There was this guy in the Bible named John the Baptist, a wild, God-intoxicated desert dweller. He'd warn anyone who'd listen that they'd better change their ways. "Turn or burn!" he preached. He also claimed that someone greater than he was waiting in the wings. When he takes the stage, said John, he'll baptize people "with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
In my sermon Sunday I spent a little time wondering what this "baptism by fire" might be. Foresters sometimes set fires intentionally on the lands they manage. These controlled burns clear the forest floor of dead wood, thus limiting the fuel for any future forest fires and limiting their potential damage. Controlled burns can also stimulate the growth of wildflowers or the germination of tree and shrub seeds that have evolved to do so only in the presence of extreme heat.
Maybe Jesus Christ, the one John said was waiting in the wings, baptizes us by fire by bringing us through experiences of adversity in order to spare us of a worse fire in the future. Maybe the trials we are going through at present will clear the floor, so to speak, and allow something new and beautiful to grow in our lives.
But there is another possibility. In the Bible, God would often become present to people in the form of fire or flame. Scholars call these moments theophanies. For instance, Moses saw a burning bush in the desert. Even though the bush was on fire, the flames didn't consume it. Out of the burning bush, Moses heard God call him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt.
Last week I read an article arguing that what John meant by a baptism by fire and Spirit is that Jesus Christ would give his disciples the capacity to be a living theophany. Their hearts would burn with love for God, and other people will see and hear God through the lives they lead and the words they speak.
I didn't have enough time in my sermon to mention this possibility, but I didn't have to. One of the prayer request cards that was turned in after the sermon contained this request: Fan the flames so my desire to serve will be a burning desire. Somebody in the congregation was thinking along the lines that I'd left on the cutting floor!
So, there is a fire that consumes evil, a fire that prepares us for something beautiful to sprout and grow within us, and there is a fiery desire for God that Jesus Christ ignites within us. When that last kind of fire is kindled, our zeal to do God's will burns brightly, and our friends and neighbors are drawn by that light along the path of discipleship.
This kind of baptism by fire--set on fire to serve God--is the kind of fire I am waiting for this Advent season. The church in our society has been suffering from institutional decline. Our congregation has not been immune to the trends that face the larger church. We have the consultant's recommendations about the steps we need to take in order to become a more thriving congregation. The session and our ministry teams will study these recommendations and act on them in the coming year.
Some of our ways do need to change. But making changes only prepares us to receive something from God that we desperately need but cannot control or command. In the end, the church's vitality depends on a fresh outpouring of God's Holy Spirit. Wait for it. Pray for it. Believe it will come.