Saturday, 9 January 2016

The fire of the Holy Spirit

Luke 3.15-22


It is a dirty place out there.
Herod, in our reading, is an example of that. He wants to live life his way. And when John challenges him, he uses his power to silence him.

And that is not unknown today: we think of rulers, political parties, businesses who have used their power to suppress those who would challenge what they do. And it has not been unknown for the Church to use its position of power to cover up its dirty secrets.

But there also dirt in here, in the human heart.
John the Baptist calls the people who come to hear him preach, ‘a brood of vipers’. Not the quickest way to win friends and influence people. He declares that God’s judgement is coming on a generation of people who have forgotten God and yet are spiritually complacent. They have chosen to be blind to those in need, to live for stuff, and if they’ve already got stuff, live for more stuff, and to use whatever power they have to push others down so that they can get more and go up.

And so John, in his preaching, calls them to a baptism of repentance

John invites his listeners to receive baptism. He is saying that being a descendant of Abraham is not enough to be a true member of the people of God. A true member is someone who turns to God, puts their trust in and lives his way.  And as a mark that are truly repentant for the life that they have been forgiven, and that they truly intend to live for God, he urges them to be baptised. It meant that they went to the river Jordan, were submerged under the water, as a sign that God has forgiven them. It is a symbolic washing to show that the dirt, the sin has been washed away.

But the problem with John’s baptism is that although it revealed a person’s intention, it could not change a person’s heart.

Luke says very little about Jesus’ baptism. He simply says, ‘When all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised ..’  It seems that – before John was imprisoned – all the people had been baptised by John (at least all of the people who had come to John), and then Jesus was baptised. His baptism appears to be the last, the climax of John’s baptism.

So Jesus sets his seal on John’s baptism. Yes, it is a baptism for repentance (although of course Jesus did not need to repent); and it is also a baptism of obedience (because it is what God commands) and it is a baptism of good intention: I intend to live a new God focussed life.

But Jesus takes it further. He adds a completely new dimension to baptism. John says (v16), ‘I baptise you with water; but ... he (the Messiah, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’

The Holy Spirit can change a person’s heart – because the fire of the Spirit burns away everything that is not of God.

John speaks of the Holy Spirit as the fire of God's judgement

In Luke 3.17, he tells us that Jesus will separate people: the wheat on one side, and the chaff on the other. The wheat are those who hear the word of God and respond. The chaff are those who hear and reject it. Herod may have been impressive, but he was chaff. The wheat will be gathered into the barn. The chaff – and the reality is that chaff is just a dead shell – will, on that final day, be burnt.

That ties in with the teaching of the New Testament. 2 Thessalonians 1.7 speaks of that final day when ‘the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God’. And it speaks of ‘eternal destruction’.

Or Rev 19.11-13, ‘Then I saw heaven opened [echoes of what happens in our reading when heaven is opened], and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire … his name is called The Word of God’

But what of those of us who turn to Jesus. Do we escape the fire?
And the answer is, Yes. We escape the fire of destruction, the second death, which is the lake of fire.
But the answer is also No.
Instead we choose voluntarily to come to the fire of the Holy Spirit, because we trust that God in his love will use the fire to purify us and to transform us.
We ask the Holy Spirit to burn up the dirt that is deep within us.

TS Elliot in his poem FourQuartets (Little Gidding, IV) writes that the only way we can be saved from the fire of judgement is by the fire of the Spirit. He writes that we can only live ‘consumed by either fire or fire’. We can be consumed by the fire that brings destruction or we can be ‘consumed’, transformed, changed by the fire that burns up all that is dirt in us. That is the fire which brings purity. So he speaks that we are ‘redeemed from fire by fire’. Redeemed from the fire which will totally consume us by the fire that will transform and purify us.
This fire of God is one and the same as the Holy Spirit or the love of God.

And the fire of the Spirit burns up all that is dirt within us:

Through his word shaping our conscience.
He convicts us of our sinfulness. We see ourselves with new eyes, with his eyes. I begin to realise that what I did thoughtlessly, or as a bit of fun or because it was a harmless habit, actually ends up cutting me off from God, destroying others, breaking my relationships, like a creeper, slowly strangling the inner life out of me.  We remember things that we have done, how we have treated someone, and it is almost as if someone has stabbed us. And yet I can begin to face the truth, and not go into the garden ‘to eat worms’, because I know that, in spite of all my filth, he loves me.

Through his discipline.
Through the discipline of obedience in the Christian life. Baptism, when we go down into the water, is about a dying to self. But that becomes a daily dying: the discipline of prayer, worship, fasting, giving - even when I do not wish to do it. 
He takes us through experiences we would rather not go through. Think of Paul with his so-called ‘thorn in the flesh’. It was probably a physical infirmity. Three times he prays and asks God to take it away. Three times the answer is no. Why? Because God says that his strength will be seen in Paul’s weakness.
Or we are taken to places we would rather not go.
Think of Simon Peter. Jesus tells him, ‘When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go (he said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God). After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.”  And I know it might sound madness, but Peter still chose to follow him. He still chose to step into the fire, the fire of God's judgement and the fire of God's love. 

And the Spirit will burn up that dirt within us through the people of God.
Through being part of the church, the opening of our lives and homes to one another, receiving the bread and wine, learning together, the discipline of the Christian life, through resolving conflict and not running away from conflict, as we teach and rebuke and challenge and encourage one another. You are a flame of God to me - because you challenge my self-centredness

You see the purpose of God in all of this is not to destroy us. In his deep deep love for us it is to make us people of fire.

Blaise Pascal, the French scientist, suffered. He struggled with poor health from the age of 18. He died at the age of 33. But they discovered, sewn into the lining of his jacket, a piece of paper. It contained a description of an experience he had when he saw the fire of God come down. In the middle of that experience, he wrote, ‘Fire, fire in the night; consuming me, all around, glory, wonder!’.

Or there is the story from the desert fathers. There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

The point is that the Holy Spirit and the fire of the God and the love of God are inseparable.

That is why, after Jesus has been baptised, the Holy Spirit comes on him and we hear the voice from heaven. ‘This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased’. It is a declaration of profound assurance – an assurance that Jesus was going to need in what he was going to face; of deep intimacy (the word ‘Beloved’ is most used in the love song that is the Song of Solomon) and of great affirmation. But it was not a guarantee of worldy well-being. In the very next chapter, the same Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted. And the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience (not that he was ever disobedient) through what he suffered.

It is dirty out there. But more to the point it is dirty in here, in our heart.

We need John’s baptism. We need forgiveness, to be washed clean. We need to be able to declare our intention.
But we also need Jesus’ baptism – the baptism of the Holy Spirit, of fire – because we need changed hearts.

So I want to finish by speaking to two groups of people

1.      To those who have not yet been baptised. It didn’t happen when you were a baby, and you have never made the decision to be baptised.

The decision to receive baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the decision to step into the fire of God’s love, to invite that fire into your life, and to ask him to to burn up all the dirt that is deeply ingrained in your heart. It is about asking him to show you the wonder of his love, so you begin to glimpse it, and the glory of his purpose for you.

Please consider taking that decision. Join the Christianity Explored course to find out more, or the Journeys course that we will be running at the end of February.

2.      To those who have been baptised
The challenge is not when (as adult or child) or how (full immersion or sprinkling) you were baptised but whether you are living now as someone who is baptised.
So baptism involves water because it is about living as people are forgiven, as people who are obedient and as people who have declared an intention to live for God.
But it also involves fire because it is about the Holy Spirit. 

Are you living as someone who is beginning to realise that you are a child of God, deeply beloved of God? Are you living as someone who calls out to God, ‘Father in heaven’. I appreciate that you may not feel that, but it is reality and we are called to live by faith. One day you will know the truth of it. And are you living as someone who is willing to be led into the fire, to invite the fire in, in order to let him burn up all the dirt that is in you, so that you may one day become fire? 

Postscript:
Lines in John Masefield's poem, The Everlasting Mercy, speak of this burning work of the Spirit:
"I did not think, I did not strive
The deep peace burnt my me alive"

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