The Fire Is Really Grace

The Fire Is Really Grace

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

-Matthew 3:11-12

We’re never going to be truly finished exploring what the waters of baptism do to us. We make this move into the water, and thus begins the lifelong journey of repentance, of turning inch by inch toward God. This is what the water does to us, says John the Baptist here in Matthew 3. And then, John promises, there is more to this baptism. The water is but the first layer of this new reality. After moving into the water, we also move to be immersed into the Holy Spirit, into God’s very being. Just as the water covers every inch of us, so does God’s Spirit. This is what Jesus does to us, he immerses us in God.

And then, there is yet another layer to this new baptismal reality. After making the move into the water, and after making the move into the Holy Spirit, we move into the fire. It’s not optional. We don’t sign up for it not sign up for it. John is simply stating that it’s happening. We receive this baptism from… a farmer. The winnowing fork is in his hand. He’s just brought in a heaping harvest of wheat. And every bit of chaff that doesn’t belong is burned up with unquenchable fire.

It doesn’t sound too pleasant, but it is kind of exciting, isn’t it? Everything in us that doesn’t belong is being removed by the water and the Spirit and the fire. All the chaff that has ultimately nothing to do with the true essence of the wheat and nothing to do with the refined final form of the wheat is threshed away and burned. Every sin, every vice, every insecurity, every hypocrisy, every misaligned desire, every misaligned priority. All ego, all arrogance, all ignorance, all despair, all shame, all fear. It’s all being immersed in unquenchable fire by Jesus. None of these belong and Jesus is seeing to it that they do not get to stay.

Does the fire hurt when it burns away the things that don’t belong? Sure. But let’s find great joy in these words from John, too. As we move into the water, and then deeper into the Spirit, and then deeper yet into the fire, Jesus is purifying us of everything that doesn’t perfectly reflect his image, which means he’s purifying us of all the stuff we beat ourselves up for the most anyway. And when the ego, when the false self puts up a fight and clings to its own desires and priorities, the baptismal fire is unquenchable. The ego will try desperately to pour water on it. But the ego, the false self, however strong it turns out to be, is still nothing more than empty, flimsy chaff. It’s burned up and the only thing that remains is the center of our true being, the place in the heart that ego and sin cannot touch, but only God can touch.

This is what Jesus is doing to us. This is what is happening to us in the water. In the water we discover the Holy Spirit too. And in the Holy Spirit we discover the fire that scares us at first but is really grace, the grace of God to make us new, to remove everything that does not reflect his beautiful, merciful image.


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