Water and Fire

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott

First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord

January 9, 2022

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

One of the first things you learn as a young Boy Scout is that you need just the right amount of stuff for a camping trip. Too much stuff, and your pack is way too heavy. Too little stuff, chances are that you’ll be without something critical. You’ve got to get things just right.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to fire and water. And of course, it’s those things that don’t mix. When I was canoe camping, I remember going to great lengths making sure that my matches were sealed against rain and river water. Because if those matches got wet, no fire. And without fire, you would be left cold, wet, and hungry. But too much fire, well, that was also a problem. I’ve accidentally melted plenty of shoes while sitting around a campfire, and I’ve definitely boiled a pot too high. I’ve also been left without enough water, and that’s a terrible feeling. Having to ration the very liquid of life while on top of a mountain is no joke. Out in the wilderness, you need just the right amount of both. 

When the crowds had gathered in another wilderness, John the Baptist says the same thing. John said, “I baptize you with water” (Luke 3:16). This baptism signified a washing away of sin, a commitment to a new kind of life. That’s what those crowds were looking for the wilderness – the healing properties of water. We know why they were doing it. It’s why people drive from all over the country to come to Galveston – to dip their toes in the Gulf. To look over the water. To hear the waves. To renew their souls. To wash away something and to come out fresh. John baptizes with water. 

But that is not the only baptism. John the Baptist goes on, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sands. 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” (Luke 3:16-17). Fire, it warms our bones after a long day on the trail, it cooks our food. One writer called fire, “the old philosopher” because you can stare into it and think (A Texan in England, J. Frank Dobie). But most of all, fire burns. We burn the tips of our fingers as children, learning to never do that again. Fires burn homes, cities, forests. But fire, with its searing heat also cleanses. As Ray Bradbury wrote, “Fire is bright and fire is clean” (Fahrenheit 451). 

And so with God. Water and fire. In the Holy Spirit, we receive both the washing and the cleansing. It’s symbolic of our relationship with God. Sometimes, Jesus comes alongside to comfort us. To give us solace. To embrace us and rub the dirt off our faces and dry our tears. And sometimes, the Holy Spirit comes along to burn us, to scorch our sins, to singe our egos, to cleanse us and purify us with His Presence. Water and fire. Jesus has compassion on those who come to him, and he makes a whip of cords and turns over some tables. Water and fire.

But never too much or too little of either one. Too much of the easy stuff, too much of the washing away, too much of the comfortable water – and our faith becomes saccharine and boring. You know what they say about being in space, about floating around in zero gravity. It’s kind of like floating in water; as you spend time in space, in zero gravity, your bones start to disintegrate because they’re not having work. When our life of faith, when our relationship with Jesus is all about the easy stuff, then our spiritual muscles begin to atrophy. 

Too much of the scorching heat though, too much of the burning, too much of the cleansing fire – and our faith becomes angry and vengeful. You can only take the heat so long before you start acting out in unhealthy ways. So often it happens that people who have been burned burn other people. When our life with Jesus is all about the fire, the passion, zeal, then we lose the capacity for compassion and empathy. 

We need just the right amount of both water and fire. That’s what we pray to receive from the Lord God. Just enough water to keep us refreshed, just enough fire to burn with love. This is how God relates to us, baptism with water, baptism with fire.

But now, I’d like to turn this image back to you. You, too, have relationships. You have friends, families, business partners, colleagues. To them, are you water or are you fire? To me, and I’m just reading the cultural tea leaves, it seems that we’ve had a lot more fire recently than water. We get infuriated, outraged, incensed. As a culture, we seem to be burning hot. We’ve lost friends over the culture wars; some of us have family that we can’t speak to anymore because the temperature of the conversations is just too high. And while there might be some sort of cleansing going on, I sense is that, more than anything, we are burning ourselves out. 

This is an opportunity for us, as the Church, as the people of God, to sprinkle some water on the raging fires all around us. We can be the ones, in our relationships, to help calm things down; to turn down the temperature. The words we say, the actions we take, the choices we make – these can all be water or fire. From where I stand in this pulpit, looking at all that is going, we can be water for a burning world in this present moment. Take some time this week to consider how you are engaging in all your relationships; consider the emails you write, the text messages you send – are you water or are you fire?

Second, consider the other people in your life. Do you have too much water or too much fire? Do you surround yourself with people who only tell you what you want to hear? Or, are you so confrontational that you only interact with people who agitate you? Water and fire. Too much of one and too little of the other and we get all out of balance. Too much ease, too much comfort, too much water, and we’ll never grow. We’ll live inside an echo chambers. Too much angst, too much opposition, too much fire, and we’ll become miserable people. Take a moment this week, and consider those who are closest to you. What are your relationships right now? Water or fire? Like every Boy Scouts learns, and as every Christian receives, we need just the right amount of both – the water and the fire. 

I know that this sermon is probably coming off less as theology and more as self-help. Here again, water and fire. Sometimes we need a full dose of the straight gospel. Sometimes we need some perspective on getting through the wilderness of life. And yes, I know, sometimes water can be destructive and fire can be restorative. That will be another sermon for another day. 

Finally, we should acknowledge that everybody in this room right now is in a different place in their lives. Some are coming this morning with great joy in their hearts, some are carrying a burden, some are confused, some are looking for hope, some are here to give thanks. Some of us are feeling all of the above. I pray that, as a Christian community, we can be tender to each other, knowing that we’re all over the spiritual and emotional map. I ask you, day by day and week by week, to be water and fire for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Not too much, just the right amount. Be careful with one another, but care for one another, too. For this is what the Lord promises to do – to baptize with water and with fire, to wash and to cleanse with the Spirit of God.

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