Before I went to seminary, I worked at a Renaissance Faire as an actor, and I picked up several useful skills during that time, such as three-ball juggling, how to use “thee” and “thou” properly, and how to breathe fire. When I started filling out paperwork for candidacy, I included “fire-breathing” under the “other skills” section of my application, partly to demonstrate my sense of humor, and partly to see just how far that of my candidacy committee extended.
When I went to the entrance interview, the one where the Delaware-Maryland synod would decide whether or not to allow me to be a candidate for ministry, I was really nervous. But everything went well until quite near the end of the meeting, when one of the pastors on the committee turned to me and said with a smile, “I see here that you can breathe fire.” I acknowledged that this was true. “Well,” she said, “what do you make of it when John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire?”
I had no idea.
The candidacy committee approved me anyway, but ever since I’ve had it in for that little verse that we read in today’s gospel. Every time fire comes up in the Bible, I start paying special attention, hoping that if this question should come up for my approval interview, I might be able to do more than blush and stammer.
But turning to the Bible for answers about what fire means is kind of a double-edged sword, because fire is everywhere in the Bible, and it never seems to be just one thing.
And sometimes, it seems, fire is just a fire, a thing over which you huddle to get warm, like Peter on the night of Jesus’ trial, or something you use to cook breakfast, like Jesus did on the beach one resurrection morning.
So suffice it to say that when we ask what John meant when he tells us that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the Bible gives us a lot of options to choose from.
I personally think that, in the context of this particular verse from our gospel today, first consideration has to go to fire as a purifier. Here’s why: this verse about the Messiah baptizing with fire doesn’t stand alone. John the Baptist sandwiches it between two other references to fire, and not just any fire, but fire that cleans, purges, makes room for new growth. Fire that burns unthrifty fruit trees and consumes useless chaff—an uncomfortable fire, particularly if we think of ourselves as the trees and the grains in question.
I feel a strange mixture of discomfiture and gratitude when John starts talking about cutting down trees and burning up chaff, because it stands in stark contrast to the message I so often get from the world: “you’re perfect just the way you are”—words that I tend to mistrust, because anyone who thinks I’m perfect is clearly not in possession of all the facts.
So a part of me is simply grateful that John has the courage to call out the chaff. Not because I believe that some people are chaff and some are wheat and boy, it’s nice to think that those Chaffy folk are gonna get their comeuppance one day—but rather because I know that inside of me there’s both the kernel of wheat and the chaff, and there is good news in the promise that the one who comes to be God among us is able to discern between them and destroy what there is in us that’s useless and unthrifty.
But it’s unsatisfying to simply leave our baptism with fire at the word “purification” and call it a day. After all, purification is what John’s baptism was about, too. His baptism, he says, is with water for the forgiveness of sins—it’s a ritual of cleansing. So why is the baptism by fire so important? Is it the secret ingredient of the Holy Spirit? Totally possible , but then why not just say that the Messiah will baptize with water and the Holy Spirit?
What is with John’s pyrotechnic obsession? Why does John seem to see setting the world aflame as the fulfillment of God’s promises? And why, oh why, are we reading his words in Advent? They stand in such harsh contrast when compared to, for example, our reading from Isaiah this morning, presenting us with a Christmas-card-perfect of wolves and lambs and leopards and kids lounging together, enjoying the quiet wonder of new green life emerging from a withered stump. “Let’s put curtains of consuming flames on the front of our holiday cards this year!” said no greeting card company, ever.
But you know something? The prophet Isaiah used a few choice fire images, too. In a vision, Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple, the sight is so awesome that Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flying around God’s throne flies to him and holds a live coal to his lips, and tells him that he has been cleansed of his sin. Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And Isaiah said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Isaiah’s fire was purifying too, but that cleansing wasn’t just for the sake of being clean. The fire purified for a purpose: so that Isaiah could be sent by God, and bring God’s word to a people like he had been, a people of unclean lips.
Another prophet, Jeremiah, also thought that the Word of God had more than a passing resemblance to fire. Jeremiah was a reluctant prophet, one who would far rather be doing just about anything else with his time. But a prophet was the only thing Jeremiah could be. When he tried not being a prophet, then he felt something within him, he said, “like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
For Jeremiah, the fire of God’s word wasn’t purifying, but was, pardon the expression, a fire under his butt, driving him to do God’s will. Jeremiah had the fire of God’s word in his bones, and his very marrow burned when he resisted God’s will for him.
And he’s not the only one. When the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus finally recognized him in the breaking of the bread, they turned to each other and said: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
To be baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit, to be immersed in sacred flames, perhaps it means that like Isaiah, we are purified for a purpose. That like Jeremiah, we are given a fire, shut up in our bones, that we simply cannot hold in. That like the disciples, our hearts burn within us given the tinder of this precious Word—
This Word that, the evangelist John tells us, is light that shines in the darkness.
This image is the focal point of the Advent, the one made tangible whenever we light the Advent wreath. To be baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit means to have this light kindled within us.
We’re told at our baptisms to let our light so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. During Advent, our focus is rightly on the Light of Christ which breaks into the darkness of our sin, but let’s not forget during this time that the prophecy of John the Baptist has come true: we too have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Word of God is a fire in our bones and a light in our eyes and a burning wick of hope in our hearts that can never be extinguished, a fire under our butts to care for the least of these, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to buy a gift for children we don’t know and might never meet, to build houses for those who have nowhere to lay their heads.
That kind of fire might not make a great Christmas card, but it’s a fantastic gospel. Thanks be to God.