“ He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and Fire”
It's interesting that both the worst that can happen to human beings - hell - and the best that can happen to human beings - the Holy Spirit - have historically been described in terms of fire.
All those medieval pictures of Hell show raging fires, apparently totally out of control. Yet those raging fires never actually burn people to a frazzle. Nobody in hell seems to be permitted the relief of unconsciousness. It seems they must go on and on, continuously suffering the agonies of death by fire, but without actually enjoying the blessed release of dying.
Yet in the Bible, fires which don't burn seem to be an indication not of the absence of God, but of his presence.
When Moses stood before the burning bush, the remarkable aspect of the bush was that although it was alight, nothing was being burned.
When the Apostles received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, there's no indication that the flames which appeared over their heads either scorched their scalps or even singed a single hair.
In today's gospel passage written in Luke's unmistakably elaborate and story-telling style, John the Baptist says: "I baptise you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming…he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
We're given a glimpse in the book of Acts of the wild, untamable potential of God himself, for which the symbol of fire does seem entirely appropriate. We're given a glimpse in Acts, of the God of the Old Testament, who was so dangerous that people had to be shielded from his presence, lest a slight accidental contamination by God might destroy them (cf. Ex. 19:21f).
Occasionally in the Hebnew scriptures we see the wild destruction of God break out, apparently uncontrollably, such as in the days of King David, when Uzzah put out a hand to steady the ark of the covenant and prevent it from falling off its cart, and was instantly struck dead for his pains (2 Sam. 6:6f).
And then of course there is the terrible destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, for the abuse of hospitality displayed by the people of those cities, by God raining fire from heaven upon the city. (Genesis 19)
In each case, however abhorrent to our modern mind, there is a connection between Gods wrath, Gods fiery temper and the sin and guilt of the people.
Rather like our own attitude to the terrible forces for destruction that a single flame can cause, our shock is caused by our failure to take fire seriously, our failure to heed the warnings on the packet.
We read of one time when the disciples of Jesus, having faced rejection from a town wished Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy them, but he refused, saying instead for them to move on to the next village.
There is a danger to us if we fail to take seriously the need to make a choice, a danger that we do not take seriously the judgement of God for our lives and as result get our fingers burnt as it were. Baptism is about making a choice.
And so the warnings remain, there are consequences for our actions but in all of this God has been much more active in helping and supporting his people, than in destroying them. And this is not just because we have the example and the words of Jesus to act as a counter measure to the ferocity and violence of the Old Testament. For in the Hebrew scriptures we have that wonderful passage from Isaiah which was read to us today:
This is what the LORD says - he who created you, ... he who formed you, … "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, … you are precious and honoured in my sight, and .. I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you… Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth - everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Jesus, the human expression of God, has brought this concern and love of God to its ultimate fruition. At his own baptism, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, but the image of the Holy Spirit wasn't fire, but a gentle dove. During Jesus' life, the Holy Spirit was mainly manifest not so much through fire, but more through a loving concern for all people. So in Jesus the fire was controlled and put to use. The 'light of the world' is more of a gentle candle flame, which has the potential to burst into fire and burn, but which is mostly restrained and warm and loving.
And perhaps that's what we should expect not only of God, but of ourselves.
We should not be afraid of allowing the spark of the God within to be fanned into a flame, provided we then allow God to take control and channel that flame where he will.
When we do receive the gift of his Spirit, when the spark of God is fanned into a living and burning flame in our lives it releases great energy, warmth and light for the work of the Church in brining about the longed for and promised Kingdom.