Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Reflection If you are willing, please close your eyes, or leave them open and imagine it is a warm afternoon, you can feel the sun on your back as you stand a bit apart from a crowd of folks gathered near the prophet John, who is knee deep in the Jordan river. You can see sunlight sparkling on the droplets of water dripping from John’s wiry beard. You can not quite hear what John is saying, so slip a bit closer. Intrigued by what is going on you venture to the river’s edge and watch as one at a time people step into the river, approach John who ever so gently holds them as they lean back and are submerged in the cool water. Something stirs inside you. Before you know what you are doing, you find yourself stepping into the river and feel the cool water rising from your ankles to your knees. Now, kneeling in front of the prophet you draw in your breath at the same time you feel his strong hands supporting you as you lean back into the water. All goes silent as the water envelops your entire body. Almost out of breath, you break through the water and rise into the glittering sky. From the depths of your heart you hear, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
How might we respond? “Wow! Am I hearing things?” Or possibly we would be paralyzed in silence thinking, “Surely this is not really happening. I cannot speak of this or others will think I have lost my mind. “ Or maybe we attribute it to “something I ate.” Or perhaps we let the vision go straight to our head and we sizzle, “Aren’t I special! I heard God tell me I am the beloved. I must really be something great.!”
Perhaps that’s why the prophet John speaks of baptism by the Spirit and fire. Maybe the fire John the baptizer mentions has to do with tempering the Spirit? Maybe baptism by fire has to do with separating the wheat from the chaff, breaking the shell and getting rid of the hard edges of our human minds and personalities. You know, that of our human condition which is tempted to think of our selves as special, as equal to God and to interpret our experiences with the motive of increasing our personal gain or net worth?
With that in mind it makes sense that almost immediately following his baptism while “full of the Holy Spirit” (4.1) Jesus was “led into the wilderness and tempted by the devil.” (4.2) Three times Jesus was tempted to identify with or test God. He was tempted to use power for personal gain or to exert it over people to enhance his position. All three times Jesus chose instead to be humble, to rely on words he learned from the Hebrew scriptures to respond to temptation rather than be seduced by promises of personal position, power or privilege.
This is baptism with fire... the fire of temptation that refines away our creatureliness, the fire that transforms our avaricious appetite for power, privilege and personal gain into generous desire to be in right relationship with God and one another.
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