Baptism with fire?

Sermon at St James for the Baptism of Christ 2016

Luke 3.15–17, 21–22

To hear the sermon as you read:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Leaving aside the Holy Spirit for a moment, I wonder why baptism with fire never caught on. It sounds much more spectacular than just using a few drops of water. You could make a real show of it couldn’t you, though I do understand there might be some health and safety issues.

More to the point, I suspect that phrase might be a grammatical device that doesn’t mean exactly what it says but gives emphasis because it sounds better. To come over all grammatical for a moment, it’s joining two nouns together to replace an adjective and a noun. So in Macbeth: sound and fury is so much more striking than furious sound. Likewise “the cold and the wind are chilling my bones” has a bit more of a ring to it than “the cold wind is chilling my bones.”

So John could have said “He will baptize you with the fiery Holy Spirit.” But he didn’t and I’m with him: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” is better. I gather it’s a very Hebrew idiom so it’s probably more authentic as well.

Perhaps as a church we’re a bit wary of fire related symbolism as being - I don’t know - a bit too dramatic? Maybe it sounds too reminiscent of the hell and damnation school of preaching? Whatever it is, we don’t do much fire - we never really get beyond candles do we?

But, whatever it is, the word fire is used twice in two verses here and in strikingly different ways. The fiery Holy Spirit is challenging enough but “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” is distinctly uncompromising, isn’t it?

I can’t help it, but it puts me in mind of one of those quirky verses from Leviticus which never seems to find its way into the Anglican lectionary, so you’ll probably be hearing it here for the first time. Leviticus 10.1: Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.

“Strange fire” - I love it. You have to use the King James version for the full effect, but whichever version you use, it’s really weird. To put it in some sort of context, it follows a long section telling the ancient Israelites exactly how they should approach God in a respectful and seemly fashion. So one can only assume that there was something disrespectful and unseemly about what Nadab and Abihu did, because their offering of strange fire led with a dreadful and heart-stopping inevitability to Leviticus 10.2. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. Not nice.

It’s a passage favoured by some strongly Calvinistic congregations to justify a policy of only allowing activities within their services which are specifically required by scripture. So, no hymns, only psalms sung without accompaniment; no festivals and certainly no pop music as was allegedly used by a local lay reader at the Coddington Christmas Day service. I wouldn’t last five minutes, would I?

But as so often with these things, there is something in it. We should be careful about what we bring with us into the church community, whatever our role within it. Our worship and our fellowship may be quite varied and relaxed, but we do try to keep it God-centred, don’t we? It’s not good to bring in strange fire, or unseemly activities if you prefer, just for the sake of novelty, or indeed, because we are just not thinking respectfully. We don’t need to be super strait-laced, but we are here to worship our living Lord.

However, Leviticus isn’t the text - it was this: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. You’ll recall that at the end of that gospel reading we heard that after 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.

Yet another symbol, and another facet of the Holy Spirit, a very different image indeed. Now I’m absolutely not going to get into a theological tangle over the mysteries of baptism or indeed, why Jesus needed to be baptised, but there does seem to be an assumption, doesn’t there, that with baptism, the Holy Spirit comes as part of the package. The Holy Spirit who manages to be both fiery and at the same time, a bringer of peace like the dove.

And this event marked the start of Jesus’ ministry - it’s recorded in all four gospels. It fired him up, if you like, for what lay ahead. So as his followers, Christians too are washed in the waters of baptism and have the fiery Holy Spirit to guide their lives. The first may be symbolic but the second is an experience. Let’s pray that it may be so for us.