11 “I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Matthew 3:11 CEB
These words are uttered by John the Baptist. John the Baptist is an interesting character. Son of an elderly Levite and his wife Elizabeth, he is the cousin of Jesus. He has a ministry where he hangs out in the woods wearing weird clothes and eating weird food. When people come to see them, he preaches heartwarming sermons about how they are all snakes and will experience judgment if they don’t repent and get baptized. The gist of his message is this: the messiah, the promised one of God is coming to put this world back together, and you need to get on the right side of his judgment.
John baptized with water. He promises another will baptize with spirit and fire. In Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew, Spirit is the same word as wind. Each of us is made up of earth is called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts.
Thus we arrive at Captain Planet. Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Heart. If you are older or younger than me, you may not be aware of Captain Planet. Basically, bad guys who like to pollute the earth are stopped by 5 teenagers with the aforementioned powers. When they use their powers combined, a blue superhero with a green mullet shows up, stops the bad guys, and cleans up the pollution. The idea behind the show created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle was to teach kids to care about the environment. But I didn’t have superpowers. And I didn’t run across genetically mutated villains like Hoggish Greedly and Verminous Skumm, who rather than run a good business, were intent on polluting streams while laughing. Therefore, I felt ill-equipped. Nevertheless, I just learned, while using the wikipedias, that Whoopi Goldberg played Gaia, Lavar Burton played Kwami (Earth), and villains were regularly voiced by Ed Asner, Jeff Goldblum, Meg Ryan, and Sting. That’s almost as much star power as Toy Story.
Great. So back to Jesus and John. Just as the powers in Captain Planet all needed to be present to summon the green mullet, so each of the three elements in this passage (Wind, Fire, Water) should be present in our spiritual lives.
John provides the water of baptism (baptism is the entrance to the community of faith and life of Christ). Water symbolizes our cleansing, our walking into new life. It is the beginning of our relationship with Christ. We repent. God forgives. But John is right. This is not the end. We wait for something else. In Jesus, at conversion, we receive the Holy Spirit and fire.
Now there is a lot we could say about the Holy Spirit and fire. First off, in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit is both fire and wind. But I want to do my best (which might be enough) to explain what John meant. The wind is the Holy Spirit pushing us into his will. It reminds us of the word of God as breathed the world into creation. It should remind us of how the prophets and early church got pushed around by the guiding force of the Spirit. In short, the wind is direction that God has for our lives. In Christ we all have PURPOSE.
The fire on the other hand, should remind us of judgment. Jesus tells parables about how the wheat and chaff will be separated—one saved; the other burned. Passages referring to the messiah throughout the Bible talk about how people will be tested like precious metals, purified by fire as the dross is burned up. The fire, as indicated by other descriptions of the Holy Spirit (c.f. John 14), will convict and purify us. In Christ we will all be TRANSFORMED.
So this is what we should hope for in our lives. Forgiveness of our past sins, but also wind to live into our new plan in God’s kingdom, and fire to be refined so that we become like Christ. That is the work the Holy Spirit does in us. Each of us is on the continuum between forgiveness (justification) and being perfected in love (sanctification). Wherever you find yourself, know the God’s plan is to take you all the way, completely trusting him and full of love, leaving sin behind. Don’t stop.
Then at the end of times, we can expect Jesus to come back to renew the earth and completely renew all people who had their hearts transformed by wind, fire, and water. He might even have a green mullet, but I’m pretty sure Ted Turner did not intend this metaphor.