The Baptism Of Fire
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Before I get into the sermon this morning, I need to tell you where I'm coming from.
I've been reflecting lately on freedom--spiritual freedom, political freedom, economic and social freedom--and what it all means. I've been watching the unfolding story of freedom from apartheid in South Africa, and what it must be for those people to vote for the very first time, and to take up life in a racially integrated society. What does it mean to be involved in a revolution of rising expectations?
I've been thinking about the difference between democracy and mobocracy--and wondering what that's going to look like down the road, after a season of achievements and frustrations.
And I've been thinking about NAFTA and "free trade, " and wondering exactly what that means in today's world. If we want access to free markets throughout North America, that's one thing, but if we really want is the ability to export inferior products at protected prices, that's something else.
I've been thinking about spiritual freedom which is not merely the Bill of Rights' guarantee to worship any god you choose in any manner you wish to, but also the freedom pioneered by Jesus of Nazareth, which is the freedom from aimlessness and sin. I've been wondering if the people flocking into our churches are really ready for such a radical, internal liberation. I happen to think that Jesus Christ, submitting to the cross, was actually the freest man who ever lived. So what is it for us to become spiritually free?
And today we've come upon this lesson, which is Luke's account of the baptism of Jesus, and what John the Baptist said about him to the crowds who had flocked for baptism: "I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming is more powerful than I, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." What does that mean? And if we know what it means, will we truly welcome it? Will we truly desire such a baptism, and such a Savior?
And I've been thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is celebrated next week, and whose own martyrdom is going to be remembered, as it needs to be remembered, again and again. He's a hero to the whole human family.
When King was studying for the ministry at Boston University School of Theology he had no world-shaking expectations. He expected to become the pastor of some local church, preaching, teaching and counseling as we all do--marrying, baptizing, and burying the dead, and coming up with an interesting sermon or two every Sunday. He would have been wen-content to devote himself to these sacred tasks, and it was really not until the bus boycott in Montgomery, and his confrontation with racist authorities, that he received any public attention. An at once he was at the head of a parade, whether he wanted to be or not. I think he was surprised that so many people were interested.
History, and especially biblical history, is crammed with heroes like that. An old argument among historians is whether heroes make history, or history makes heroes. Did the first Martin Luther really produce the Protestant Reformation? Or was it already underway, through the work of his predecessors--people like Savonarola and Wycliff and Hus, the earlier reformers of the church? And was it really a spiritual movement at all, or was it the political revolt of the German princes, who wanted to throw off the irons of the Holy Roman Empire and manage themselves? History has a way of tapping unsuspecting people on the shoulder, and these are usually people who possess certain elements of character and vision and internal preparation…who are standing at the right place at the right time.
Well, God tapped Jesus on the shoulder, and John the Baptist says that Jesus is going to tap us: he will baptize us "with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Jesus will touch us with new life. In the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, there's a valley filled with dried bones. They are the bones of dead warriors, overcome by Israel's enemies. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, those dry, dead bones received the breath of the Holy Spirit, and they rose up as any army of living men, ready to triumph for the Lord! Jesus, says John the Baptist, is going to touch us like that. He's going to make the dead things inside us come up into life: our ideals, our hunger and thirst for righteousness, our yearning for a glorious purpose. He's going to awaken us, baptize us, into life. He's going to reveal to us a Kingdom that is bigger and better than anything we've seen. He's going to lead us out onto a path and a journey, along which we will be changed! No longer bones, but live flesh! No longer shades and phantoms and shells of humanity, but living, weeping, laughing representatives of true human freedom.
And you'd better believe that Jesus can do it! Talk about heroes of history: look at the disciples! Could they have had any idea what they were getting into?
They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown;
Such happy, simple fisher-folk,
Before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen,
Before they ever knew
The peace of God that filled their hearts
Brimful, and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,
Homeless in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net,
Head down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace,
But strife closed in the sod.
Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing:
The marvelous peace of God.
It's a stormy, tumultuous, fiery peace. It's a perilous thing to fall into the hands of God. Rational people with a desire for convenience may not desire this! Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were preachers of Christ's freedom, and they not only knew God's truth, but they also knew its implications. They spoke up for a new birth of freedom, in the Church! And I've been told that in the treasurer's records of the University Church in Oxford there's an entry saying there was an expenditure of a certain sum of money "for the repair of the chairs which were broken, when Master Latimer did preach." Evidently it was the kind of preaching which, unlike the rubber check, returned void, marked "insufficient funds" but it was the kind that got something done.
Well, in 1555 Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake, side-byside, in a public square in Oxford. As the flames rose about them, Latimer turned his face toward his colleague and said, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. This day we shall light such a candle by God's grace in England as shall never be put out!" Jesus had touched him with the Holy Spirit. Jesus had baptized him with fire. Who could want such a baptism? Who could want such a peace? But in that peace is our freedom.
He will baptize us with his Spirit, and with fire. And we need to be ready for it. Christianity is not all comfort and roses. It is often hard, hard suffering, in the interest of a cause we don't fully understand but have to believe in. Democracy is a very costly system of human self-management. Some have said that democracy is a terrible form of government, but it is desirable because it so much better than its alternatives.
Democracy is not the same thing as Christianity, but it is one of the many blossoms on Christianity's tree, especially that branch of the tree that includes the Reformation. American democracy is closely related to the Bible's vision of God's Kingdom, and that makes it subject to God's judgment. I'd love to see American democracy picked up and planted wholesale in places like Yugoslavia and Russian Georgia and South Africa, but I suspect that other forms of it may work better there, because for democracy to really work in any place, it must first pass through the current historical and cultural filters.
In America we have to work for it, especially if we're going to pass it on to our children. The big problem in America today is not whether we've got enough money to prop it up, but how to keep it from being corrupted. I hear some people talk about freedom and free enterprise, but they're not talking about freedom: they're talking about unbridled greed. Democracy is based on a social contract. Massachusetts Puritans knew self-government wouldn't work without a good system of public education. People can govern themselves only if they know a little history, and understand laws and relationships, and have a respect for the social covenant. So we have to be ready to pay the costs for democracy, which may include occasional military service, but far more importantly and incessantly, must always includes good religion, and good education.
Anyway, these are my thoughts about freedom, and about the baptism Jesus gives us, which is a baptism not only by water, but by the Holy Spirit and with fire. It may not sound very attractive to you, especially if you are just now trying to figure out whether you want to keep on coming to church, and really make a go of the Christian life. But as far as I can see, it's the only real baptism there is. It's the only game in town.
Eric Wilbra Bascom Springfield, MA