Baptism with Fire: Now Who Shall We Be?

Luke 3:7-18

I trudged through the mall on Friday night. is not a place I frequent often, but at least once a year I make my way to the Hallmark Store to purchase my nephew’s Godchild ornament.

I started this tradition his first Christmas and even though this is the 19th time I have done so, I can’t seem to stop. Never mind that Michael is now a fine young man who has found his footing well in his freshman year of college. Never mind that by now he has traveled to places in the world I have not yet seen. Never mind…. I keep buying these ornaments for him which mostly, as much as I can recall from these 19 seasons, are little lambs in one form or another. His mother has now purchased a small tree to hang them on. And Michael, bless him, even through his teen-age years, has always opened his gift and smiled and thanked me.

It is the picture of baptism many prefer, of course, this one of an infant dressed in white. It is, quite simply, sanitized and sweet and in many ways seems a far distance from the one our fiery John directs us to today. For the one John points to behind himself — this one which Jesus brings— we are told is more than baptism by water, but is one which brings fire and the Holy Spirit.

It is so, of course, that this baptism was Michael’s almost nineteen years ago — and yours and mine as well. Oh, one may have to squint to see it on that day when water is splashed and photographs are taken and the whole family gathers for a celebratory feast. And yet it is there for all to see for in those moments after the water is poured, we make a sign of the cross on the forehead of the one who often cannot yet begin to comprehend the meaning of what is happening to him or her. We make the sign of the very cross on which Jesus died and in so doing we are placing the newest among us at odds with the forces of this world where the likes of greed and violence and hopelessness and despair threaten to prevail.

Now it is so that in a world where challenges to our faith can seem global in their implications, I find it interesting that John keeps his advice to his listeners pretty close to home. No doubt his preaching might contain more than this today, but then as now his words still ring true. For you and I who have heard the judgment. For you and I who have experienced the fire. For you and I who somehow hear John’s words as being meant for us, when we ask “What now?” John simply offers this:

  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don’t take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
In a world where the challenges are so huge, one wonders how these seemingly small things could make any difference at all. And yet, one at a time, one person after another, seeking to live in these ways? Maybe in the end this would be, could be the beginning of changing everything.
Now I don’t know, of course, the audience who first heard John’s preaching. I don’t know the texture of their lives, although I expect for the most part those who went into the wilderness to be baptized by him were not especially rich and powerful. No doubt they were not strangers to the worst of what life in this world can hand you. Perhaps it was so that they took the time to seek out John because they were trying to make sense of the lives they had been given.
And so it is that much of the time I would not count myself much like John’s first listeners as I imagine them now. Indeed, too much of the time I can get by with believing that I am entirely self sufficient in many ways.
And then as has been so for me in these last days …
  • My gall bladder makes itself known and I find myself at the mercy of modern medicine and now continuing on with the certainty that this human body is more fragile than I remembered…
  • Or the word comes that our cherished friend and colleague Laura Koppenhoefer has died as a result of the cancer which has stalked her for years and I find myself weeping with her family at her casket on a Friday night in December and I am reminded that life is fragile and oh so short and with many I am left wondering at its meaning…
And so it was that on Saturday morning before Laura’s funeral I stood with a friend in silence as our un-shed tears kept us from speaking. When finally the words came, I said simply, 

“Now who shall we be?” 

In the wake of this fire, this judgment pointing out the brevity of all that we are, this suffering, who shall we be?

And I return to Laura’s own words which are at the top of her CarePage where she tells her story beginning with: “My name is Laura. I am a Child of God.”

And I return again to my now grown nephew and a Christmas tree full of little lambs.

And I know the fiery judgment which burns away that which needs to be burned away leaves us always with this. Through it all, we are still those little lambs.  We are still God’s children. And to live as God’s children means simply this:

  • Share what you have plenty of.
  • Don’t take what is not yours.
  • Be content with what you have been given.
And oh yes, isn’t it interesting that for all the hardness of the lives of many of his first hearers, John doesn’t show them pity? Isn’t it something that he still calls them to account and challenges them to be who God made them to be?
And so also with us, don’t you think? In the wake of whatever fire has been ours, so also with you and me. May we keep wondering who we shall be now. And may we hear the beginning of an answer in John’s sermon so long ago.
  • Share what you have plenty of. 
  • Don’t take what is not yours. 
  • Be content with what you have been given.
Indeed, may this fire which Jesus brings always burn away that which needs to be burned away: be it pride, or false self sufficiency, or lack of empathy, or greed, or shortsightedness and on and on… May it all be burned away so that you and I might be led  to live more deeply and truly as the Children of God that we are. 
May this always be so.
  • How do you hear John’s sermon today? Is it all judgment or is there promise, too?
  • How do you think John’s first hearers would be like or unlike those who listen in on his preaching today?
  • When has the fire burned in such a way that it left you wondering, “So now who shall we be?”
  • John offers three ways God’s children are called to live. The list seems pretty complete to me. What do you think?

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