Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism By Fire

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
January 13, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: Isaiah 43: 1-7   Luke 3: 15-22

I heard this joke this week preparing for today. "Man comes to church early in the week and pleads, “Pastor, I have never been baptized. I need to be baptized. I need to be baptized this Sunday.” Pastor looks out the window and says, “Jack, It’s January. We will probably have to chop ice off the river to find a good spot.” 

They do full immersion at this church, outside, an important detail to the joke as you will hear in a minute.

“I can’t wait Pastor. Jesus doesn’t want me to wait any longer.”

“Jack it’s snowing.”

That’s okay Pastor I can take a little cold for Jesus.

Sunday comes and the men of the church cut ice out of the river to create a baptistery of flowing water. The Pastor puts on his hip waders, grits his teeth, and steps into the river. Here comes Jack wearing swimming trunks beneath a white baptismal robe and golashes that go up to his knees. Grinning from ear to ear, until he steps into the water. "Brrrrrr"

Pastor takes Jack and dunks him once, “I baptize you in the name of the Father.” Jack comes up wet, shivering and teeth chattering. "Brrrr."

“And I baptize you in the name of the Son.” Pastor takes Jack and dunks him a second time. "Brrr." Jack comes up wet, shivering and teeth chattering.

Pastor goes to dunk Jack the third time, and Jack locks up and resists.

“No, no Pastor, I can take Father and I can take Jesus but I can't take the Holy Spirit.”

In our Gospel lesson this morning, John talks about the one who is coming. One coming with power. One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Maybe that joke gives an idea what baptism with fire might be like--like being baptized in a freezing river on a snowy day in January. You could do it, but would you want to do it.

Baptism by fire, undoubtedly you have heard the term before. We often use the term to talk about a new recruit being thrown into a high stress situation. Captain Roger Sankerdial in Queens New York was still a recruit in training at the police academy when the twin towers went down. Looking back he talks about his baptism by fire. Recruits were placed on traffic detail throughout NYC that September day--all hands on deck. Turning two-way streets into one-way streets out and creating access lanes for first responders trying to get to ground zero. He tells it this way: 

That first night I worked all night: 17 hours, maybe. It looked like it was snowing with the dust and soot gathering on our hats, and we’d brush each other off regularly. Whenever I had a break I’d wash my face and put water in my hair, just to get the grey out of it. I coughed a lot.

From “Baptism by Fire: A NYPD Recruit Shares His 9/11 Story” by Adam Janos on 8 September 2017.

Captain Sankerdial’s story is an interesting one and I will post it on our church’s facebook page for those who are interested. Baptism with fire, by fire is a spiritual term that comes in part from this Gospel verse. Mennonites talk about Baptism and Fire. Some of their early practitioners were burned at the stake for heresy. They became martyrs to a new expression of Christ. Baptism by fire did not require dying for the faith so much as the willingness not to back down from your beliefs when the persecution loomed real. You could do it, maybe, but you are never really sure until such a moment arises.

This Spirit (this Holy Fire) changes you and brings about justice and burns the chaff. Some people hear the burning of the chaff and think this points to eternal fires of torment. But no, again I say no, this use by John tells about the Holy Spirit burning you with a Holy fire, a nurturing fire. Sometimes a good fire can serve just as nurturing a purpose as a good rainfall.

Author Cindy Schreuder offers this description of a prairie fire from the front page of the Chicago Tribune in 1995:

Pushed forward by the wind, the flames raced across the prairie. Thick, dead grass stalks wavered for just a moment before buckling and falling into the flames.
Nineteenth-century settlers spoke of the violence of the burns, their noise, heat, power and attraction. They are reactions modern-day scientists share. “A prairie fire is something like a great thunderstorm—you experience the raw power of nature,” said [Stephen Packard, science director for the Nature Conservancy, Illinois]. “After you’ve burned it off, nothing is left. It’s so pure. Every leaf that emerges is new and shiny and wet. Every flower petal is perfect. It reminds you of being young.”

From “Science of the Seasons: Spring the Miracle of Renewal”in the Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1995. 

We need that in the church that which makes of feel young again.

The Holy Spirit also burns with fire. And as this gospel passage is all about a Holy Fire—Holy H-O-L-Y—that also cannot be quenched. The Holy Spirit that flutters upon Jesus in bodily form. A Holy Spirit that we associate with baptism. We often think of Baptism by Water, but going back to baptism by fire I will tell you more of Captain Sankerdial. He was a 31 year old cadet in the police academy. His family immigrated to New York Guyana when he was 5 years old. He served a stint of active duty in the Marines and then became a claims adjustor for an insurance company. When his company downsized, he took a buyout and a 50 percent pay cut and became a police officer. He talks about what it was like to be 31 years old and at school again, police academy.

I was about 10 years older than most of the other recruits. I was even older than my instructor.  Some of the other recruits thought the academy was tough and they’d complain. It flowed better for me than for a lot of the others. I loved it. I savored every moment of it.

From “Baptism by Fire: A NYPD Recruit Shares His 9/11 Story” by Adam Janos on 8 September 2017.

Maybe not young again, but the experience energized him. Fire, energy, power. That is the Holy Spirit in your life.

Baptism by fire, like being baptized in a cold river on a snowy January day. Or being a new recruit responding to the call to show up in New York City when two  iconic buildings have come crashing to the ground. Or being told to either deny your faith or perish. You could do it, but do you want to do it.

With your baptism and in your baptism here at this font you accept Jesus. As you remember, I hope fondly, that you are baptized, you accept Jesus. The fire starts to come as you allow Jesus to change your life. When you let the chaff of weakness and disruption and sin burn away. 

Perhaps one of the hardest things that Jesus teaches us to do is pray for our enemies. Do you remember Stephen’s prayer when he was stoned to death. “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Much like Jesus prayer from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.”

Philip Yancey in his study on prayer ponders what might happen if every church in America took the name of one member of Al-Qaeda and prayed for them. How might that change the world? How might God use all of those prayers to bring peace in the world?

Or another example, not really enemies, I hope, but it feels like that at times. What if everyone took a member of congress, or the senate who is not of the political party they affiliate with and prayed for them by name regularly. If you are a democrat, pray for a republican. If you are a republican, then pray for a democrat. And do not use prayers with an edge, like “wake them up” or “get a clue.” Offer genuine prayers for their health and their well being. Thank God for them and their service. Pray for their family and their staff and their constituents. How might that change us?

Is that ministry of prayer like being baptized in the river, ice cold water on January? Something that you could do, but do you really want to do it.

And while we pray for those who make us unsettled, annoy us, and drive us crazy, maybe we can offer a prayer for those people we annoy. Those people who don’t like us, we can pray for them while they pray for us. We can pray like we are the tax collectors.

I love it that tax collectors and soldiers came to John in the wilderness. And you just know that some of them met Jesus there. Jesus the one who has the Holy Spirit and power and fire. Some of them accepted Jesus. Some of them allowed Jesus to change their life. Zacchaeus comes to mind, Luke chapter 19.

I give thanks that you accept Jesus and these words on this cold, cold, day. And I pray for your safety and your well being. I pray for the ways in which Jesus changes your life and even at times takes over your life, as unsettling as that might be.


No comments:

Post a Comment