Unquenchable Fire

 

By Paul Koch

Towards the end of John Milton’s famous Paradise Lost the Archangel Michael leads Adam through a terrifying vision of the ramifications of their disobedience, pictured before him is the reality of a world that has lost Paradise. He watched in horror as his children kill each other, as sin is multiplied and chaos reigns. He sees the great flood and the great rebellion of mankind as they turn from the living God to embrace their own ideas and desires. Milton, pulling from the themes of Holy Scripture, manages to bring into great clarity how corrupt our world truly is as Adam weeps over what is to come.

God’s Law may have begun simply there in Paradise, “Do not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” but it did not stay that way. As the passions of man moved always away from their Creator, so the Law moved to highlight, condemn, and expose the sinfulness of man. As St. Paul reminds us, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” In the end, nothing stands outside the condemnation of that precise and piercing Law. Along with Adam’s vision in Paradise Lost of mankind’s rebellion is the crushing blow of the Law. The condemnation doesn’t stop with Adam and Eve or their children, but it spreads through their children’s children and through the whole of Creation. In the end the loss of Paradise binds the whole world in the corruption of sin.

The Law of God stands as the immovable plumb line that reveals every flaw, every aberration throughout Creation as mankind continued to rebel against God. But the Law doesn’t just illuminate what has gone astray, it punishes those who transgress. We may see that Law as a useful guide, for certainly it is that. We rightly use that it to provide instruction and guidance for the living of our lives. We impress it upon our children, we consult it when we are facing tough decisions. But for all its guidance, all its enduring direction, this Law will ultimately lead a world without Paradise to the wrath of God. The fallen world stands judged and worthy of condemnation, before the wrath of the Almighty the world must burn.

When Luke tells us the story of our Lord’s baptism it is given in the context of a world that deserves to burn, a world without Paradise.

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John the Baptist is doing the work for which he was sent. He is calling for repentance and washing with water as a symbol of their turning from their old ways. He is chastising those who come to him with shallow commitment calling them a brood of vipers. John isn’t anyone’s fool. He calls for real dedication. He expects the penitent to bear fruit in keeping with their repentance and even offers guidance for the living of a life of faith. And as people see what he is doing, as they behold his fearless proclamation, they begin to think that this is the one they’ve been waiting for. Perhaps he is the one who will lead us out of this mess. Perhaps he is the one who will restore Paradise in our midst. It’s easy to think this about John; after all, he appears to be the guy that has figured out how to wield the Law for our benefit instead of our destruction. He looks like he has a system, a plan for getting out of this mess. And so the hopeful crowds begin to wonder if he just might be the Christ.

But Christ comes with a far more radical mission. When John hears what the people are saying about him, he answers and says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John says; look I’m baptizing with water alone but the Christ, the long awaited Messiah is going to baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If the world condemned by sin must burn it seems as if it is Jesus himself who will set it on fire. He is the mightier one, the powerful one, the one who is going to do far more than simply show us how to manage the Law to live a better life. John goes on and says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” There it is: the unquenchable fire.

In the movie The Dark Knight there is this great scene where Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred is trying to get him to understand that the Joker is not like any other force he’s faced. And he says to him, “…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” This, in a sense, is our Lord. Jesus doesn’t come to give a better way to live under the Law. He isn’t negotiating with mankind. He comes to watch the world burn with unquenchable fire. In fact, later on in Luke’s gospel we hear our Lord saying, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (12:49-50)

Ah, see now not only is he talking about burning the earth but he is speaking about a baptism as well.

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What is clear is that Jesus did not come to fix things. He didn’t come to correct mistakes. He came so that sin might be consumed in fire. The coming of the Christ is the coming of a violent upheaval of everything else we know. And so we follow the word of the consuming fire back to our Lord’s own baptism. There he steps into the waters of the Jordan; there he stands to be baptized by John. Now remember what John was doing. His baptism was a baptism of repentance. These waters were for sinners. These waters carried with them all the brokenness, all the sorrow, all the shame, all the guilt of the world; and Jesus walks right into them.

He takes those sins as his own. He repents for your sins and mine. He washes in them, is baptized into them and so invites the fire that must come for them. The wrath of God, the unquenchable fire will burn first in our Lord himself. When he says later on that he has a baptism to be baptized with, he is speaking not of the water at the Jordan River but one of the wrath of God hammered into his flesh on Calvary’s cross. The punishment that the Law demands for a world that has lost Paradise is focused upon Jesus of Nazareth. For he who would see the world burn would have it burn within himself.

When he walks into those waters, when he prays for the fire that must come we are told that the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descends upon our Lord. Here in this one is the Holy Spirit and the fire, here is the one who will stand in our place to endure the wrath of God. And then we hear the voice from heaven, the Word from the Father himself whose burning wrath will fall upon Jesus. And what do we hear him say? “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” This is the reason he came, this is the faithful Son of God, the one who will take as his sins yours and mine and will burn for them as he is baptized in blood on a cross.

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As the archangel Michael shows Adam all that is to come in Milton’s Paradise Lost, all the sin and death, he ultimately shows him the child born of a virgin. He shows the one who stands in the waters of sin for us, he shows him the long awaited Christ. And so as Adam and Eve leave behind the garden of Eden. They go with the promise of a Paradise to come; a Paradise established by the one who endures the unquenchable fire for our salvation.

This then is what our baptism delivers to us. Unlike John’s baptism for repentance, our baptism unites us to the Holy Spirit and fire that is the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Through the gift of baptism, we die with our Lord, we are given his victory over the wrath of the Law. In Christ you are separated out from the chaff, gathered safely into the storehouse of God. You are declared righteous by the mightier one, and so our Father in heaven can look now upon each and every one of you and declare, “You are my beloved children, you are loved, you are forgiven; with you I am well pleased”

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