All Wet or On Fire? Baptism of the Lord Sunday (2017) Rev Dr Durrell Watkins In today’s gospel lesson Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Water rituals were very common in those days. Water represents newness, like a birth that follows someone’s water breaking. Rituals that involve walking through water symbolize a journey, going […]
All Wet or On Fire?
Baptism of the Lord Sunday (2017)
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Water rituals were very common in those days. Water represents newness, like a birth that follows someone’s water breaking.
Rituals that involve walking through water symbolize a journey, going through a challenge and coming out okay, like Moses’ people crossing a sea to safety. Sprinkling water often is a sign of blessing. Pouring water can symbolize the outpouring of God’s love and power. Mixing water with wine or making tea from water and sharing the liquid at a symbolic meal is also a common ritual use of water. Water rituals are meant to help us connect with a power within us. In fact, all sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, outward expressions of internal events.
Water rituals are ubiquitous and are from time immemorial. So, that washing people was part of John’s ministry is not terribly surprising. He wasn’t the only one doing it nor was he the first. He certainly wasn’t the last.
That Jesus would want to begin his ministry by participating in a water ritual also makes sense. But here’s the twist: Before verses 13-17 which we heard read from Matthew chapter 3 today, John the baptizer says in verses 11-12,
“I baptize with water; but after me comes one who is very powerful…who will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing hook is in his hand…and he will gather wheat into the barn and burn away the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus shows up, he gets splashed, and he begins a ministry that set his part of the world on fire.
The fire isn’t a threat – Jesus isn’t a pyromaniac for heaven’s sake! The fire is an idiom, a figure of speech. He wants to immerse people in hope, in compassion, in a zest for making a difference in the world. He wants to get people fired up for justice, for healing, for building people up, for forming communities of care and concern and celebration.
Jesus wants people immersed, splashed, hosed down with a new attitude, with a new way of thinking…he wants people swimming in the notion that the last can be first and the first will be last because in God’s kin-dom there is no first and last. He wants hungry people fed and sick people tended and political prisoners encouraged and refugees welcomed and vulnerable people protected.
Jesus wants to resist empire with love. He wants to conquer fear with hope. He wants people to know that they and all other people have sacred value. And he’s on fire to immerse people in this message and he wants his disciples and admirers and friends to be on fire to live and share this message, too.
When people are on fire with a desire to love our neighbors and care for those in need and work for justice for all people, then all the useless crap that passes as religion and politics and values will burn up like the garbage they are and what will be left is the nourishing, spiritual wheat that we have stored in angelic barns…the nourishment of self-esteem, of generosity, of concern for the so-called least of these, the bread of justice, the grain of hope, the flour of goodwill…that’s what’s left and that’s what we have to share when we are on fire the way Jesus wanted people to be.
Thinking of Jesus’ baptism of fire reminds me of that great old hymn of the faith:
“You know that it would be untrue, you know that I would be liar if I was to say to you, ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.’ Come on baby, light my fire…Try to set the night on fire.”
Setting the world on fire with hope and a commitment to do justice, love mercy, and live humbly…that’s the baptism we are called to share today.
At Sunshine Cathedral, we offer the water ritual known as baptism but we don’t require it. We define baptism as being immersed in the life of our spiritual community and you can choose to celebrate that or not with some water…but if you are immersed in the life of this church you will be on fire for justice, on fire for to bring hope and healing to hurting people, on fire to pull down the strongholds of racism, on fire to affirm and celebrate the LGBT community, on fire to share the message that we are each God’s miracle and not God’s mistake. John’s watery baptism was fine, but the power is in the fire!
The theme of being on fire to heal wounded souls, to build justice seeking communities, to affirm the dignity of every human being is actually how Matthew’s gospel ends.
The last two verses of Matthew’s gospel bring us back to baptism, but those concluding verses don’t mention water. Matthew 28.19-20 reads, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Parent and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them…everything I have taught you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Let me rephrase that for us today, in light of the Jesus who baptized not with water but with fire:
“Reach out to as many people as possible, immersing them in God, in Christ, and in the holy Spirit, which is to say, Immerse them in Life, in Love, and in Liberation;
[and how do we do that?] by teaching them about this Jesus who was on fire to give broken people their dignity back, and to create a world where love reigns supreme – and as we do that the fire of Jesus will be our own, for as long as we shall live.”
Early in Matthew, Jesus kicks his ministry off with John’s water ritual, but John tells us – Jesus isn’t going to get us wet, he’s going to light a fire under us and Jesus’ fire cannot be extinguished. Jesus then goes on and starts lighting those fires, and Matthew concludes the gospel by challenging us to be keepers of the flame, and can’t nobody flame like Jesus, except, possibly, us. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2017
Let the fire of joy burn within us;
Let the fire of hope guide us;
Let the fire of love radiate from us;
In Jesus’ name.