Have you been baptized?
Have you been baptized by the Spirit?
Have you been baptized by fire?
What does that even mean? To be baptized by fire?
Two of the four Advent Gospels are about John the Baptist. John, though only in the Gospels a small bit, is a pretty central character to the entire preparation narrative. Last week, we heard him telling his followers that he was preparing the way for one who would baptize by the Spirit and by fire. I have always believed that the mention of fire was a warning shot. John was all about preparation-through-repentance and so he upped the ante by using colorful, dramatic language like this.
But then this week, Jesus asks the people in the crowd why they went out to see John in the first place? He asks them three times in a row, in fact. He asked if they were going to see a reed swayed by the wind, a man wearing fine clothes and living in a palace, or a prophet. He was asking them: what were you expecting to see? Jesus suggested to them that John was different… and more… than what they had been expecting. This was maybe the first time that Jesus told anybody that their expectations and preconceptions would be challenged. That whatever they were thinking about salvation, redemption, about this whole Messiah business… well, maybe they should think again.
So, when it comes to preparing for the coming of the Savior, which is what we’re supposed to be doing in Advent, I say… let’s think again. Let’s challenge our own expectations and preconceptions.
Let’s come back to this idea of getting baptized by fire. What does fire do? Three things come to mind for me. First, it can heal. I was watching the Tolkien prequel trilogy about Middle Earth recently and one of the main characters got a bad wound. Fire was used to cauterize the cut and that ended up saving her life.
Fire can also shape or mould something. In that same series, The Rings of Power, they showed fire being used to shape metal into swords and melt gold into jewelry.
And then, of course, fire can burn. It can ruin. It can harm. It can destroy.
Fire can heal… shape… or destroy.
When John said that one is coming who will baptize by fire, I think he may have been talking about the coming trials we all face. And that the idea of preparing for Christ is a way of preparing for the trials.
John would soon face his own trials and he knew this. Perhaps this was very much on his mind.
We all have challenges. We suffer. Some of us have faced great trials already. All of us will at some point. This is inevitable. This is life. We could think of faith as a means to ask God for the grace of being spared such suffering, of being able to avoid these types of trials. Or we could confront the inevitable and think about faith as helping us to get through them when they do come.
I myself would love it if God would spare me of this suffering. But I know that this just is not possible. So I look to God, to his Spirit, to his son… to accompany me through mine.
And here’s the great twist. Suffering can redeem us. It can mold us, shape us, heal us even… and change us for the better. Like fire.
I’d like to suggest that one way to prepare for the coming of Jesus is to think about these trials of life and then to consider Jesus’ final promise to his disciples, that he would be with us always, until the end of the age. In this form of Advent preparation, we would get down onto our knees and approach the Christ child, the baby in a manger, with humility, with reverence, and with the sincere request that he be with us always.
Let’s invite him to be with us always and at all times.
The trials of life can destroy us. But… they can heal us. They can shape us. They can even save us. Just like fire.