Water, Spirit, Fire: A Sermon

(Critics of Preludium sometimes ask if I give much of a damn about real Christianity as opposed to mutterings about the year of the tyger, secular odds and ends and post modern mutterings.

Well, here in Lewes, the town where the big waters and the bay meet, I occasionally preach. This is my sermon for January 10th, 2010, also known as the First Sunday in Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus.

Readers who have gotten this far might also note that we in Lewes are struggling with an emerging story of horrific child abuse, referred to in the sermon. I also reference those who consider Christians evil because they use the same word, Allah, for God, that others in their community use. And, of course, I reference the many occasion when we wonder just what baptism is about in a so called Christian world where the baptized are easily found among the horrific abusers of our public and private trust (and here I speak of leaders in high and low places who will not see the wrongs done in the public arena).

Perhaps those who are ready to cast doubts on my earnest desire to be faithful to the Good News will find this sermon deficient. I do not propose it is the last word on anything and I remain dissatisfied with a good bit of what I have said. Still, it is a start.

The Rector of all Lewes, in his kindness, thought it a useful sermon and suggested I post it here. So, here it is.)


This day is often titled “The Baptism of Jesus.” As often happens such titles simplify and short-circuit the realities of what we are asked to consider today. There is a lot going on in the Gospel reading today in addition to Our Lord’s baptism.

For that matter, there is a lot going on in our Community, the Nation and the World all related to the Gospel today. For surely, if Jesus has come to baptize with water and the Holy Spirit and with fire, we could use some of that, NOW.

We need to be washed clean from all the horrific trauma that has accompanied the revelations in Lewes of child abuse and betrayal of trust.

We surely need the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descending on us and saying we are God’s well beloved, because it seems clear that some people in the world consider us evil and far from God.

And, in a world where passive acquiescence to evil in high places and low is accepted as “just the way it is” we could do with some Fire, some cleansing fire that rids us of the hollow towers of injustice and oppression and irresponsibility that hover over all of us.

We could use this baptism of water, the Holy Spirit and fire. NOW

Are you with me on this?

(I knew you were!)

Well, just so you know, this is what we celebrate today: the presence of God’s redeeming love in a baptism of water, spirit and fire.

This is indeed the Sunday when we remember that Jesus is proclaimed as God’s beloved, empowered by the Holy Spirit - seen as a dove, a symbol of peace – and proclaimed by John as filled with prophetic fire.

The elements of this baptism are profoundly important: Water, Spirit, Fire. They belong to Jesus and they belong to you and me.


We all know enough about sin (from our own and others examples) to know that washing away our sins is a GOOD IDEA. Sometimes that washing requires nothing more than personal sorrow and repentance. Sometimes that washing requires restitution to those harmed and sometimes even punishment. It’s all very messy because sin is messy. But the washing is a GOOD IDEA.

So, we are washed and then what? We know perfectly well that sin is going to come knocking at the door again, for us, for everyone. So what’s the solution? Washing alone is not enough, for with the return of sin we would find ourselves needing to be cleansed again and again and again.


Some have suggested that maybe the Holy Spirit would lead us away from this world of sin. Some have suggested that the Holy Spirit brings us another world – a spirit of peace brought by no longer being engaged in the material world, a place where we would need no more washing.

The notion that the world and the flesh is basically evil is an old one, always popular. Perhaps, it is argued, the Holy Spirit is calling us to be released from this world’s evil. This leads to some people voluntarily renouncing the world and others being removed from the world so that they can do no harm. Either way, the world is renounced. We either move away from sin, or we isolate sinners and reduce the breadth of the world to people like ourselves, a righteous remnant.

The problem with that, of course, is that very quickly that path leads to the heresy of believing that the material, physical world is evil. But we know better than that. God created the world and all that is therein, including us as humans, and found it good. Creation is at its core good because the creator is good.

Sill, the temptation is there, after all, it is in the material world that evil happens.

If Jesus had been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit and had fallen for the temptation to think the world evil, perhaps he might have gone out into the wilderness and never returned, remaining a solitary all his days. But the Holy Spirit that led him into the wilderness did so in order to also lead him back into the world. The Holy Spirit also brought fire.


Water and the Holy Spirit are not all there is. John was right. There is fire.

We know because we have heard the story before, that Jesus right after his baptism goes into the wilderness, led by the Spirit, to pray and there is tempted by the devil. Had he given in, there would be no struggle – not for bread, or for safety or for power. No struggle. If he returned from the desert having bought Satan’s bill of goods it would have been all over. Jesus would have abandoned us for three square meals, a safety net and power. He would have been just another despot. And, had Jesus simply stayed out there in the desert, praying, we would have said, “Ah, a Holy Man.”

But he didn’t give in to the devil, and he didn’t give in to being a holy man. Rather, he returned to the struggle, to the world where good and evil alike exist but the where the world has been proclaimed good… so good that God is pleased to dwell in it in Jesus.

Jesus returns, and stays with us.

The fire of Jesus’ baptism is the fire of struggle, of contending, of hoping against hope, of never giving up the promise that God’s reign is over all creation, finally a good creation, and that God is in the midst of us.


This then brings us back to the baptism of Jesus, and the baptism in which we are baptized. Jesus is baptized by water, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him, and by fire. That much is clear.

But we too are all baptized with water and the Holy Spirit and with fire. Sometimes we in the church loose sight of the reality: that baptism is a three-fold matter – one of water and the Holy Spirit and of fire. But the traces are there. The outward and visible signs are there: The Priest baptizes with water, in the name of the Trinity, and makes the sign of the cross with oil that marks us as Christ’s own in the Holy Spirit, and hands the godparents or the baptized a lighted candle. That little flame is the sign of the fire.

We are baptized with water, and with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.


So what then of sin, notable and otherwise?

Following our baptism in water our washing for sin continues - in our occasions of confession and repentance, in our being held to account for our actions. Sin does not end with baptism in water. Rather our having washed once reminds us we are bound to repentance and restitution and responsibility for our sins. Baptism makes us accountable to our Lord.

Because of our baptism in the Holy Spirit, we realize we do not have to run or hide or otherwise reject the world in order to be found acceptable to God. In baptism we are made Christ’s own forever. The world is not the enemy for us Christians, for we have overcome the world. The Holy Spirit leads us through the wasteland of our desert back to the world of human engagement.

In our baptism in Fire, there is the struggle to see it through… to find in the world the presence of God’s reign, no matter the horrific of this or that moment or person or people or nation. In baptism as Bishop Tutu says, “We struggle knowing that we have already won.”

The Baptism of Jesus is what points the way.

Salvation is mostly about getting up from sin, dusting ourselves off, knowing we are loved by God and getting on with the struggle, knowing that in Christ Jesus we have already won. (Repeat)

Meanwhile, all those who would damage our children or communities, condemn us as evil or drive us away from the struggle to make this world better had better stand back.

The great day is coming, and those baptized by water, the Holy Spirit and with fire will be there, and the last will be first and the first last, and even if I find myself at the end of the line I will not be anxious, for there is room for us all.

As the teller of tales says,

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Can I have an AMEN?


  1. AMEN!

    Excellent sermon, Mark.

    I should have thought of this a long time ago -- sometimes I'm a little slow! -- but I was struck by your reference to baptism by water, the Spirit, and fire, and linking these to the baptismal ceremonies. Many of us have for many years customarily given the newly baptized (or his/her sponsors) a lighted candle, typically accompanied by words such as: "Receive the Light of Christ..." (Fr. Michno suggests several possible phrases). Very nice, very fitting, but it seems to be a little tame. Perhaps something along these lines: "Be aflame with the fire of Christ's love, manifesting God's Reign in this world." You or others might put it better.

  2. "Be aflame with the fire of Christ's love, manifesting God's Reign in this world."

    Wish I had had this yesterday. I will print it out and put it in my prayer book for the next baptism.

  3. RB...somehow your kind words got cut...and me needing all I can get. Sorry. M.

  4. Sorry, Mark. Life has been busy.

    I haven't changed my mind about your sermon. It is beautiful both in expression and content.

    I probably haven't been my usual abrasive self recently, but I find nothing to fault and much to praise here. The statement, Salvation is mostly about getting up from sin, dusting ourselves off, knowing we are loved by God and getting on with the struggle, knowing that in Christ Jesus we have already won, is well worth repeating.

    Again, thank you.

  5. I am the pastor of a church that sits aproximately 25 miles east of Penn State. This sermon has resonated with me on many levels. Been working on my own "Baptism of Jesus" sermon and now I know what is missing...fire. Thanks for the reminder. Some cleansing fire is just what we need right now.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.