“...and Fire
John 4: 5-42

ur story from the Life of Christ finds Jesus at a riverside camp meeting to hear his cousin John preach. Matthew and Mark’s renditions of the story say that all of the people went down to the Jordan River to hear this charismatic personality proclaim his firebrand gospel of repentance. This huge crowd naturally expected John the baptizer to proclaim himself their long awaited Messiah, but he had been reared with the awareness that his role was as a forerunner to his cousin Jesus. His ministry was to get the people’s hearts ready to hear Jesus’ message of salvation and fire. "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (Lk. 3: 16, NRSV).

River baptism is in my heritage. My Me-Maw Sides gave me an old black and white photograph of a Walker County, Alabama river baptism from her young adulthood. She pointed out my great grandparents standing on the riverbank along with a hundred others, witnessing this ancient rite.

The baptisms of my daughters was a significant family and congregational event for us. My Dad came and assisted us in carrying forward this sacred symbol of salvation.

Most of you have been baptized and you need to constantly reclaim it. The Father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, said that in times of melancholia "we should remember our baptism." My friend Will Willimon is a Professor of Worship at Duke and instituted a corporate reenactment of baptism that is now in our U.M. Book of Worship. He carries the font up the isles and sprinkles water over the heads of the congregation as he repeats these words, "Remember your baptism and be grateful."

Now back to our story, where we find Jesus getting in the back of the line to himself be baptized. At first, John did not feel worthy to do it, but Jesus insisted and as the water was poured onto Jesus’ head a voice from heaven came proclaiming that indeed "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (v.22).

Water is an ancient sign of spiritual repentance. When an outsider joined the Hebrew people, usually by marriage, that convert was sprinkled with water. When the king was crowned, water was sprinkled on the head to symbolize purity. If a Jew fell away in sin, but returned to the fold, he/she was sprinkled with water as a metaphor of rebirth.

Water is a vital element in life. Our bodies are mostly water, and without water we soon dehydrate and die. The recent rocket to the moon will launch a small satellite that will search for frozen water at the polar caps, just in case we humans need an escape hatch someday.

My Marilyn’s sister, Molly, is here from Jesup with part of her family. I surprised them with the latest edition of The National Geographic which has a wonderful story, with pictures of course, about their Altamaha River, the third largest on the eastern coast: It pumps 100,000 gallons of fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean every second. Life could not exist in Georgia and South Carolina, as we know it, without this vital supplier of our basic nourishment. Is it an wonder that God chose water as a reminder of new life?

But what about the fire? John, you remember, promised that Jesus would "baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Fire is another basic element that sustains life: warmth, cooking, purification, killing weeds, clearing land, enriching soil. Candles burn on our Altar as a symbol of God’s presence as fire. Indeed, God has promised to set our lives on fire. You have heard it said about a person, "they sure are on fire!" God wants to set us all ablaze, metaphorically at least.

In our Old Testament passage we hear the great Prophet Isaiah speaking for God when he promises, "...Thus says the Lord… I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine… when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." (Is. 43 1-2, NRSV).

Our relationship with God, and our participation in His Holy Spirit, as a result of knowing Him, results in an inner assurance of confidence in times of famine and feast. He is there for us, and as a result we will not be destroyed by any evil, or disease, or accident, because we are His forever. Live or die we are the Lord’s.

And what better metaphorical symbol for such a relationship than fire. Often we use the word "enthusiasm" to denote a person "on fire." The root meaning of enthusiasm is "en Theon", to have God (Theon) in (en) us. God is the genuine source of true and eternal enthusiasm. Otherwise, we are left to our own doing; our limited earthly ability and talents.

Have you been to the world class Picasso Exhibition at our High Museum of Art. As our family walked through the fantastic paintings, and related pieces, listening to the well done taped guide on portable headsets, I was amazed at the unfolding development of human talent. But did you also read the poster sized explanations of the tragic life marked by such deep sin in the artist’s life. Certainly, his was a highly developed artistic style, but left without God within our lives, we can only meander along from low life to lower cesspool. Few approach Picasso’s artistic training and talent, but millions follow his regrettable lifestyle of rampant sin without God, lost in the world. We may not understand everlasting torment in Hell, but we can see many lumbering creatures living in hell right here on earth.

But with a life set on fire by the Creator of this universe, we can "walk through fire." We see it in so many extraordinary lives of folks we know right here in our church. You could call countless names of true Saints who have walked with God. Hopefully, you know in your own life the victory that God wants to give as a result of your baptism of water, and your baptism of fire. If you don’t, you can today!

a sermon synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor