Baptized in Fire

Luke 3:15-22
John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but One more powerful than I is coming and will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, wind and fire.”

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Today is the baptism of our Lord Sunday. His baptism was by a fiery, wild-eyed prophet in the Jordan River, not in a heated Presbyterian church by a bespectacled, mild-mannered, well-manicured minister. Our Lord’s baptism was different. It wasn’t even what we would call a religious act. His was more of a political act than an act of piety or religion.

At that time and place Jesus stood in solidarity with many of his co-patriots who believed their nation, their people had gotten off track and it was time to confess, to come clean, to stand up for righteousness and walk the path that would rebuild the nation with justice and kindness. It was time to recall the prophet Micah’s question: What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness and walk humbly with each other?

It was time to return to that path.

John the Baptizer was the prophet of that time to call for repentance and renewal. But he knew it would take more than water, more than a good scrubbing and good intentions. It would take a certain kind of fire to transform the hearts of people and the heart of the nation.

Our own nation faces such a call today. I’ll get back to that but first let me tell you about our own Howard Cauvel.

Howard was a highly respected and beloved computer geek for the Coast Guard and proud of it! Howard died on Dec. 12 at age 40 leaving behind a wife and two young children. Yesterday his family, friends and co-workers gathered here to mourn his death and celebrate his life.

Howard was not baptized.

The week after Thanksgiving I visited him and his wife at their home. A terminal prognosis was hanging over his head. And thus the question of baptism was raised—not by me but by his wife.

Beth had been baptized as an infant and raised in the church. Howard had not. And even though she knew better and even though he was a good and decent man, Beth was concerned about his “unbaptized” state. As you may know, in the face of death, reason often takes a back seat to fears of one sort or another.

Howard had his reasons for not being baptized. Howard graduated from Wake Forest University with a thousand questions buzzing in his mind. He had questions about life in general and the church in particular.

A couple years ago Howard and Beth attended our new members’ class. He had the curiosity and wonder of a two year old. Afterwards, he told me that he had learned much in the class that gave him second thoughts about his perennial objections against the church.

For example, he liked that we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. Something he’d not heard before. He also liked that we believe the way of Jesus is not a way out of this world into another; but rather a certain way of being in this world, of being in love. Again, something he’d not heard before.

That and several other things he had heard made fresh sense to him. I assured him that what one believes must make a certain amount of sense because the heart cannot long embrace what the mind rejects.

During my visit out of the blue his wife Beth asked Howard if he would now like to be baptized. I was caught off guard and hastened to say that I hadn’t brought any magic water and besides it’s not magical anyway.

At that Howard laughed and agreed. It’s not magical. He knew that.

And then he told me that he could not accept Pascal’s wager. In case you didn’t know, Blaisé Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician—skeptical of all things religious—is famous for his deathbed gambler’s rationale for faith which goes something like this: better to be baptized to save your soul and be wrong about the afterlife than not to be baptized and be wrong. That’s Pascal’s wager.

Howard was one of only a few that knew about that wager, had considered it and rejected it. And that’s what he told me. And then he looked at his wife and said, but if it will make you feel better, I will be baptized.

For a long, long, long time the church told ignorant and illiterate people that baptism was the only sure way to save their soul from hell. You were born a sinner, the church bellowed, and without our one and only cure you are doomed. And pity the infant that dies without baptism, the church said. Thus baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by an authorized agent of the church—and only an authorized agent of the church—became a kind of “eternal fire insurance.”

Howard wanted none of that. Nor do we.

A thousand years ago that idea became ingrained in an entire culture and cultures, as we know, don’t change easily or quickly. That superstitious notion still haunts many, including some of us here. Could the water really be magical?

I don’t know about all other churches, but that’s not why we baptize. We don’t believe in original sin. We believe in original blessing.

You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am will pleased. As our baptism serenade sung to every baptized child puts it: How could anyone every tell you, you were anything less than beautiful. How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

Yes, we believe in original blessing. But with that blessing comes a responsibility reflected in our other baptism song. Walk with me and I will walk with you and build the land that God has planned where love shine through.

Baptism, you see, isn’t meant to cool us down; it’s meant to fire us up—to stand up and speak out for justice. To work hard for peace. To hold forth a light against the darkness. To bring hope where there’s despair. To reach out and touch the world with love.

Baptism isn’t meant to cool us down; it’s meant to fire us up. Fire, as you know, can consume but it can also transform.

The massacre of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School should fire us up. That fire of rage can consume us or it can transform our nation as we boldly and wisely face our fears, our violent ways and our betrayal of the constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The voices of dying, wounded and vulnerable children keep calling, calling out day and night.

In case you haven’t heard, one of us is passing round a petition for lawmakers to see. It’s not everything. But it’s something. We don’t have to make the legislation ourselves or figure out how to do it. Our politicians are elected and paid to do that. But they must hear what citizens want for our nation. Some or us are calling our lawmakers. Some are pledging to never forsake the vision of restoring sanity to our nation and safety for our children. Next month our Session (church council) will consider how we might inform ourselves for awareness and action.

Baptism isn’t meant to cool us down; it’s meant to fire us up.

The site of formerly majestic and beautiful West Virginia mountaintops wantonly destroyed should fire us up. That rage can consume us but it can also transform our nation as we boldly and wisely face our greed and reckless consumptive lifestyles.

The voices of the mountains cry out. The voices of the waters cry out. The voices of sickened families call out day and night.

I don’t know but I can guess that someone in your own small world is calling out from a fiery situation, calling out for comfort or maybe a sympathetic ear or maybe for someone to simply stand beside them in the storm. Are you listening? Can you hear that voice?

I don’t know but I can guess that some of you have been drawn into a turbulent and fiery experience you never, ever wished for. It’s gotten under your skin. It’s burning you up in more ways than one. Yes, it could consume you but it could and just might transform you. Can you let it be?

I for one hear the voices of prisoners I never heard before. And, to tell you the truth, it’s a fire burning in my heart that won’t soon go out.

Baptism isn’t meant to cool us down; it’s meant to fire us up. Not to burn up the world, but to allow the fire to convert our hearts of stone into hearts for love alone.

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HYMN: “Here I Am Lord”