“Who are you?”
That’s the question that representatives of the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem put to John the baptizer in today’s gospel.
Are you the Messiah? No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the prophet that Moses predicted would be even greater than he was? No. Who, then, are you? I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
Why are you baptizing our fellow Jews? You know we only baptize gentiles who want to become Jews. Who gave you the authority to do that? I baptize with water as a way of preparing everyone, gentiles and Jews, for the one who is coming who will baptize them with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
I want to say more about the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, especially since we are baptizing Annaclaire Martin Lassiter today, but to do so, I need to point out that one of the primary ways the Church interprets Holy Scripture is to think of the Old Testament as God’s typewriter made up of many keys and typefaces, representing all the stories recorded there, and the New Testament as what the Old Testament typewriter was created by God to type, what came to be known as the anti-type.
So, for instance, today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah was chosen specifically by the Church because it speaks of a person anointed with the Spirit of the Lord who will bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and the year of the Lord’s favor.
When Luke reports that this was the specific text from the Old Testament that Jesus selected for his first sermon, after he had been baptized by John and then anointed with the Spirit by his heavenly Father, Luke is telling us that whatever that key on Isaiah’s prophetic typewriter may have meant in Isaiah’s day – perhaps the reforms of King Hezekiah or King Josiah - it was meant primarily and ultimately to point to Jesus, who fulfilled that prophecy completely during his earthly ministry.
So our first lesson is meant to explain, in part, the difference between John’s baptism, a baptism of water for repentance, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit which would enable Jesus to do all those life-giving and life-saving deeds Isaiah spoke about. This is why John dismisses the Pharisee’s question about his authority to baptize Jews with water. John is saying, in effect, that they haven’t seen anything yet, that water baptism is next to nothing in comparison with a baptism in the fire of the Holy Spirit. The baptism of Jesus will be the baptism they will have every reason to wonder about, to ask where and how Jesus got the power to do all the things he subsequently did during his earthly ministry.
I would like for you to consider a couple more keys and typefaces on God’s Old Testament typewriter that the Church could have chosen as our first lesson this morning, stories I had never thought about regarding these two different baptisms, those of John and of Jesus. The first key helps us understand why John denied being the prophet Elijah, but why Jesus later declares that John was, in fact, more than just a voice crying in the wilderness, but was also the Elijah whom the prophet Malachi said would appear before the coming of the Messiah.
The first key is the story of Elijah’s battle with the 450 false prophets of Baal and the second key is story of the chariot of fire that carries Elijah alive into heaven.
What is striking in Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal is his pouring water over the sacrifice three times before calling on God to accept his offering by sending fire to carry his offering up into his heavenly presence.
This story allows us to be understand and appreciate John’s water baptism. By itself, pouring water on an offering cannot cause the fire of God to descend. Indeed, it would almost appear to be an attempt to challenge the power of God’s fiery Spirit. But a water baptism for repentance is a necessary, if not sufficient, first step, even for a Jew.
Every human being must first renounce the evil powers of this world, as Elijah did in confronting the false prophets of Baal who were leading king Ahab and his entire nation of Israel away from God with Jezebel’s encouragement. We must also renounce our own sinful desires that draw us from the love of God and renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God before we can turn and accept Jesus as the one who can come and save us and rule in and over our lives in the power of his Spirit.
Jesus alone can release and kindle the fire of the Holy Spirit within the life of the faithful believer. Jesus allows himself to be baptized by John and his heavenly Father is pleased with his Son’s humility because repentance is always necessary for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, even though it was not necessary in the case of Jesus because he needed to be born without the spiritual disability caused by Adam’s sin so that he could remove that disability for Annaclaire and every Christian through the baptism he endured on the Cross.
The candle we light after every baptism is meant to signify that the light of Christ has been kindled in the life of the baptized person. Similarly, the pink candle in our advent wreath this morning is meant to symbolize the fact that the white light of Christ is now close enough to gladden our hearts from the purple of repentance to a pink in anticipation of the white light of our forthcoming joy.
Nicky Gumble, the author of the ALPHA program, uses the analogy of a gas oven to describe what Jesus does in baptism after we have renounced the evils which clog the flow of the Spirit and render our lives half-baked at best and ruined at worst. His blood restores us to pristine purity, so that he can turn on the gas of the Holy Spirit and ignites the pilot. And whenever it is appropriate, that pilot light, in turn, kindles our main burners, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that whatever the Holy Spirit intends to cook up for the life of the world and the glory of the Father may be accomplished in and through us.
The story of the chariot of fire carrying Elijah up into heaven reminds us that God expects and intends for us to get carried away with Christ in the fire of his Spirit, so that what was true for Elijah, to go from this life to newer, higher, everlasting life, is true for Annaclaire and every disciple of Jesus as well, that Jesus’ baptism separates us from this world while making us alive in this world and in the world to come in the power of the Spirit.
John denies being Elijah because he knows he can only be a voice crying in the wilderness. It was the false prophets of Baal who believed they could somehow manipulate God into doing their bidding, going so far as to cut themselves and adding their own blood to their offering, blood which we know has no intrinsic value because of our sinful nature. It is God alone, through the blood of his Son Jesus, who can make John the anti-type of the Old Testament Elijah by sending fire from heaven, first on his Son Jesus at his baptism, and subsequently in the lives of each one of us, including Annaclaire.
It is in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to do what Paul encourages us to do: to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. This is God’s will for us when we are united to Christ in the power of his Spirit. Let us not quench that Spirit. Let us not do anything to put out that fire. Let us stick together as branches on the burning bush of Christ that does not consume us, but brings us to fullness of life. Let us never stop being carried away by Christ and the chariot of Holy Spirit’s fire. AMEN.