There is always fire
Gospel: Matthew 3:(1-12,) 13-17
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ [or, is at hand] 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’ [Isaiah 40]
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with [or, in] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with [or, in] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, [or, my beloved son] with whom I am well pleased.’
I'm not sure what I expected when I was baptised. I was thrown off my feet and fell under the surface, out of control, shocked, held down, struggling to get up. This is baptism: a dying, a full immersion, a drowning in the unexpected, rising to something else.
Baptism is not something we do. It is done to us. It is the sign of our repenting, of our deciding and beginning to live in a new way. It's the beginning of the change that will be wrought in us.
In Australia, baptism is to give up the seeking of riches. It is at the heart of the Christian faith. Both the first teaching words of John and of Jesus are identical, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is Jesus' key teaching beyond the simple, almost unbelievable, message that God loves us. (3:2, 4:17) And Jesus is baptised. It is part of his repentance.
The seeking of riches is an attempt to avoid fire. If we are rich, we are insulated from the pain— so we think. We have a measure of safety. Riches promise a firebreak between us and the horrors of life. The poor stand in a dying queue for months, while the rich go to a private hospital in a few days. The poor limp down to the bus stop, and find the service is not running, while the rich take a tour overseas.
There is a perversion of Christianity which says, "Repent— be baptised— or burn." But John said Jesus would baptise us in holy spirit and fire— and it does not say the Holy Spirit— Capital Letters. He does not say be baptised or burn… because there is always burning.
Nor will there be some kind of controlled burn because we are baptised, some dampening of life's dangers. There is no choosing the burning; no limiting or controlling what happens to us. Everything about us will be exposed by fire. (Eph 5:11, 1 Cor 3:13)
Next to our back door stand two white rose bushes, which at this time of year, constantly remind me of the White Rose, the non-violent resistance movement in Germany, some of whom became martyrs.
The White Rose were burned, but so, in the end, was Hitler. Something profoundly different about each was exposed, and Christianity understands this difference has an eternal significance. What is shown about us goes to the heart of us and who we have become, and it connects with the deep essence of all that is. All is forgiven, yet the goat in us may refuse all that is given.
When I asked to be baptised, I think part of me was seeking to escape from life as it was. I wanted meaning, significance, transcendence of the banal—my ordinary everyday— which seemed so empty.
There is no escape from the ordinary; the ordinary is what is. Indeed, the desire for some white hot experience, but without burning, is really only a variation on the consumer dream. It imagines we can find riches of life— that they are a thing to be got— rather than seeing we can only be more deeply immersed in the ordinary.
Being spiritual is the finding of life in the ordinary. By choosing to live life differently— that is what repentance means— we step in… to the everyday where the drownings and the wildfires purify us. They clean out the dross, the unneeded, the rubbish; they wash off the clogging. Seeking to get more— more profound worship, more deep experiences, more spiritual wisdom— is, too often, unneedful shopping, the buying of rubbish and processed pap— even poison— as we avoid the fresh food aisle.
Fire is glory. And fire is horror.
Christian faith is something more than belief or confidence, and it is probably something less than certainty or an optimism that things will turn out all right. Faith is a particular way of acclimatising oneself to a world marked by futility and despair. (Ben Myers, my emphasis)
The white rose petals fall and are forgotten. It is simply so. The practice of baptism means this is no longer an immuration. Baptism is a slow immersion into the reality of all that is, a cleansing of attachment, and healing.
When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.
It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day
Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men
And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face
And see ourselves,
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names.
Kevin Hart--From The Flame Tree
To refuse fire is to
refuse baptism is to
remain looking in the mirror
never able to see beyond our selves that
limited close framed picture of the world which
fails us and
burns both us and those around us an
unawareness of the world
illusion as though
things were anything at all
we cannot remove ourselves from this
it will only be taken from us even
Jesus was baptised and
all shall be well and
all manner of thing shall be well
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
In previous years
Matthew 3:1-12 - The Good News of Repentance 2011
Matthew 3:1-11 - The Tapestry of Repentance 2011
Matthew 3:13-17 - Will we be baptised? 2011
Matthew 3:13-17 - The Work of Christmas is begun 2014
Matthew 3:1-11 - John the Baptist at Uluru 2014
Matthew 3:1-12 - A most serious insult 2014
Matthew 3:1-12 - The Good News of Repentance 2017
Matthew 3:13-17 - The Work of Christmas is begun 2014
The Last Day by Kevin Hart (Text)
The Last Day by Kevin Hart (Read by Ben Myers)
My Name is Ozimandias Percy Bysshe Shelley
Little Gidding TS Eliot Read by Ben Myers, Commentary
Julian of Norwich – All shall be well