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3rd Sunday of Advent C ~ "Playing with Fire" ~ Susan McGurgan

I am baptizing you with water,

but one mightier than I is coming.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.


A blaze can burn and consume and destroy.

An ember can comfort and warm.

Fire strengthens,






Harnessing the power of fire transformed history,

allowing humanity to stay dry,

to cook food,

to remain secure from predators,

to venture forth into harsh climates.

Gathered around the intimacy of a fire,

we formed community,

and told and re-told stories,

whispering dreams and fears into the darkness.

Within the safe circle of a fire,

we gazed in wonder at the stars,

and remembered a God

who remembers us.

Along the way,

we learned that fire can be domesticated,



but never completely controlled.

It remains chaotic,



and more than a little dangerous.

Fire transforms raw clay into a durable ceramic.

Its alchemy causes steel to become strong,

yet remain malleable enough

to be fashioned and shaped.

Fire removes low-growing underbrush,

cleans the forest floor of debris,

releases nutrients into the soil,

and left unchecked,

brings desolation and ruin.

The figure of John the Baptist

emerges from the crucible of the wilderness--

a place of light and heat—

a place on the margins—

a fierce and liminal place

where something new can be born.

He walks into our Advent season

with a heart on fire

and a voice lifted in prophesy and proclamation.

He baptizes with water,

and points to one who will baptize in fire.

When poets and philosophers speak of a baptism by fire,

they refer to learning something the hard way

or growing through challenge or difficulty.

Baptism by fire is a personal ordeal,

a trial;

a test;

survival under pressure--

perhaps even martyrdom.

The people of God have a long memory of fire.

God appears to Moses in a bush that burns,

but is not consumed.

Moses and the people of Israel discovered that

God's fire is enough to illuminate the path from bondage into freedom.

The prophet Isaiah prays in the Temple,

paralyzed by fear.

A seraphim, grasping a burning coal from the fire of the altar

touches the prophet’s mouth.

God's fire molds Isaiah like sharpened steel,

giving him courage to declare,

“Here I am. Send me.”

On the day of Pentecost,

tongues of fire

dance on the heads of frightened men and women,

forging them into fearless missionaries

who share the Good News

through person-to-person spontaneous combustion.

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The pillar of fire,

lighting the way to liberation,

The burning coal,

igniting voice and strengthening resolve,

The day of Pentecost,

unleashing the power of the Spirit –

These are not simply moments in history.

They are not quaint stories from the past

or blessings for people long ago and far away.

They are ongoing encounters with the fire of God

and they are meant for you and me.

When we plunged into the waters of Baptism,

we were also plunged into the royal priesthood

and sent forth as missionary disciples.

In our anointing,

God pours the fire of the spirit within us--

Full measure,

Filled up,

Overflowing like the molten core of a volcano.

God invests in us.

Enlightens us.

Warms us.

Illuminates us.

Tempers us.

Calls us forth.

Like the people gathered around John,

We often ask, “Teacher what should we do?”

Today we face a variety of challenges.

Challenges you know well--

a failure of our collective memory,

a loss of sacramental vision,

ongoing attrition of active members,

a decline in young adult engagement,

growing polarization and divisive discourse,

eroding trust in institutions, especially religious institutions.

The narrative of institutional and societal change can be



filled with sorrow and fear.

It sometimes feels as if

we are wandering alone in the wilderness.

And yet,

as we see with John the Baptist,

it is often in the wilderness--

in those liminal spaces along the margins,

in the rough, untamed, fiery places

that something new can be proclaimed.

The waters of baptism and the fire of the spirit send us out,

outside the doors of the Church where the water is deep,

and the path may be rough and dark.

But our baptism means that we walk in the world wet,*

taking the hope of the Font

and the warmth of the Fire with us.

Remaining content and secure

within the walls of our homes and parishes

may seem safe,

but the figure of John stands as a stark reminder

that there is danger in safety for missionary disciples.

Teacher, what is it we should do?

The poet Paulo Coehlo said,

"The boat is safer anchored at the port;

but that’s not the purpose of boats.” **

Safe anchor is not our purpose either.

As disciples,

we are invited to play with fire,

to burn with zeal,

to trust that the Holy Spirit blows through our lives,

transforming us

as surely as fire tempers steel and flame strengthens clay.

We are invited to step into the wilderness with John

proclaiming with him,

Prepare the way!

The mighty one has come!

* Rev. Canon Dr. Maxwell E. Johnson, University of Notre Dame (“Ecumenical Renewal of Baptismal Spirituality,” for “What We Have Seen and Heard": Fostering Baptismal Witness in the World: The Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgy, University of Notre Dame, June 23, 2015.)

** Paulo Coehlo, The Pilgrimage

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