Water and Fire

Today we’re going to be in Luke 3.

We mentioned last week 
that we’ve moved out of the season of Advent,
and we’re now in the season of Epiphany.

This is the second Sunday after Epiphany.

Epiphany is the Church’s season of celebrating 
that God has revealed himself to the world.

That God has revealed himself in Jesus.

Epiphany is the season where the Church celebrates
a sort of “AHA!” moment for the whole world.

That throughout history—all over the world—
little light bulbs have been going “bing, bing, bing” 
and people are saying:

“Aha! When I see Jesus, when I hear Jesus,
I’m actually seeing and hearing God.”

God has revealed himself to a world 
that neither knew nor cared about him.

We glimpse God in Jesus.

God has made himself known to the world.

It might not be in the way we want
and it certainly isn’t what any of us expected.

But God has revealed what he is like in Jesus
and he continues to reveal himself,
as we listen to Jesus,
as we watch Jesus,
as we follow Jesus.

That’s Epiphany.

There are three primary texts that the Church reflects on during this season:

Last week we looked at how 
God draws the wrong kinds of people
(Magi of all people!) into his presence.

This week we’re going to make a couple of reflects on the baptism of Jesus.

And next week the party really starts,
because we’ll be looking at Jesus turning water into wine.

Those three texts—
the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the miracle in Cana—
those are the primary texts that the Church sits in during Epiphany.

Luke 3 is where we are today, 
starting in verse 7:

(Luke 3.7-18) John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

There’s a lot we COULD say about this text today.

I think this the way we’re going to approach it today:
we’re going to say something about water
and then 
we’re going to say something about fire,
and then 
we’ll come to the table.

Sound like a plan?

First, water.

Of those two things—water and fire—
we tend to think of fire as the scarier one.

Fire is something that hurts you, that burns you,
and water is something nice that drink on a hot summer day.

But water can be a bit of scary image in the Bible.

There are few things more chaotic 
or more threatening than water.

From the perspective of an ancient Israelite,
you stood on a beach and see the immeasurable strength of the sea,
you watched a river flood its banks and destroy out a settlement,
you retold stories of waters that once wiped out the world—
you get the point.

Even today: water covers around three-quarters of the earth
and yet we have an easier time exploring space than exploring the sea.

There’s something wild, 
something unpredictable, 
something untamable,
about water.

And yet we’ve got people going down
to the Jordan river to be plunged into water.

That’s what the word “baptizo” (baptize) means:
to submerge, to dip, to plunge.
John Bar-Zechariah is a wild street preacher 
calling the people of God to come to the Jordan river—
to the place where centuries before they had crossed into the land with Joshua—
and telling them to start over.

Baptism into water—
plunging into water—
is a loaded image:

The world began with God’s Spirit hovering over the waters of chaos
and then rolling them back, holding them at bay.

God brought creation itself out of the chaos of water.

God brought Israel itself out of the chaos of water—
remember the story of Moses and the Exodus where the Israelites
are passing through water to enter into a new future, a new life.

That’s what John is calling people to:
a new future, a new life.

You’re a brood of vipers (v7)
and you need to stop being vipers—
stop spreading your venom.

You need to repent—need to change—
and your lives need to show evidence that you really want to change.

You need to produce some kind of fruit (v8).

These waters are a good picture of what needs to happen.

Plunge into the water,
cleanse yourself, wash yourself, 
and start over.

This is a baptism of repentance—
a baptism of changing your life.

But the strangest thing happens here:
Jesus gets baptized too (21).

It’s really strange isn’t it?

Why does Jesus get baptized?

Jesus doesn’t need to change his life,
Jesus doesn’t need to repent.

Why on earth is Jesus slip-sliding down the banks of the Jordan
to have have John plunge him into the water?

The entire life of God come among us
is a life that is meeting us where we are.

God comes among us,
and of all the things that he shouldn’t be doing,
God shouldn’t be getting baptized.

We’re the ones 
who need to repent, 
to change, to stop being vipers.

But—here’s the great epiphany—behold what God is like:
God meets us in the water.
One scholar puts it this way:

“It is well known that 
Jesus ends his ministry on a cross between thieves;
it deserves to be as well known that 
he begins his ministry in a river among sinners.”
In the muck and and the mud and the mire of our lives,
in the chaotic waters where we need to repent, to change,
God—in his love, in his justice, in his patience, in his humility—meets us there.

That’s the the scandal of the gospel—
the madness of the good news.

It’s called grace.

In our bitterness,
in our wandering,
in our despair,
in our doubt,
in our addictions,
in our need to repent—
that is where God meets us.

God is not far from you.

You cannot alienate yourself from the love of God.
God’s love is unwavering, un-flickering, unstoppable.

God is always loving us, 
always meeting us where we are.

There are no lengths we can go,
there are no depths to which we can sink,
there is no hell in which we can hide,
where we can escape from God’s love (cf. Ps 139.7-8).

There is nowhere that the love of God does not follow.
That’s good news.

Water is the great symbol of chaos—of death—
and that’s where God goes to meet us.

While we’re still sinners,
Christ dies for us.

While we’re still vipers,
God meet us in water.

Now let’s talk about fire.

Fire is scary too.
A couple of years we had wildfires raging in parts of the state—
and there’s something terrifying about fire out of control.

One evening a few weeks after I had first moved to Denver,
I was leaving Joy’s apartment up here on the hill
and spotted a fire down in the city.

I started freaking out.

I texted Joy and made her come out and look at what I was looking at.

Sure enough, 
she saw it too. 

To the southeast,
you could see flames billowing up into the night.

Should we call 911?

I mean, it’s miles away and it can be seen up here on the hill—
surely someone closer has already seen the fire and smoke.

Surely someone is going to put the fire out.

I think Joy yawned.

I don’t remember exactly what she said,
but she definitely wasn’t worried about it.

I must have thought about that fire all night,
and I remember googling “Denver fire” the next morning
to find out what had happened.

Not a word.
Didn’t make the news.

Which didn’t make any sense—
I mean, it was a big fire that I had seen.

Well, it turns out, 
there’s something an industrial area 
called Commerce City just southeast of this hill.

And whatever is going on down there frequently involves fire
because there’s almost always a fire burning down there.

Our relationship with fire is complicated.

Fire can certainly be scary (just like water can be scary)
but we also need fire (just like we need water).

I would guess you’ve already depended on fire today.

When we crank our car, when we heat our home,
we’re using combustion—we’re using fire.

As scary as fire is,
we need fire to live.

Our opinion about whether fire is a good thing or a bad thing
has everything to do with what the fire is doing.

Is the fire heating my house
or is the fire burning down my house?
John the Baptist uses fire as an image of coming judgment.

We need to take our lives seriously, he says,
because there are ways of living that aren’t going to last.

There are ways of living that will chopped down—
like a fruitless tree (v9)—and will be consumed by fire.
There are ways of living that worthless 
and that will be burned up (v17).

When John the Baptist uses fire as an image of judgment, 
he sounds the Hebrew prophets that came before him.

A good example might be the prophet Malachi:

(Mal 4.1-2) Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.

Malachi is saying that there is a day coming that will burn like a furnace:

When the pure, fiery life of God
will burn away all evil—
every evildoer.

But notice that the fire isn’t exclusively negative.

When “the day the burns like a furnace” dawns, 
the rays of the sun will bring healing
for those who revere God.

The same fire 
that burns down some 
brings healing to others.
John the Baptist seems to be talking 
in the same kind of way as Malachi.

It doesn’t always sound like he’s trying 
to help people escape from fire.
Sometimes it sounds like he’s trying 
to get them ready to be plunged into it

That’s what John says this in verse 16:

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come…
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
The best John can do 
is plunge people into water
and get them ready for a new life.

He can’t give them the new life itself.

But there’s someone who’s coming who can.
Someone coming who will 
baptize us into something else—
who will plunge us into something else.

John had come to baptize us into water,
but Jesus has come to baptize us into fire.

John says that Jesus is here 
to plunge us into very life of God himself—
into the Holy Spirit and fire.

The reason why fire is scary 
isn’t because of the devil.

Fire is—first of all—what God is like.
That’s why fire is scary.

There’s a good reason that
the ancient Israelites understood God as a consuming fire (Deut 4:24)
and that the New Testament in Hebrews says it again (Heb 12.29):
God is a consuming fire.

In the moment when God meets us in the water,
the heavens open and we’re given a glimpse 
inside the consuming fire of God:

The Son praying, the Father delighting, the Spirit descending.
Perfect submission, perfect delight, perfect love,

I don’t understand all of what’s being revealed in that moment,
but at minimum the Trinity is a white-hot community of love.

An endless dance of blazing love.

If we think our relationship with literal fire is complicated—
heating some houses but burning down others—
our relationship with the white-hot love of God
is even more complicated.

Not because of God, but because of us.

Because God is Love
and we are not.

There’s a lot in us that’s anything but love.

I think most of us would say 
that we would wish the world could just be filled with love—
totally and completely.

The world being filled utterly and completely 
with love would be a good thing.

The best thing.

But Scripture has the wisdom to recognize that 
that Day of Love will be a day of fire.

On the day that God floods the world with pure and blazing love,
it will mean everything that is not love will be melted.

Everything that isn’t love will be burned away.

That’s what “the coming wrath” means.

God wrath is God acting against everything that isn’t love.

All selfishness, all bitterness,
every huge injustice, every tiny hatred,
all violence, all envy, all back-biting—

Everything that isn’t love 
gets melted by the Fire of Love
on the Day of Love.

The day of Love is what we all long for,
but the day of love is also terrifying.

I think that’s the reason why John is giving particulars to people.

The crowd and tax collectors and soldiers hear him talking about 
certain ways of living burning up in fire (v9) 
and they ask:

“What should we do then?” (v10)

How does John reply?

He gives them 
simple guidance 
on how to love.
What should you do?

Live as lovers—he says (v11):
soldiers (v14), 
be content and don’t use your power to push people around,
tax collectors (v13),
it’s really easy but don’t take advantage of people,
and everyone else (v11)
well, look for ways to share with each other.
Give to each other.
Love each other.
Most of us don’t need profound new insight—
we just need simple reminders on how to love.

Look for ways to help those you work with. 
Take steps to break that destructive habit.
Stop treating that person that way.

Watch for the ways 
that you can practice love 
right now.

One day everything that isn’t love is going to be burned up,
and verse 18 strangely calls this “exhortation”—calls this an encouragement—
says that this is “good news.”

The reason why it’s good news is because
Jesus eagerly wants to baptize us 
into the fire of love right now.

The God who meets us in the water of death
also wants to ever plunge us into the fire of love.

God wants to form 
real and lasting life 
in us right now.

Lives that won’t melt or burn on the day of love—
lives who will seamlessly join the blazing dance of love.

The water is good news.

God meets us where we are,
bearing even our sins and chasing us even into death.

And the fire is good news too.

God wants to plunge us 
into his white-hot life of love 
right now.

That’s who God is. 
That’s what God is like.

That’s an epiphany from water and fire.