The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?” But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”…After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized. As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”
Luke 3:15-17; Luke 3:21-22 (The Message)
I love the scene this passage invites us into. John reminds me of that crazy uncle at the family holiday functions we all have had the pleasure of encountering. John was out in the wilderness buckwild and free. Eating bugs & honey as he paved the way for the coming Messiah, as John wore his fashion best burlap sack. John also reminds me of the fella on the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street telling us Jesus saves and asking us where we would go if we were to be hit by a bus right…now. John hooted and hollered that we had better make way and prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord.
The bit that is missing from the fella on the corner is in verses 16 & 17, “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” We are bombarded with the latter part of that verse 17. It seems the popular religious culture is obsessed with the burning part.
We hear that if we do not turn from our sinful ways that we shall be subject to the eternal fire, the doom, the dread, the separation from God. We are filled with fear and in that fear folks scramble to find ways to repent. Their faith becomes one of fire insurance and the massive responsibility of “saving” the heathens and making sure every last person on this earth hears the Word of God rather than a faith that inspires intimate relationships that connect and bind creation in the free grace of Jesus the Christ trusting and knowing that it is not about the chaff but about the wheat. The fire plays a part in the story, just not the part that the fella on the corner is preaching.
That is the message here…John is preaching a way to the Christ. This is not a final solution rather John points to the direction of The Christ and The Christ responds with action. Jesus’ actions illustrate the way to God. Only, we are not a big fan of that death thing. There are too many variables that are present in that story line. John is singing a tune that sounds like it is not about the burning of the chaff at all. John’s song is about the saving of the wheat. The wheat being the truth that sustains us as the Children of God.
It is not spelled out what the truth is that sustains us. We know that Jesus is the bearer of this subsistence. We know that the bad is far more visible to us than the good. This is because the truth…[the wheat]…is not what we are to focus on it is the process of saving it. It’s not the task or goal rather, it is the journey that John is pointing us towards. The journey of life in service to Jesus the Christ.
It is in the saving of the wheat that Jesus’ baptism and his anointing with the Spirit equips us, calls us to participate. You can’t save the wheat on your own. You got to be a part of something. You have to be in community. If you want to please God then be in community, save the wheat and stop focusing on the burning of the chaff. Better yet, forget the wheat and get caught up in the faith of the saving of the wheat.
It is a matter of what kind of faith do we want. Do we want a faith that demands from us a checklist to follow and offers a God that is exclusive to some and condemning of our sisters and brothers, using guidelines that sound an awful lot like the darkness of our hearts? Do we want a faith that demands it all, all of our lives and offers a God that is inclusive to all of creation absent our judgment and finite understandings based in the intimacy of our shared relationships…based in community.
Community is the vehicle to which we enter into the Kingdom of God. In verses 21-22 we see Jesus baptized in public and after all others had been baptized. We are baptized just as Jesus was baptized. We as Disciples of Christ practice public baptism. We do not practice baptism in secret. We are also baptized how Jesus was baptized, in the name of the Holy Spirit “As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.” In the name of the God the [Mother & Father] the one who spoke, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” We are claimed in our baptism by the name that has gone before us, Jesus the Christ. Baptism is the mark that our community is gathered and proclaimed as a community at the table of Christ.
The waters of baptism are important. Just as important to our community is the unquenchable fire. This fire is not by our hands. We didn’t start this fire. This is where the fire comes in to the picture for us.
There is fire involved in the saving of the wheat. This is a fire that consumes all. A fire that destroys as it transforms. This fire I speak of is not the damning, burning, tormenting fire preached by the fella on the street corner. That fire comes with judgment and brimstone along with the most horrible kind of grace. The kind you can lose.
The fire this passage speaks of is the Pentecostal tongues of fire that sit upon the heads of the anointed, marking them as part of the saving work of the wheat. The fire that John points us to is not the fire of ends times, but the fire of a new beginning. The fire of Pentecost. That moment in time where the Spirit of God invades our hearts and calls to new life, calls us to new being, that fire that penetrates the deepest parts of our wickedness and polishes up the glory of God that resides inside our hearts. The refining fire of the Spirit of God, that Holy moving of divine wonder in all its dynamic glory.
This dynamic glory is swiftly set upon all our hearts, all our strength, and all our might. The unquenchable fire separates the good, the bad, and the ugly. This fire doesn’t begin our story, a voice…The Voice of God, sets in motion the events that begin our story. This unquenchable fire refines our story as the voice of God reclaims our story, beckoning us to come and follow the anointed one of God. This fire is the asterisk on our titles, the indexed grace of a people, a people of God…a family, a community…the community of God.
Our story is reclaimed…here is the beauty of this Gospel message…the beauty of the story we hear is that it is our story. We are a part of the Biblical witness present in these pages. The account of the Disciples, the Sadducees, the Pharisees is part of our story. We all have that stranger crying out in the wilderness. We all have been a part of a crowd pondering the divinity of others. We drink from the cup of Christ and commit ourselves to each other. We are baptized by the waters that cleanse welcoming us in to the “brothered-ness” of Jesus the Christ.
Where we see hurt, pan, sorrow, and sin in the verses and chapters of the Holy Word of God we discover ourselves. Where we see victory, joy, and the unashamed dancing in the streets praising God we discover ourselves. The story of God’s people does not end with the death of the long awaited messiah. The story is just getting started…the birth of Jesus and his following death point to this transformative act of an unquenchable fire claiming the story of they that follow the anointed one. Our story here…now…today…is a continuation of the stories we read and teach each other. The same story we learned as children and teach our children. This story is as part of our story…our history as the year 2009 is. Along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of our first African-American President, the dawn of modern terrorism, the colonization of Africa, the wars that ravage our world, the fight of equality, free from segregation and bias based on gender, orientation, race, creed, and ability…and the increasing scarcity of food and potable water to millions of our sisters and brothers…the story continues.
Here we are early into a new year. Many of us have made resolutions or at least thought about it. We all begin this year with optimism, hope, and a desire to do better this year than last year. This city, this nation we are all about the New Year, its sort of a magical “Do-over.” It’s a little slice of the jubilee. God blesses us with a clean slate, a way forward.
The New Year is a tangible bit of grace that may fuel a peace, a vision of unity where all of Gods children may eat…a peace in which all of Gods children may be secure…that place where you and I may turn our weapons of war into tools of subsistence. A place where your neighbor is my neighbor. A place where “us” and “them” are “WE.” A place where the truth of God reigns. You have heard this before…you know that place.
You have heard this place described before…you have heard about the mountaintop…you have heard of the Promised Land. You have bore witness to the road we travel. You have been the voice to the voiceless. You have stood up to inequity. You have shouldered the pain of others. You know all about what God is calling us too.
You know the working of that unquenchable fire…that fire consuming and sancifying the hearts, minds, and will of all. That fire is here with us now. Can you smell it? Can you see it? Look around…I see sparks upon us all. Something is going on in here.
We are still coming down from the holiday highs of Christmas and the birth of that angelic little savior with his gaga talk of salvation to all. We are gearing up for Easter and the glory of God…we just got to pony up to the Lenten bar and order us up a tall glass of shame, perhaps an appetizer of remorse…good thing we got here early and its still happy hour.
It’s a bit confusing. The baptism of Jesus will do that to you. John is not Jesus “lite.” John is not the Coke Zero of the Gospel message. John is the full Coke, the real thing…John’s got a purpose here and he is making us ready to smell what Jesus is cooking up in here.
It’s about that fire…that unquenchable fire that will consume the ick inside us all. The fire that will tame the wild in you and make you even more wild. The fire that will not leave you unaffected. This fire is gonna shake you up…this fire is just around the corner. That fire is here, you can’t see the smoke. You can’t see the flames. You may not be able to see the fire. But it only takes a spark…because we didn’t start the fire.