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Finding Ourselves through Baptism, the Holy Spirit, and Fire!


Passage: Luke 3:15-17, Luke 3:21-22

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Stephen Graham

Sorting through a stack of old sermon notes, I found this lone sentence written at the top of an otherwise blank page: “I come to this place, like no other place, because it is here, more than any other place, that I expect something to happen.” 

And so, we have come expectantly, longing for something to happen to us, or to someone other than ourselves. Because if it can happen to them, there is hopeful assurance that it can happen to us. This the Sunday after Epiphany, we share a readiness to be baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire!

We hope to feel the warmth of that fire even though something in us realizes we are at risk; for the fire that warms also burns.[1] But we have come to be baptized by this fire and wade through the stuff of our lives to find the real core of our existence. We cry, “Jesus help us!” Give us light and warmth. Show us the way beyond the shadows of our own faults and failures. 

Have you ever looked across during worship and seen a friend you never would have expected to see here, only to foolishly asked them after the service, “Why are you here?” An insensitive question! Your friend has come for many of the same reasons that you have come. To be warmed. To be blinded by the light! To become alive with wonder to all that her life might be in God.

John the Baptist shared good news, “I take you down into the river to baptize you, but there is One coming who is greater than I. One I am not fit to undo his shoelaces.  It only takes a spark from this One. This One who puts the Holy Spirit in you puts fire in your belly. This One changes you from the inside out. This world is obsessed with the things of this world, the things that will snuff the life out of you. This One comes to clean house—make a clean sweep of our lives. This One comes to place everything true in its proper place before God and to place everything false in the trash to be burned.[2]

An old movie I enjoyed is Big Fish, the story about a son making sense of his relationship with his father, Albert Finney, who is terminally ill. A scene finds the father, the big fish known for his exaggerated stories, in his pajamas soaking in the tub. Immersed under the water, he comes up to tell his wife, “I’m drying out.” 

We know the meaning of that. “All we are is dust in the wind.” We get dry being measured by our performance day in and day out. We get dry searching for internal affirmation from external things.  

That is another reason Carlyle Marney is our friend. He tells us that faith is about the essence of existence.[3] It is first about being.[4] Faith happens whenever “What I do” and “What I am” come together worthily.[5] 

Isaiah 43:1-7 sheds light on being baptized by fire. It is to be named by God, the God who made us in the first place. It is to be called by name. When you are drawn into the flames, you are confirmed by this message from God. “You are mine! When you are in over your head, I will be with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. Your troubles will not be the end. When you pass through the fire, you will not be consumed for I am the Lord your God, the Holy God of Israel, who saves you. That’s how much you mean to me because I love you.”

Because this world dries you out, we are invited into the water.

They called us the “Baptizers!”  Before the name Baptist loses its power with you, claim it in its best sense. One by one we come to the water to claim our identity. We enter the water to discover who and whose we are. When doing more and having more does not cut it, Jesus touches and ignites these waters.

Being a Christian is not something one knows or does but who one is.[6]

One day our Lord came to the little hill home of Lazarus and his sisters. Luke wanted the church to remember what he said to the busied Martha, “One dish is enough for a meal!” (Luke 10:42) 

One day Jesus was overtaken on a journey by a well-off young patrician who queried, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16-22.) Matthew wanted the church to remember that Jesus dealt with him in terms of the disposition of what he had, so that he might come to terms with being.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and asked what he must do to merit eternal life (John 3:1-21). John wanted the church to remember Jesus refused to deal with him on this level and led Nicodemus to talk of birth—and being.[7]

Who is helping you sort out your life?

John the Baptist told of this One who comes with winnowing fork and blows away the chaff. The wheat settles to the floor and is gathered into the barn (verse 17).  Oh, the power of those who know the weight of their being. Baptism names our essence.

Thomas Troeger, in his hymn, What Ruler Wades through Murky Streams, has us sing of a savior who by his life encourages us to ignore what the world esteems. 

What ruler wades through murky streams
and bows beneath the wave,
Ignoring how the world esteems
the powerful and brave? 

Christ gleams with water brown with clay
from land the prophets trod.
Above while heaven’s clouds give way
descends the dove of God. 

Come bow beneath the flowing wave.
Christ stands here at your side
and raises you as from the grave
God raised the crucified. 

Water, River, Spirit, Grace.
Sweep over me, sweep over me!
Recarve the depths your fingers traced
in sculpting me.

Thomas H. Troeger commented that this text "was inspired by seeing a picture of a muddy Jordan River and realizing the materiality of Christ's experience at baptism." (THE NEW CENTURY HYMNAL, No. 169.)

We want to let God live in us!

One Christmas Eve I found myself so engaged in the experience of lighting our candles and singing together that I forgot to raise my candle as I had originally planned. I was caught up in the moment until the very end of the last refrain as we sang, “Jesus Lord at thy birth.” Though my timing was off, it was theologically accurate. When Jesus is Lord, we discover our identity. It is when Jesus is Lord that we serve. When Jesus is Lord, we are set free by the fire that cannot be put out (3:17).

In Jesus Christ God participates in our longings and helps us make sense of it all. In Jesus Christ God sews up the torn places and anoints the scars. Having touched us at the center of our being, God gives us a holy commission. Our identity becomes our response. The result is a life of being made whole. 

It is a hope of having not yet arrived. The last word is not frustration. “More to follow” goes at the end of every page.[8]

[1] William Hendrick, Systematic Theology notes from seminary

[2] Eugene Peterson, The Message, p. 1855.

[3] Marney



[6] Marney

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.