacrificed and resurrected Beloved Son, we can dare to expect that, as we offer our lives in service, God will be "well pleased" with us. Our baptism will bring blessing, not burn-out.
Frederick Reklau West Chicago, Illinois
1. Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980).