Epiphany 1C Sermon (2013)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22;
Isa. 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17


“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…. 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.”

John uses the image of wheat being separated from its chaff, with the chaff being burned up with “unquenchable fire.” What sort of fire is the unquenchable fire? More precisely, what is God’s idea of unquenchable fire? And is it different from our idea of unquenchable fire?

A bit later in Luke’s Gospel the disciples give us a glimpse of our human idea of fire when Jesus decides to bypass the town of their Samaritan enemies and they ask him, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Their first thought is a violent, consuming end for those they hate. The disciples think that being chosen ones of God means power over one’s enemies; God can rain down fire on the Samaritans if they but ask. But Jesus rebukes them.

We need to understand that the fires of violence around us are our unquenchable fires, not God’s. We rain down fires of violence on our enemies — as evidenced in our world having just come through the most fiery, violent, flesh-consuming century of human history yet. But Jesus reveals the true fire from God is a fire of love rained down on us that can burn away all the chaff of our hatred and make us anew.

Jesus rebukes his disciples, and gives us a glimpse of God’s idea of fire. Jesus knows it’s something different. In fact, he knows from what will happen to him that being God’s Chosen One will look like the exact opposite! If anyone is to have fire rained down on them, it will be him. He himself will be the Lamb of God, the one sacrificed in such fires of violence.

Luke marks the moment Jesus and his disciples were about to go into a Samaritan villages as the precise moment that Jesus fully realizes what his mission as the Chosen One of God will entail: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus knows he will be arrested and killed on the cross. So he changes his mind and instead heads for Jerusalem — but his disciples assume this change in itinerary is about avoiding enemies.

We may find it quite unbelievable — even chuckle at the naiveté of the disciples, that they even considered that by simply calling on God, God would literally rain down fire on their enemies. But what about us? Do we modern disciples still cling to the notion of fire consuming our enemies? Do we still believe in firepower, as in military firepower, as the most effective way to deal with our enemies? This is what Jesus came to help change and redeem. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will later stand over Jerusalem weeping because they have not recognized God’s alternate way of peace based on love. They will continue to rely of military firepower and be destroyed.

I think we have made some progress in being more reluctant to use the military firepower as always our first option. In recent years, I’ve seen dramas about WWI. I’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s movie War Horse and watched season two of Downton Abbey, which takes place during WWI. And it strikes me how only a hundred years ago it was still such a strong part of the culture to bring God into the battle, assuming that God was behind their reigning firepower down upon their enemies. I think it was with that terrible war that Western culture has become increasingly uncomfortable with that connection between God and war.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure we’ll ever let that connection go completely, and take more fully God’s alternative way of peace, until our whole way of thinking about God completely changes, too. Think about it — we have been taught that Hell is a place where God will consume our enemies in an unquenchable fire for all eternity. But is that God’s idea of unquenchable fire, or ours? Do we wish fire on our enemies just like Jesus’ disciples? And isn’t Jesus the Chosen One of God who came to rebuke us for such notions?

How do we get a sense, then, of God’s idea of fire? Isaiah tells “this is what the Lord says: ‘When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze’.”

And John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” God’s fire is a fire of love and protection. It is a fire of forgiveness forged on the Cross to burn away the chaff of our hate. It is a fire of blessing that anoints us with gifts of the Spirit to spread that fire of God’s love and forgiveness. God raised Jesus from the dead with the truly unquenchable fire, the fire of God’s loving forgiveness, which came first to Jesus’ disciples and began the process of separating away the chaff of our hatreds and burning them in that unquenchable fire.

Our Epiphany season begins today with Jesus’ baptism by water and the fire of the Spirit, and God’s voice from heaven saying to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In eight weeks the Epiphany season will end once again with God’s voice. But this time instead of speaking to Jesus, God is speaking to the disciples, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Jesus submitted himself to the unquenchable fire of human violence, letting himself be consumed by it on the cross, but trusting in God to walk through it with him to Easter morning. How could we ever stand at the foot of the cross, with Jesus raining down forgiveness and love for his enemies, and believe in Hell as a place of God’s unquenchable fire? If you have any further questions about this, I encourage you to come to today’s sermon feedback after the worship. . . .

Jesus passed through those fires of our violence and has risen to new life through the fire of God’s love. We can choose to believe and hope that God’s fire of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ is the unquenchable fire that will one day consume all our fires of hatred and vengeance. We can choose to believe that it is God’s fire of love that came upon the first disciples on Pentecost in the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, and that this is the same fire of love that comes upon each of us in our baptisms, the Holy Spirit that claims each of us as God’s chosen and to be set on fire . . . with love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 13, 2013

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