Sunday, January 13, 2013

Fire and Water, Water and Fire

Preached on Epiphany 1, Year C, 2013

Fire and water: these are the images we have this week, signifying the flood of divine power pouring forth from the Holy Spirit. Water and fire, which cleanse and purge the earth.

Today's gospel is one of the very few passages which every evangelist recounts, so it is surely of paramount importance in the gospel story. If it sounds familiar, it is because the first half was read back on the second Sunday of Advent. So this Sunday is, in its way, the second point at which Advent ends, for John's proclamation of the one whom he heralds is fulfilled: Jesus arrives at the Jordan, to be baptized like the rest of us. In both Matthew and John it is related that John protested the notion of baptizing the one whose sandals he felt unworthy to undo, but Luke does not record this detail; he simply tells of John's preaching, and then relates the descent of the Spirit, “in bodily form like a dove.”

Fire and water, and a dove. Jesus, of course, being the second person of the trinity incarnate, is never truly separate from the Spirit; but the Spirit came upon him as he comes upon us all. The form of the dove is sign and token of this, but also signifies Jesus' empowerment to ministry: from the Jordan he went into the desert to fast, and thence to preach and be sacrificed for us, and on the third day, to rise, destroying death.

And then the Spirit descends again on the apostles, this time in the form of flame, not as a songbird. Thus is John's prophecy fulfilled. Water and fire: the baptism of John, signifying repentance and rebirth, and the baptism of the Spirit, which is transforming and empowering. The church's baptism is through water, but likewise signifies fire; both baptisms in one. Jesus receives water and the Spirit, the first of the many in the church so baptized; his humanity in the church is also our humanity.

Fire and water. Old timers around here may recall that the hotel in Silver Spring, when first built, featured a restaurant called the Fire Fountain. And this was not simply a romantic name: there was a literal fountain beside its entrance, each watery jet graced with a gas burner, so that the fountain both flamed and flowed. It was a very tame wonder, eventually extinguished as the price of natural gas made such profligacy too dear, and as the restaurant's very period theme palled in the passage of years. But the Spirit, which moved over the water, is not a tame fire. In Isaiah, the LORD promises that Israel will pass through the water and the fire unharmed; but water and fire signify the Spirit's cleansing and purging might. John washes people of Jacob's house in the Jordan, but warns them that the chaff of Israel shall be burnt, just as Jesus foretells the burning of the weeds that grow among the wheat in the fields which the angels harvest at the end of the season. Jesus' arrival at the river, in the late winter of Judah's Roman domination, signifies that the growing season is at hand; and when will the harvest come? When shall the pyre consume what is discarded? We hear in the Revelation, that great dream, of a lake of fire which is the second death, destroying that which is set aside as unworthy in the last great judgement. These are dark signs, fearful signs which, if God's promise be taken faithfully, we shall never fulfill. But between us and the reaping angels stands a season, long or short, in which we must fulfill the promises made at our baptisms, in which our faith must be realized in life, that our life may be made real through faith.

Fire and water. The Father sends forth his voice in fire, and the Godhead is enthroned over the flood. The dove has been something of a treacherous image in our art, for it signifies how the Spirit may steal upon those whom it inspires; but when we see the Father, crowned in ancient wisdom and majesty, and the Son, ruling from the cross in our humanity, we look at the dove and see a decidedly third-rate third Person. We need to remember more than the gentle descent; we must keep in mind the fiery flood of the Spirit's power. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness, and it is the Spirit's power which shakes it. The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe, and it is the Spirit's power which twists them. In the end of days, when the bowls of God's wrath are poured out, it is the Spirit which will move over the earth in destruction, just as the Spirit brooded over the waters of creation.

Fire and water. The LORD moved before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. He led them through the Red Sea on dry land, which also signifies the waters of baptism. The passage through the water gave life to Israel, and death to their pursuers. And when the forty years of wilderness exile were ended, the ark was carried into the Jordan, and the people crossed into the promised land on dry ground. Elijah's mantle passed to Elisha, and when it struck the Jordan's water, Elisha crossed on dry land. And them in the fullness of time, John came to the Jordan, which thus signifies passage into new life. Jesus went into the water, as we all do, and was baptized, as we all are, one LORD, one faith, one baptism.

John baptized with water, as we do. Christ, through the church, baptizes us in fire, and marks us that we may not forget the grace poured over us in the water of salvation and the blood poured out in our stead. John called the people to repentance, even as we must call to the world and to each other; but the Spirit makes that repentance the gateway to new life, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our Christ.

Fire and water. Only the Father knows when these will be poured over the earth in the latter days, when the story of salvation shall be completed and the story of our rebellion shall meet its end. In the meantime, we drift and fade, dried out but not aflame. Wheat which does not bear grain is as good as weeds, and many of us do not yield a crop. The Israelites wandered in the desert, fed with quail and the bread of angels, and yet they turned to the golden calf even as Moses received the law from the LORD, less than a year after the water was crossed to safety. We turn to our own idols: wealth, fame, self-righteousness, indolence, complacency, and most of all, our arrogant pride, and we cease to heed the fire within us. We wither, and we yield little for the LORD's harvest. We are watered, and the growth is rank, the grain small. The sun shines upon us, and its energy is wasted. The Israelites complained against the LORD, and his fire burned at Terebah; they balked at the edge of Canaan, and that generation was set to wander until it raise up a new and more faithful people, who carried the ark into the Jordan and crossed into the land long promised. And each year our church shrinks, and our diocese shrinks, and our parish is so weakened that on an average Sunday, everyone in attendance could be accommodated in a single service. We meet people in a store whom we used to meet in church; our children go off to college, but young families do not return. We dream of a new building, and then are forced instead to worry over meeting our budget. And here a parish closes, there another quits the church. Year by year we fade, and the harvest diminishes.

But each year we start again, and find ourselves in a house in Nazareth, in a stable in Bethlehem, and on the banks of the Jordan. We do not need a second baptism for our revival, but need only to recall and revive the faith sealed in our first. We walk again into the waters with Jesus, but in story only, for it is recollection we need, not a second sacrament. Fire and water: these we must recall and feel within us, not as heat and flood, but in faithful action and sacred testimony. We must live so as to call others into the water, and to bless them with the Spirit's fire, that they may be increased in life and increase the harvest. And if we do the LORD's work here, in faith and love and concord, then at the last we may be gathered into that great and final harvest, called from the ends of the earth, to be raised forever in the life to come. Even so, Amen.

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