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Baptized in the Holy Spirit and in Fire,
My Beloved!


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 10, 2016

Water is powerful. Water is essential to life. It covers much of the planet and makes up 95% of our bodies. We can live without food for weeks but water is like the breath of life. We need it to survive.

The Rivers of Babylon reminded the Hebrew people of their homeland.  Israel today is proud of its wise use of water. When I visited there two years ago I saw the River Jordan and sat by its calm running waters. Upstream there was a place to enter in that looked much like the image on our bulletin this morning. There were people playing in the water there so I watched from a distance and thought about this story.

The story of Jesus Baptism is found in all four gospels. In hearing Luke’s version we may think it is so familiar that we have nothing new to learn from it. But there are aspects of this story that only come alive if we understand the history and context. Baptisms or water cleansings were an ancient tradition. To become a member of the Jewish faith one must not only be circumcised but also be baptized. Ezekiel mentioned cleansing with water in his ancient text.

But John took his ministry outside of the temple and into the countryside. Being asked to immerse oneself in the River Jordan would have surprised many of the faithful in his day. It was a radical departure from the religious structures, a rebellion against the powers that be.

And to speak of being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire was totally new. The Spirit or Wisdom or Breath of God was not imagined to be poured out on any but the chosen prophets. Joel prophesied that in the end times it would be poured out on all flesh but most folks could only hope that now was that time.

Fire and water don’t mix, yet both were symbols of cleansing. Fire can burn off impurities just as water washes them away.

Baptism by John was a way to seek forgiveness. People came by the hundreds to be cleansed of their sins, to renew their commitment to God.
When Jesus comes to be baptized John is surprised. The skies open up. A dove of the Spirit of Peace descended. God proclaimed “You are my Son, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased!” It’s a great story!

Baptism was adopted by the early church as the sacrament of welcome into the community of faith. Whole families were baptized together but each individual chose freely to make the commitment to follow the Way or to raise their child in the Way. Baptism was a cleansing from the past yes, but the idea of “Original sin” did not develop until the 4th Century. Since God’s love had already forgiven us all wrongs, the individual was allowing themselves to receive that cleansing by believing in the healing transformative love of God.

Do you remember your baptism? Did the heavens open up? Did you hear and feel God blessing you? Or were you a baby and take it on trust that it was a special day for your family?

One of the young men I visited this week at Juvenile Hall asked me to pray that God would forgive him for what he has done. I was able to look into his eyes with absolute assurance to tell him he has already been forgiven by God, that he is loved unconditionally and compassionately, that his real work now is to forgive himself so that he can receive that love and begin to let it flow through him.

Every week I remind us (and especially myself) that God’s love is unconditional. I believe God knew from the beginning of time just what challenges and mistakes we would face and make. God draws us to this place and time so that we can remember and renew our commitment to letting God love through us. As God’s beloved children we are created for love. Our job is often just to get out of our own way, out of God’s way within us, so that we can shine with the light that is already there.

But what of the Baptism by Fire and by the Holy Spirit? Protestant religion has tended to try to put a cap on the wilder side of the Christian tradition. There is plenty of evidence that early Christianity was full of emotional expressions of the faith. Pentacostalism was alive and well in those days. There were plenty of miracles, dramatic healings, and speaking in tongues. We don’t need those experiences to prove we are baptized in the Spirit but they were strong affirmations to the early believers that something new was happening in their midst.
The real challenge for most of us is not the emotional and dramatic expressions of the Spirit, but rather the quiet, deep and dark nights of transformation. The Fire of the Spirit doesn’t always look beautiful and powerful and fun. It can burn us from the inside out. It can transform us through challenges we could never have imagined having to face.

Many of us have had life experiences that we never would have chosen and could not imagine surviving if we had been told in advance that this would be our path. Looking back those are the times when the footprints on the beach are singular because God had to carry us through rather than walk by our side. If you are grown and strong, you have been refined in God’s refining fire. And you are likely to understand those fires will continue to refine you through challenges that lie ahead. To put it bluntly, ‘Old age is not for sissies!’ There is more to be revealed.

The Church recognizes Baptism and Communion as the essential sacraments. We need only be baptized once and it doesn’t matter if it was in your current church home, in a river, in a hot tub (my particular favorite), or sprinkled as an infant. But God will cleanse us again and again through fire and water and spirit as we grow and transform in our faith. The Native American image of the snake shedding its skin as a symbol for death and rebirth is a vivid way to think of this. We outgrow our form again and again. “He who isn’t busy being born, is busy dying.” (Bob Dylan)

You are my Son/my daughter, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased. As a child of God you are beloved. But to grow in our faith requires plenty of refining fire and pruning and cleansing renewal. If you want to grow up you will need to learn to depend moment by moment on the love of God to guide you and inspire you.

You don’t need to, nor can you, know who or what God is. We can’t put God in a box. We can’t really even name God, and we do so only as an acknowledgement of our limited ability to understand. But we can learn to trust God. We can learn to proverbially fall back into the arms of God.  When we do not feel strong, God is there.
        
This Friday morning I awoke troubled by a very vivid dream.  was visiting with my sister Wendy and hoping to spend the day with her when she suddenly chose to cancel on me. There were lots of other images to remember but that one moment triggered memories of every time anyone had ever disappointed me. I woke up overwhelmed with sadness and feeling very sorry for myself. Then I remembered times I had had to cancel plans with others that I know deeply disappointed them. Suddenly I could understand my sister’s need to say no, and the disappointments I had experienced with so many others were put in a new light. In forgiving others I could also forgive myself for being ever so human. When I took my shower later in the morning I felt myself letting go and washing clean again in a new mini-baptism.

The words of the prophet Isaiah 43:1-6 in our Call to Worship this morning bear repeating:
“But now thus says the Lord, God who created you, O Jacob, God who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring
from the east, and from the west I will gather you.”

May we remember our baptism and have the courage to walk through the fires that guide us home to God, for we are offspring, the children of God, who have been gathered from the East and from the West to serve and be transformed by the Spirit of a Loving God. May it be so!