Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism by fire

Russian Icon of the Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 43: 1-7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
******** United Church of Christ
January 10, 2010

It didn’t take long for that baby in the manger to grow up, did it? Christmas was two and a half weeks ago; now he’s a grown man beginning his ministry. He begins with his baptism—a baptism of water, for repentance and the cleansing of sin. In the time of Jesus it was customary (and still is now) for one who is entering the rabbinical vocation to be purified through baptism or mikvah as part of the ordination.

Jesus also may have already had it in mind that eventually he would be heading toward his own death. The experience of being submerged in water and rising with the breath of God filling his lungs may have been to remind him not only of the promise of resurrection, but of God’s promise to sustain him through whatever lay ahead for him.

But the question that lingers is this: why would Jesus, the Son of God, need baptism, need to be cleansed of sin? You see, I think Jesus was aligning himself with the crowds who came for baptism. They would have been considered outcasts by the religious authorities, the poor, the sick, the sinners, tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes with which Jesus would be spending most of his time; in essence, the neediest of God’s people, those who were living through the fires of life and were ready to accept God’s hand to heal them and to lead them.

John said that he baptized with water but that Jesus would baptize with fire and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ own baptism by fire comes in Luke 4 when he goes into the desert and fasts for 40 days, where he is met by the tempter, then later in a garden at prayer and on the cross. When we consider the whole of Jesus’ ministry, most of it was a baptism by fire: the never-ending crowds of those who needed him; priests, scribes and Pharisees who frequently provoked and questioned him; always on the road, never a soft place to lay his head, only the clothes on his back and a small group of loyal but hard-headed friends for company; all the time in the back of his mind where his path was going to take him.

Perhaps there were times when Jesus would have called to mind the passage in Isaiah: God promising that when we pass through the waters, we won’t be overwhelmed; when we walk through the fire, we won’t be burned nor consumed, for God will be with us.

Baptism by Fire, Adri Botha, Cape Town, South Africa
There are times, though, when that is small comfort. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather skip the waters and the fire altogether some days. My own acquaintance with baptism by fire began when I was twelve, when my father moved out of the house and my parents decided to divorce. I’ll bet you can recall your first encounter with the fires of life. It’s the first time we know real pain, the kind that grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.

Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “[pain] makes theologians of us all.” She goes on to say, “Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy, and yet the majority of us do everything in our power to avoid it.” [1]

In the movie G.l. Jane, the command master chief instructs his trainees with these words about pain: “Pain is your friend, your ally, it will tell you when you are seriously injured, it will keep you awake and angry, and remind you to finish the job and get the hell home. But you know the best thing about pain? It lets you know you're not dead yet!”

But most of us, when we entered into this relationship with God, did not think that it might entail some serious encounters with pain, especially the pain of letting go and loss. Surely Job, in his righteous life before God, could not have predicted the pain and anguish of losing his livelihood, his children and his health.

When I answered ‘yes’ to God in the call of ministry, I had no idea of giving it up for something else. The minister who prayed over me at my ordination spoke of this calling being a ‘fire in my heart’, that it would give me ‘the cauterizing heat of pain and suffering borne and conquered’. When I gave birth to my first child and then also my second child, I had no idea I would also want to be in ministry as much as I wanted to be a mother. And I had no idea how much pain I would endure as a result of these choices.

A few years ago, when I felt myself to be at my lowest in this fiery baptismal life to which God had called me, I had a dream that assured me once and for all, that God was with me through all of this.

In the dream I am in a room full of women, of all ages. On the floor in the middle of the room is a crying baby girl with a headful of brown hair and big brown eyes. No one seems to hear her or acknowledge her presence. Being one who sometimes acts first and thinks later, I pick up the child and nurse her. Instantly she is soothed and falls asleep.

The next morning as I am eating breakfast and thumbing through a Buddhist meditation catalog, I come upon a picture of this figure, a small statue of Kwan Yin holding Maitreya, the Buddha yet to be. Kwan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of compassion, what is known as a bodhisattva: one who postpones one’s own enlightenment to assist in alleviating the suffering of others. She is like Mary, who gave of her life so that the least of God’s people might be saved from their suffering by the birth of Jesus. When I saw this statue of mother and child, of loving embrace and compassion, I cried, not yet knowing why.

The ‘why’ came later, at Bible study at the church in Monroe, when we opened to the book of Isaiah and in chapter 49 read these words: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

Though at times it may seem as though God is silent, God does not forget us. God is with us in the high waters and in the fires. This is what is meant by ‘Emmanuel’: God with us. God is in solidarity with us. God is with us as the fires of life burn away what is useless and unnecessary and wake us up to what is real and authentic.

Some of you, I know, are traveling through fires much fiercer than mine. I cannot begin to understand cancer or a body that betrays daily or job loss or drug addiction or whatever you are facing in your life right now. Each of us is on our own journey toward the divine; each of us has our own unique pain that brings us face to face with God. And yet pain is pain. Our pain does not make us special. Rather, it has the power to draw us closer to one another as well as to God.

Asking why things happen is a question reserved for the privileged: most folks know the question is really when. Pain is a part of being human and it is also a part of a life of faith. But as to God and suffering, I think that is where choice comes in. We can choose to suffer in our pain through isolation, despair, self-pity or in the midst of our pain we can choose relationship, hope, and the courage to change. We can choose to numb our pain, to ignore it, resist it, wallow in it—or we can choose to be baptized in it and with it and through it: to choose God in the midst of the fire.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, was known to say to people with fierce conviction: “Remember your baptism!” Our baptism with water helps us through the baptism by fire. Through our baptism we know we are precious, beloved children of God who will never leave us.

And not put too fine a point on it but this interim time is a baptism by fire: a time to feel the pain of not having a settled pastor, a time of change and uncertainty but also one of discernment and of winnowing away what is useless and unnecessary. It is a time that can bring you closer to God and to each other, but that is a choice you must make. God is always there, here, in the waters and in the fire, because God will do anything to have us close, even unto a manger and a cross.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 157-158.

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