David McKee’s Homily, January 10, 2016

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies 2 Comments

The Baptism of Jesus
January 10, 2016

Isaiah 43: 1-7
Acts: 8:14-17
Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22

This last week, public television broadcast the movie, Particle Fever; a documentary thriller about the building of the Large Hadron Collider.  With this gigantic atom smasher, physicists are hoping to confirm the existence of the predicted Higgs Boson; the so-called “god particle,” that is theorized to be the cornerstone of the current “standard model” of the fundamental structure of the universe.  Even though I have little real understanding of the science, I was enthralled by the story…couldn’t leave my chair.  I was also impressed by a striking image in the film.  At the entrance to the huge grounds of the collider site, there is a statue of Shiva Nataraj:  the familiar image of the Indian Vedic god Shiva in full career as transformer of the universe…the Creator-Destroyer, multi-armed, hair flying, dancing in a ring of fire.  At the threshold of this place in Switzerland where hard-headed, rational scientists are seeking to penetrate the mysteries of energy and matter, there is a subtle recognition of the intimate, mysterious connection between creation and destruction, represented by the image of divine fire.

Today we have our own opportunity to contemplate divine fire. We have arrived at the end of the Christmas season.  Tomorrow begins Ordinary Time.  We mark this end—and beginning—by celebrating the feast of the Baptism of Jesus.  We celebrate, if you’ll excuse the bad pun, the watershed event that marks the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry:  his entrance into the ordinary world of his time, to bear witness to the radical truth of the ever-present Reign of God.  In our celebration this morning, we have our own chance to meditate on this truth, with images of fire at the center of the story.

In today’s scripture texts, I counted up a final score of Fire – 4 and Water – 3:  4 fire images and 3 water images.  That struck me as a little odd.  Here we are, celebrating a baptism, and a very important baptism at that, and there is somewhat more talk about fire than there is about water.  This is a feast where we might be moved to ponder the meaning of the sacrament of baptism—a sacrament in which water is the principal symbol—and, yet, the symbol of fire is given precedence in our readings today. The author of Isaiah gives water and fire seemingly equal weight, saying, in the voice of the Most High:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

Fire and water share about equal space in this passage, but my attention is most drawn by the startling image of walking through fire.  Most of us have walked through water, from playing in the sprinklers to fording icy mountain streams.  But not many of us have walked through fire!

And as the author of Luke’s gospel tells us, even John, the great baptizer, gives the “baptism with fire”—the baptism that will be administered by John’s heralded Messiah—he gives that more significance than his own baptism by water. Then John goes further with the fire metaphor, strengthening it with the image of the gathering of the grain after threshing, and the burning of the remaining chaff in “unquenchable fire.”

Unquenchable fire” – Whew!  For so many of us, who were raised on popular Christian piety, those are words that carry a lot of emotional baggage.  I daresay, many of us here would think of “unquenchable fire” as the fire of hell:  the fire of everlasting damnation.  So, the baggage is filled with lots of fear and trembling, guilt and shame. Being the “grain” means being among those who are chosen for heaven and being the “chaff” means being one of the damned.  This is the Jesus of the Last Judgement.

While this old, familiar story is not heard much inside these walls, it is still something that I would guess lingers in the deep recesses of our psyches, like a hibernating spider, ready to sting when, in our weak moments, we stumble into its web.  When I first read this passage, in preparation for today, my first “gut” response was to be immediately, instinctively, stung by that spider.  Then, quickly, my reasonable, “liberated,” “modern” mind kicked in and I began thinking of other ways to interpret the phrase, “unquenchable fire.”  Perhaps some of you had a similar experience this morning.  I think it is this reaction that makes it hard for us to appreciate just what this “baptism with fire” might mean…what it could mean for us in our spiritual lives…in our lives as followers of the path of Jesus the Christ.

Here my thoughts turn back to that image of Shiva, the cosmic transformer, dancing in a ring of fire.  This image offers us a different way of being in relationship with divine fire.  This is the fire of transformation, not the hellfire of everlasting punishment.  Nor is it a purgatorial fire that burns away the bad parts of us so that we are good enough for God; good enough to take our place in the communion of saints.  This fire has no part in that old, familiar, legalistic calculus of redemption-or-damnation.  This is, instead, a fire that burns through and beyond these dualities; a fire that remakes us from the inside out.

Likewise, the message of Jesus the Christ is not that we ought to become better people.  Rather, His life and teachings are a call to complete transformation; a call to be made new. His “baptism with fire” is an immersion in and surrender to a love that burns through all that we think we know about ourselves…all that we cling to in the form of definitions of ourselves, of others, and even of God and Jesus…all the limited and limiting thoughts and beliefs that separate us from ourselves, from others, from God…thoughts and beliefs that we mistake for our true self. This is a baptism that undoes us; a baptism that burns through what we think we know and leaves us emptied of our well thought out, secure beliefs.   This “baptism with fire” is the moment of radical emptying of the self.   It is acknowledged in monasteries around the world nearly every Saturday at evening prayer, the beginning of the Sabbath.  That is the time for the chanting of the canticle from Philippians:

“Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not take equality with God a thing to be grasped. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.”

Indeed, our relationship with God, is not a thing to be grasped…not a thing to be clung to.  It is, rather, the ungraspable, unquenchable burning reality of our life:  that each of us is, ultimately, a relationship with God…that each of us is, as Luke tells us today, a “Beloved of God,” with whom God is well pleased. This is the deep truth at the ground of our life; the truth that is in us, around us, and through us in every moment:  the mystery of God-with-us…the mystery that has been at the center of our seasonal worship from the first Sunday of Advent to today, the last day of Christmas.  Our practice, as followers of Jesus the Christ—our baptism with fire in each moment of our lives—is to get ourselves out of the way and surrender to the flames.

I offer in closing another fire story that brings this home with wonderful vividness, as only the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers can do:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to Abba Lot, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

“If you will, you can become all flame.”  To that, I say amen.

Comments 2

  1. David I love your sermon. Inspiring! To be love …to be love and find our hearts burning from “inside out that we are what we seek! You put it together so beautifully…Your gifts are profound and a blessing. Thank you for your willingness to go the distance…Shalom and Nameste…

    1. Thank you, Christine. That your Heart was touched, and perhaps moved, is a great blessing. With palms together……………………………………..d.

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