by Daniel Harrell
Continuing in our seasons long theme of light in the Bible, we spent last Sunday on Epiphany and the star power that drew the Magi to Jesus. This past week another kind of star power shone with the debut of this year’s Oscar nominations. I’ve seen three of the best picture nominees: Lincoln, which I loved. Beasts of the Southern Wild, which reminded me a little of some of my relatives. And of course, Les Miserables. A lot of church folk have flocked to this film, including a lot of you. For some, its message of grace and redemption provides an apt substitute for a whole month’s worth of sermons—especially if your preacher happens to be long-winded. Like heaven, this movie went on forever. The religious imagery abounded to be sure, with Wolverine hauling a wooden mast in the beginning that looked a lot like Jim Caviezel carrying a wooden cross as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. There was plenty of faith and hope and love in Les Miz, along with plenty of mediocre singing too. I know this will come as a grave disappointment, and even sound sacrilegious (if that’s possible in Hollywood), but I found Les Miserables to be tres Miserables. I didn’t really like it. Unfortunately I made the mistake of posting my opinionon Facebook, soliciting mounds of scorn from my Facebook friends. They demanded to know what kind of Christian pastor I think I am.
My response to that question is always: “a bad one.” I make no claims to ministerial greatness. If you’ll remember back to the very first sermon I preached from this pulpit, I made John the Baptist’s protestation my own: “I am not the Christ.” Obviously. Shoot, I’m not even Hugh Jackman. Nevertheless, people catching John the Baptist’s dramatic performance down by the riverside thought him to be Oscar material. Luke tells us that they “were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.” It’s not only what he said and what he did, but how and where John the Baptist did it. He did it dressed in camel hair and leather just like the prophet Elijah, and he did it out in the desert where Moses had done all his best work. The Old Testament predicted Israel’s Savior would resemble Moses and Elijah. Add to that the fact that John baptized with water: a prophetic sign reminiscent of Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, two instances where God’s salvation was on mighty display (despite the fact that in each of those instances the ones being saved never got wet).
Nevertheless, in this passage traditionally slotted for the Sunday after Epiphany, John squelches any Messianic expectation by telling the crowds how they ain’t seen nothing yet. “One who is more powerful than I am is coming whose sandals I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John then scares everybody to death by adding how this fire will be unquenchable fire that burns up the bad chaff separated from the good wheat. Judgment Day was coming. John sounded just like a Baptist, in stark contrast to Jesus, the respectable Congregationalist. No hellfire from him. Just nicer sermons about the blessedness of the poor and the meek and how you should love your neighbor. Sure, there was some silly stuff about loving your enemies too, and how you should even pray for your persecutors, but nothing about burning them up, thank God. No unquenchable fire. Not even any quenchable fire.
This worried John the Baptist. Imprisoned for rebuking the local ruler, King Herod Antipas, for swiping his brother’s wife, Herodias, John had figured he wouldn’t be in prison for long. He’d seen the heavens open and the sky tear apart over Jesus. He saw the Spirit descend and heard God’s thundering approval. He knew Jesus would be wielding his winnowing fork and fire any minute. But then came the reports. Jesus wasn’t sticking a fork into anybody. And there was no fire to be found. In Matthew’s gospel, a worried John sends a couple of his own followers over to Jesus to find out what’s wrong. They ask: “Are you really the Messiah, or should we wait for somebody else?”
Did John the Baptist have Jesus all wrong? Not exactly. This being Luke’s gospel, if you want to see Holy Spirit and fire, you have to go to the second volume. Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles, meaning that John the Baptist’s mention of “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” was a prediction of Pentecost. In Acts 2, after Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, raised and ascended to the right hand of the Father, his disciples gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish harvest of Pentecost. “Suddenly,” we read, “tongues of fire separated and came down to rest on each of them” and “they were filled with the Holy Spirit,” leading to a harvest of a different sort.
How was Pentecost a baptism? There wasn’t a drop of water in sight. Were the disciples ever even baptized with water? The Bible never mentions it. True, Jesus did recruit some of his disciples from John the Baptist’s ranks, so its safe to assume that they’d been doused. But we never hear anything about the rest. If this Holy Spirit and fire was their baptism, and the way Jesus would do things after Pentecost, then why did the early church go back to using water? Was the fire too hot? Was the Spirit too strong? Did it get too dangerous? Are there supposed to be two baptisms or just one? Sprinkle, dunk or detonate? Infants too or just adults? Needless to say, for such a core Christian practice, baptism can get pretty confusing.
We try to to sort it out for parents who want to get their children baptized at Colonial, but mostly they end up as bleary eyed as I did watching Les Miz. Frankly, most parents are less concerned about getting the theology straight. They just pray that their kid won’t cry during the service. And they’ll go to great lengths to guard against it: sedating their baby with milk and rocking her into a sacramental stupor, plugging his mouth with a pacifier. Most of the times it works, though I did baptize this one baby boy who launched his pacifier out of his mouth into a beautiful arc that splashed down right into the font. Other kids get startled by the surprising splash on their head, especially when the ministers forget to warm the water. These startled babies let loose a shriek of terror shrill enough to set an entire congregation on edge. It’s definitely enough to embarrass some parents into never returning to church again.
But as I’ve said before, let those babies scream! Screaming babies are onto something about baptism that most of us forget. In the Bible, water is a sign of judgment. It flooded evil on earth with Noah and deluged Pharaoh’s army with Moses. Those saved through the flood and the Red Sea exodus never got wet. Baptism is a drowning before it’s a cleansing; a killing off of sin more than a mere washing off. Jesus called his cross a baptism, killing him and our sins dead with him. The apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, asserted that to be baptized in Christ is to be crucified and buried with Christ, which is why Jesus said we have to take up crosses too.
Paul wrote that only by dying with Jesus in baptism do we get to be raised. It’s the only way we get to walk in newness of life. Baptized in water by John, Jesus underwent our judgment. He suffered our fate. He endured our condemnation. But he also became our Noah’s Ark, our dry pathway through the personal Red Seas of our sin. Only Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters to heaven’s applause. The skies part and the Holy Spirit descends “in bodily form like a dove” (another nod to Jesus as our Ark). And a voice thunders its approval, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” By being baptized into Christ’s death, by receiving his life into ours, we are washed clean by grace and so become beloved children of God too.
What about the fire? Fire burns to be sure, but as with water that drowns, heaven’s fire burns for the sake of salvation. The prophet Malachi described its blaze as a “refiner’s fire… that purifies God’s people like gold that they may present [lives] of righteousness to the Lord.” This is what happened at Pentecost as fire refined a band of timid disciples into impassioned apostles, eager to step up and step out in truth and love, their own tongues now ablaze. However, since Jesus is the only one who can baptize with fire, the church resorts to water for baptism to signify all of this: judgment and cleansing, purifying and power, light and new life. God the Father shines as light at creation, through the desert exodus and atop holy mountains. Jesus shines at his own transfiguration as the light of the world. The Holy Spirit shines as Pentecostal fire, infusing all that he licks with the light of new creation, the power of faith and the capacity to love and do right.
How does this apply to babies? Depending on your view of original sin, Christians haven’t always held that babies get a free pass. Sin has a sinister sway all its own. On the other hand, infant baptism serves as the New Testament successor to Old Testament circumcision—expanded to include female and Gentile children too. Baptism, like circumcision, is the signature of a community’s covenant to raise a child to be faithful to Christ. And because baptism is done with water that can drown you (just as circumcision was done with a knife that can kill you), it’s a covenant we make with utmost seriousness. Jesus himself said that whoever causes a child to fall into sin would be better off having a millstone tied around his neck and thrown into the sea. So yeah, there should be crying at baptisms.
But as with baptismal water and fire, tears of terror always give way to tears of joy. The water that kills also cleanses, the fire that burns refines. We experience this not only in baptism, but over and over as the Spirit keeps refining our souls. Our failures and sin that drag us down become the material for our own redemption. Grace burns away our guilt and shame and fires us up to live righteous lives.
In a small but somewhat related way, our Innové project is about lighting fires. We received 138 creative ideas for doing good and right in the world: non-profit and for-profit plans to feed and teach and serve and innovate for the sake of the gospel, all of which could easily bog down for any number of reasons, from poor planning to bad market analysis. As often than not, as many of us can attest, good ideas founder due to the overconfident missteps of the idea-makers themselves. The bright light of creativity can cast a prideful shadow. Entrepreneurial enthusiasm isn’t readily open to critique. It doesn’t like to take advice. But good ideas need fire (and failure) to become productive realities: fire burns away pride and the parts of a plan that can’t work. It hones creativity sharp and ignites with a passion for service. Innové is not just about the money. Money is good kindling, but you burn through that quick. What keeps up the heat are people like yourselves willing to pray and coach and befriend and speak truth in order to refine idea-makers into doers who serve the world for Christ’s sake. This is good news for those who’ll take it. But you do have to be willing to take it.
One part of Les Miz I stayed awake through was the part where a duplicitous Russell Crowe gets caught infiltrating a blockade erected by the young French revolutionary entrepreneurs. Doomed to die for this treachery. Jean Valjean boldly intervenes with everyone anticipating that he’ll deliver the justice. Having seen Javert viciously hound and mistreat Jean Valjean for so many years, we impulsively cheer for Valjean to exact his righteous revenge. Yet consumed by holy fire, Valjean does what nobody anticipates, the least of all Javert himself. He mercifully sets Javert free. He gives him grace. But Javert cannot take it. He gruffly sings of Valjean:
“Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he?
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
…How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
… I am reaching, but I fall.
And the stars are black and cold.
As I stare into the void,
Of a world that cannot hold.
Spoiler alert: Javert throws himself into the rushing river below, baptismal waters that prove to be his own condemnation. Grace is free but never forced. The water that kills is the water that cleans: but you have to be willing to take it.