A Song of Water and Fire
by Louise Westfall
We thought we were on the downhill side. We thought our vaccinations and booster, conscientious mask wearing, and chafed hands from constant washing and sanitizing would protect us. It’s a brand new year; yet it didn’t take long to feel depressingly familiar. 2022 was only four days old when the US hit one million cases of COVID per day.
Yes, it could be worse. The vast majority of break-through cases will be mild to moderate and require no hospitalization. I heard a local doc report this week that 85% of the critical cases in Colorado are from unvaccinated people. But tell that to the parents and administrators and teachers trying to figure out school for their children’s well-being. Tell that to the restaurant owner considering reasonable accommodations to the surge and wondering if their small business can survive. Tell that to church leadership trying to promote community health and meaningful ministries, including to those who are unhoused, many of whom remain unvaccinated by chance or choice. Tell that to yourself who like me has spent almost two years putting a brave face on things. It could be worse. And in fact, it is for our neighbors to the north. In the face of the devastating wildfires in Boulder County, I feel guilty making even the barest whisper of complaint…
…or hearing God’s Word in today’s Scripture text, with its images of baptism by fire and the judgment of unquenchable destruction. Here we find the fiery prophet John striding into view, preaching repentance: a complete change of heart and new perspective. He’s invited people to indicate their desire for such change by being washed in water, a familiar ritual in Jewish tradition. But what is unfamiliar is his unambiguous message: faith in God is linked to sacrificial acts of compassion and generous sharing. There’s an urgency and a light flashing from John’s eyes that stir up hope. Could this be…? Could he be…? A reading from the good news according to Luke, in the third chapter, verses 15-17 and 21 and 22. Listen for God’s Word to the weary, wary, the burned, and burned out. [LUKE 3:15-17, 21, 22]
A picture is worth a thousand words. It ought to be written on the first page of every preaching instruction book. Language is powerful but words struggle to define spiritual realities. The morning text is a perfect example. In just five little verses we hear about water and fire and a winnowing fork separating grain from chaff and a dove and a voice from heaven. Clearly (ahem) the author is witnessing to something beyond what his reason and observational skills can describe.
But here’s the thing, friends: in that confusion lies the truth. Luke testifies as best he can that a power has been loosed in the person of Jesus that is greater than any the world has ever known. More powerful than the Roman empire which cruelly oppressed the people of that time. More powerful than King Herod, despite the fact that John would soon be killed by his command…and not too many years later, in spite of the ruler who would condemn Jesus himself to death. A power that changed everything because it can change anything. Change the boundaries of welcome. Change the limits of possibility. Change the cold calculus of transaction to the light and warmth of unconditional caring. Change “done deals” into serendipities of grace. The voice from heaven naming Jesus as beloved is the same voice echoing at our birth, at every birth: You are my beloved child.
But this is a truth that is hard to say with words. The world is such a mess. We are such a mess.
Following Jesus is not an entirely safe path.
So we have pictures. Rituals. Water. Life-bearing, nourishing, cleansing, refreshing. A sign of the love that is bigger than our understanding, that is moving around this world, and is right here in this room. The love that knows your name by heart. A Table, where people from east and west and south and north, rich and poor, healthy and helpless, mean and kind, sinner and saint are welcomed and embraced. Here we receive Life-giving bread. Soul-stirring wine. And the fire? Maybe John was trying to emphasize that this life of following Jesus was not a little thing, a box to check for “religious obligation.” Following Jesus is not an entirely safe path. It will take us places we’d prefer not to go, and bring us close to people we might not have chosen as friends or family; John’s description of “a baptism of fire” signified the power Jesus wielded to kindle what is in the heart of every one of us; igniting our latent love into full-blown power to love.
The thing is, friends, every one of these images carry risk. Water is life; it can also drown. Fire can warm and illumine; it can also burn to the ground. A table that welcomes all will surely stretch the limits of our understanding, and sometimes cause disappointment, grief, anger and fear. Yet it is in these pictures, through enacting these rituals, that we learn to incorporate both risk and blessing, the beauty and brokenness of human life, in love. To bear life, even when there is dying all around us. To welcome, when it would be easier to judge and reject. To forgive and heal and restore and repair when it seems impossible.
We love…we are able to love…because God first loved us. And loves us still.
Friends, in a time when we are so over it; so exhausted by pandemic and division and bitterness; so appalled by the anger and denial of those who seem to have lost their capacity to hear what is true and factual; and so concerned about what lies ahead, take a moment to remember.
- Remember that you are God’s beloved.
- Remember in broken bread and poured out cup, the love that is stronger than anything, even death.
- Remember that even if you do not have the strength to sail, trust the flow of grace beneath you. . . and do not be afraid. The love that never ceases will hold you up, no matter how deep the waters. *
*I do not know the source of this quote–which I affixed to my laptop a couple years’ ago–that has been a continuing source of hope and encouragement for me.