This passage from Luke 3 shows up almost back-to-back in the lectionary cycle. We read it today as part of the Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus Christ, it’s part of this rush of biographical moments at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry that emerge right out of the Christmas Season: first, the Epiphany, some years, the presentation in the temple, and then, today his baptism, and off we go. They grow up so fast. But we also sometimes read chunks of Luke 3 during Advent; after all, traditionally, on the second or third Sunday of Advent, we hear stories about John the Baptist, and because you can’t read much about John the Baptist without reading about the thing he’s most famous for, which is baptizing Jesus, we end up reading this story twice in quick succession.
At least, this year, we would have. We would have read this story this past Advent on December 13th, which was the Sunday designated for John the Baptist stuff. That would have been the plan. You may recall that was also the Sunday designated for the Choir Cantata. And then this year it also ended up being the Sunday that we celebrated the baptism of John Patrick Wimer, rescheduled from about a month earlier. And when I went to reschedule it, and I saw that it was John the Baptist Sunday, and I thought, well, this is going to work very well. I mean, what better time than Advent for a baptism, what better story than to read about the baptism of Jesus himself. This is all wrapped up in a very nice bow.
And then I re-read the text. “All were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah. John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Again, I re-read the text. “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.” He will burn the chaff with fire. Not everybody’s favorite baptism story. I re-read the text. “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” I considered that I wouldn’t even have a chance to preach that Sunday with the cantata, so whatever I read would go uninterpreted, at least by me. I re-read the text. And then I decided perhaps we could skip the Gospel just that one Sunday.
What to do with this baptism by fire? Nobody wants a baptism with fire. It’s not the baptism that we celebrate. Nobody sets off to be baptized in fire, at least not in 2015. Although, it should be said. This isn’t necessarily metaphor. The Gospel of Luke is written and compiled sometime at the end of the first century or right at the beginning the second. Either way, it comes into being about a generation after a raging fire spread throughout the city of Rome on a July night in the year 64. Historians dispute the original cause of the fire. It may have been entirely accidental. It may have been caused deliberately by the Emperor Nero, who is famously a bit unstable and just wanted to watch the world burn. But regardless of its actual origins, Nero used the event of the fire as a pretext upon which to begin the citywide persecution of Christians — in fact the documentary evidence of this persecution is one of the first instances in recorded history of this new Jewish Messianic cult organized around this Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a major event in the development of the early church and the marginalization of the early church, at least for a few centuries. All of which is to say that for Luke’s original audience there’s nothing metaphorical about the baptism by fire. This early church knows that reality all too well.
But it’s not entirely clear what the reality of their baptism by fire means for us. John’s words here in Luke’s Gospel give off the air of apocalyptic prophecy, predictions of the second coming that we hear more in Revelation than anywhere in the Gospels, Jesus come back with violent intent, a world so broken it can only be healed with flames. But Revelation is a text wrapped up inside a vision, given to John on Patmos; it’s not clear that it’s meant to contain actual events future or past. And then on the other hand, outside of Revelation, I think we probably overlook too often how literal the Bible can actually be. The Psalmist writes about lifting up the heads of the gates, and it’s not really a metaphor, it’s really because this is a song you sing when the army comes back through the gates of the city. Advent does this, too — a few weeks ago we read in Isaiah about making straight a pathway in the wilderness which isn’t about a spiritual wilderness and it’s not about an emotional wilderness, it’s about getting the exiles home from Babylon on the most direct path through the desert. In general I think we can be so quick to turn Biblical language into metaphor that we forget its original context. Which doesn’t help anything, because it means we’re still stuck with a baptism by fire. And nobody wants a baptism with fire.
What I want to do is to take a bit of a detour through our other reading for this baptism Sunday, back into Isaiah, only a few chapters after that promise to make straight the wilderness paths. God is still speaking to the exiled people, promising them a safe return home, promising them a safe place for flourishing and the rekindling of that sacred covenant. And it’s language that works at a very literal level. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel,” — the prophet remembers both God’s acts of creation and God’s hand in the political creation of the Jewish state – “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you” — literally, God has arranged for Israel’s liberation from captivity — “I have called you by name, you are mine” — well, that’s already happened just in this reading. And now, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” This is pretty loaded stuff. After all, Israel is about to set out through the wilderness back home, and the last time they were in the wilderness they had to move through the parted Red Sea and it’s only the most famous moment in all of Old Testament theology. Israel knows what it means to pass through the waters. It’s not a metaphor. It’s history.
But then. Here’s the twist. Here’s where it really gets interesting. “When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” And as I have said my first instinct is always that the metaphors aren’t metaphors. There’s got to be fire. There’s got to be flame. And there just isn’t. Not in Israel’s common history. I mean, yes, there are flames out of the burning bush. There’s a pillar of smoke that follows the people out of Egypt. There’s another one that circles around Mount Sinai. But not, like, walking through fire fire. More like fire-adjacent. And I can see some of you flipping through the Bible rolodex in your head, and some of you have already found it. Yes, in Daniel, Shadrach and Mechach and Abegnago walk through the fire. They are put into the fiery furnace and it does not consume them. But Daniel is writing much, much later, and the story of Shadrach and Mechach probably comes from an oral history tradition totally separate from the historic situation of the people in exile. The point is this. There’s no real fire, not in this text. There’s no real flame. There’s no one story that it’s calling on. Despite my best efforts, this is metaphor, and it’s metaphor from the very beginning.
Why does any of this matter? A couple of years ago Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary, among a few others, made headlines by adding a new meaning to the word “literally.” The original sense of the word, of course, is that something happens in actuality, in reality, not symbolically or metaphorically. But for years there’s been a kind of casual use of the word “literally,” like saying “I’m literally freezing in here” when really it’s just cold and you are not actually freezing solid. It’s the stuff that drives word freaks insane. But not literally insane. Until Mirriam-Webster’s came on the scene and added this secondary definition, where “literally” can now also mean “in effect” or “virtually,” which seems like the exact opposite of its original definition.
And I have to admit I’m sympathetic with the traditionalists here; I mean, what’s the point of having definitions if the same word can mean two opposite things? On the other hand, the problem is when we start using the definition like a weapon. The problem with “literally” is that it ends up being a wedge against basic empathy. So you say “I’m literally freezing in here” and I say “No, you’re not, your blood is still flowing, obviously you’re not literally freezing” and maybe I’ve made my point but I haven’t made any effort to understand your problem. The nice thing about the metaphor is: we’ve all been cold before. The nice thing about the metaphor is: it allows us to connect and commiserate and share stories together. The nice thing about the metaphor is if you’re metaphorically freezing, maybe I could offer you a literal blanket.
All of which it to say, when Isaiah writes “When you walk through fire,” the text is talking to us, too. It’s not just recounting the history of people who literally passed through the waters. It’s not just retelling the story of a people who were literally redeemed out of exile. Those are beautiful stories, but on a literal level, they’re somebody else’s story, until this verse. Until we walk through fire. Until the text calls on a story that doesn’t exist, and it becomes clear that it never meant literally to mean literally, it never meant these stories not to speak beyond the people to whom they were originally told. This language speaks to all of us, it speaks for all of us. The point is, Isaiah gets it. We all walk through fire, one time or another. We all walk through fire, and if you haven’t, Isaiah says, you will. We all walk through fire, the Israelites in exile, all of Isaiah’s readers, even you and me. We walk through fire, we all get baptized in fire, too. The point is we don’t need to visit the end times to understand. The point is we don’t need to watch Rome burn to understand. The point is, we all get baptized in fire. It’s the long, slow work of the Christian life, and you know it as well as I do.
Of course it’s not the baptism we celebrate here on Sunday morning. We don’t baptize with fire, even metaphorically. But then the world out there burns hot enough. Life has a way of doing that baptism for us. Life has a way of burning hot and uncomfortably. Maybe that’s true for you today, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe this is the cold season, and temperatures are running normally, and cooler heads are prevailing. Or maybe not. Maybe the New Year has turned up the heat. Maybe the fire is licking at your heels. Maybe it feels like anger. Maybe it feels like anxiety. Maybe it feels like anticipation. Maybe it feels like grief. Baptismal fires are unrelenting. They are uncomfortable. They are unwavering, urging us, forming us, tempering us like the forge, like the steel, like the iron, tempering us into whoever God is calling us to be. John says that one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire, and it’s so tempting to think that he’s not talking about us. It’s so tempting to confine this language to the coffers of history, or to set it some day far yet to come. But the truth is that fire is now. It’s always now. It’s always the long, slow work of the Christian life. And you know it as well as I do.
The good news, of course, is, as it has always been, the water. The water always comes first. In Isaiah, they pass through the waters, first. In Luke, John the Baptist comes with water, first. The good news is that even as the world burns we are first loved and first known and first covered and first washed in the waters of grace. The good news is that nothing in the world can burn away these waters. The good news is that the fire licking at your heels, you, today, right now, the fire licking at your heels is no match for the waters of the grace of God. In your baptism God has named you. In your baptism God has claimed you. In your baptism God has promised you. In your baptism God has delivered you, even through the fire.
There’s an old parlor magic trick maybe you’ve seen before. You take a regular balloon, you blow it up, you tie it. You hold it over a candle flame. What happens? You tell me? It pops, almost immediately. The rubber melts and pops, end of balloon. But then try it this way. You take the balloon. You fill it with just a little bit of water. And then you blow it up and tie it. Now, hold the balloon over the flame, and if you’ve got it right, the balloon won’t budge. You can just hold it right over that candle and the rubber won’t pop at all. It’ll get a little carbon ash on the bottom of it, but the rubber itself will stay strong. And the trick is just science. I mean, water is a really powerful absorber of heat. And so the water inside the ballon is absorbing the heat of the candle so fast and so completely that the rubber itself isn’t having to absorb it, and so the atoms in the rubber aren’t accelerating and popping like they normally would. If I had a couple of balloons I’d show you right here, it’s not complicated, you can impress friends at your next cocktail party, or maybe a toddler birthday party, either one. They’ll be totally amazed. Of course, now you know the trick. You know it’s just science. You know what’s literally happening.
But it’s also a metaphor. And you know it as well as I do. Amen.