We cannot doubt baptism changes us: and our baptismal walk is not only our promise to God, but his promise to us.
SermonI would imagine many of you have been to what used to be known as Ayer's Rock, now known as Uluru. I've been there a few times. I appreciate its magnificence, and I am well aware of its meaning to the people who live around it - both indigenous and otherwise. There is an awe and majesty surrounding it. When, in ordinary time, we are called to welcome 'the deep silence which stands at the centre of my being like the rock in the centre of our land', I recall some of the times I've spent around, and I'm embarrassed to say, on, The Rock. There are two times that I most remember. One when I was with friends and I sat on the side of the trail, awaiting their return from the summit, watching the sun set in blazing glory. The other was when Garry and I walked around the rock after recent rain - seeing the little waterfalls still running, drinking from the pools of clear, fresh water in the hollows, reveling in the sight of new buds unfurling only days after the rain. Fire and water - two majestic elements giving vastly different images of the Rock - it's splendor undiminished, but the look totally different in colour, texture and feeling.
Nathan's paraphrases bring to mind images I thought long forgotten. Luke's Gospel tonight reminded me of these images of Uluru, and many others that I have seen in my outback travels.
Watching the cane cutters set fire to the fields in preparation for harvesting, flamethrowers in hand, knowing that they did it to drive out the dangers of snakes and other 'nasties' before they went in to cut the cane by hand. That's the image provoked in what John said about Jesus with his flamethrower in hand, driving out evil and toiling endlessly for good. Watching back-burning efforts by firefighters to prevent the spread of bushfires - again the use of flamethrowers to help save. And, of course, any outback sunset is a true sight to behold, and an opportunity to lose oneself in the magnificence of creation - the fiery colours of both land and sky. Then there is the bushfire - uncontrollable by man, devastating in its destruction of anything and everything in its path and unforgettable, as is the grotesque beauty it leaves behind. A beauty which lasts only until the next sprinkle of moisture arrives on the blackened but cleansed earth, and it is renewed again.
Seeing the desert bloom, sometimes within hours of rain is an event to inspire wonder. Watching a dry river bed suddenly come to life after rain hundreds of kilometers away - no words can explain the emotion that can be brought by such a sight. Helping to clean up a small town in the aftermath of an unexpected deluge of extraordinary monsoonal rains - seeing the extent of the destruction of even a metre of water can produce. Standing on a beach in the rain, watching lightening flash over the sea: feeling the wind in your face and the thud of the waves through the sand at your feet, observing and delighting in the fury of creation that will never be controlled or repeated by humans. These images remind me of not only the power of water, or even its destructive force, but also its power to cleanse and renew: to revive even the lowest spirit.
Fire and water: opposites in every way, and at the same time, there are so many similarities. Both have the power to destroy, and both the power to save. Both can be the source of pure joy and both the source of unimaginable fear. Both contaminate and cleanse. And, according to Luke, our baptism brings both fire and water into our lives. The water bit of baptism is pretty obvious, even for those who were smart enough to avoid the full-on dunking episode. The meanings attributed to the water of baptism are easy to understand, at least at face value. We are washed clean of our sin, and present ourselves as renewed. We 'go down' into death, and are resurrected with the risen Christ. You probably know all this better than I do, so I won't go on any more. It is the emotion of the experience that is unique to each of us. Each of us comes to the baptismal rite from a different beginning, along a path that belongs to us alone. At the end of the ritual, we are changed in more ways than just becoming wet to a greater or lesser degree. We have become one with Christ, one with the people of the congregation we have chosen (or is it had chosen for us?) and one with the church at large.
The fire part of baptism is harder to explain. Since we don't actually expect to be physically exposed to fire, as we are with water, how do we know when it's has happened? This is something that some people I know feel they missed out on, not that they are terribly perturbed about that. They regard it as 'something that happened to Jesus and the Apostles, and to some of the people who the "real" Apostles touched'. One friend assures me that 'It doesn't happen these days'. John tells us that while he may have started the water baptism craze, Jesus would top it by baptising with fire; and he promised that we would be immersed in the Holy Spirit at this baptism of fire. The reading from Acts lends a bit of credence to my friends' thoughts though: sure, the people were baptised in water by Phillip, but they didn't get the Holy Spirit until Peter and John - 'the real apostles' - dropped by to lay on hands and pray with them. I have other thoughts, based on my own experiences of the Holy Spirit. I believe we all are aware of the passage of the fire through our own lives, and sometimes we can see the effects on others of their passage along the same route. I may no longer speak in tongues, but I am starting to know when I'm doing what the Spirit is directing me to, and when I'm having a rebellious tantrum and trying to ignore her.
The image of Jesus 'incinerating the rubbish' and 'germinating the good seeds that lie in wait' is one with which any person who has visited a bushfire ravaged area will readily associate. The idea that it can happen to us - this cleaning out of the emotional and spiritual baggage we all carry and allowing the goodness to shine through - may be a source of fear, or it may be a source of delight. Having a blank page on which to begin again can be too much for some of us to cope with. We may shrink back into some of our old ways, clinging to the life that at least we are familiar with, fearing the unknown. We believe we are given a whole new start, that indeed we have put off the old and put on the new, but sometimes old habits die hard. Whichever way we perceive it, the fact is we are no longer the person who presented themselves for baptism. By the simple experience of the baptismal rite, we have become someone else. Someone who will try to emulate Jesus, but maybe never make it to the level of perfection he reached. Someone about whom God will say: 'You are my child, and you fill me with pride' as long as we look to Jesus as our example and remember the vows we made at our baptism. We do not walk this path alone. We do not always stick to the centre of the path either. But we do walk it in faith, together with each other and with our Lord.
I know when I made my promise to God in baptism to become the person he wants me to be I also
received a promise
I will stick with you when you cross through the waters,
when you ford swollen rivers,
I'll get you safely to the other side.
When you walk through fire you won't be burned,
flames might surround you,
but you'll come out unscathed.
As one who is terrified of drowning, and frightened of the possibility that this year, or next,
we may be caught in a bushfire, all I can say is 'Isaiah better be right!'
I've chosen to walk with my God in faith and hope along the path he has given me in baptism, and I thank God for putting me in the company of all of you here to share the journey.