How does a Weary World Rejoice?
Christmas 2 of 2, Baptism, Epiphany, Jan 7, 2024
Scripture Luke 3:15-22
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply John said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 And the people were filled with expectation and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah. 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than me is coming; I am not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 And so with many other warnings he proclaimed the good news to the people.
19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Sermon Wheat from Chaff
The people of John’s time knew about God. God was the one who chose Abraham and Sarah long ago to be the parents of many people and many nations. God was the one who brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt and led them to a promised land. God was the one who had built them into a great nation, a great people. The people of John’s time knew about God.
God had given them the commandments. God had given them festivals and rituals. God had given them a temple. God had given them prophets and poets, songs and stories. God was great, above all other Gods, and was their God.
They remembered not long ago, their ancestors had split in two and lost both halves of their nation, and lost the temple, and lost the land. No one alive today was there when they lost it all. It was over 500 years ago. But that loss still affected the people today, in John’s day, and the people of John’s day had split feelings about why they lost everything and what God was doing about it.
Some blamed their ancestors for not staying true to God. That’s why God sent others, outsiders, to conquer them and send them into exile. It was God’s justice as punishment. This group believed, therefore, we must stay true to the traditions and rituals, so as not to lose anything else, and they looked for leaders who would change or challenge nothing, just keep what we have left.
Others believed God’s punishment of them was long enough. God would repel the invaders, and return the land, temple, and power to the rightful children of Abraham. This group believed, therefore, we must push back, and they looked for leaders who would challenge and change everything, to get back everything we ever lost.
Regardless of which camp you were in, they both looked for a new leader. Now this John fellow is near the big city, and he says things like... “Hey, you, you vipers, who told you to save yourselves. Don’t show up to the waters today saying you are ready to change. Instead go home and live lives that bear the fruits of change. Meaning, if you have more than one of something, give the other away to anyone who has none. Hey business people, lower your prices and your interest rates, and be satisfied with less return on your investment, and less bullies, stop threatening and scaring your own people… Be kind. Everyone, be satisfied with your wages.”
And the people wondered if John might be the messiah… Did you catch that? They wondered if someone who told the wealthy to share more of what they have, and the business people to reduce their profits, and the police and the military to be kind and careful… that’s what the people expected a messiah to sound. They knew what a messiah would sound like. They knew what God wanted. But they couldn’t figure out how to do it.
John says “no, don’t look to me as the messiah. I can remind you of these things, these things you already know, but don’t think I am the one to follow. That one is coming, and where I tell you, he will do more than speak… he will sort. The real messiah is a winnowing fork, and will use Holy word, Holy breath, Holy wind, and Holy fire, to change everything.”
We aren’t really farmers, so that analogy of winnowing fork, wind, and fire doesn’t work as well today, but lets try to see it through their eyes.
See, in farming, what you are trying to keep are the pods of wheat, grain at the top of the stalk. At the end of the season, the stalk becomes hollow, light, paper thin, while the pod of wheat or grain at the top is heavier, denser. So the farmers back then, they would cut everything and make a pile. And they would lay it in a circle, and then have a donkey walk boards with rocks on top of them over and over and over the pile, again and again, until it broke down everything into smaller parts. Then the farmers would wait for the wind to be just right… and they would take their winnowing fork, and they would stick the fork into the pile of wheat, grain, and pulverized stalks. And they would toss it all up into the wind. The wind would catch the light stuff and blow it over toward the fire they had going… And the good stuff, the heavier wheat and grain, it would fall faster, short of the fire, into a pile. The unusable stuff blown away and burned. The good stuff, piled up ready to be stored for the winter and replanted next season. That grain would provide sustenance through the hard times, and would be replanted next season to grow more grain. The light stuff, the chaff, it blew into the fire. And when the fire was out, the ashes would be fertilizer.
John describes the REAL messiah as the one working the fork, using the Wind to separate and divide, feeding the fire anything that doesn’t grow fruit, and gathering together anything that can grow something good for others. John baptizes us with water, like a symbol of a seed being planted and watered, with hope it will sprout and become more than itself. The Messiah is there at the other end holding the fork, tossing us up, directing the holy Wind to blow our chaff into the holy fire, and catching and gathering whatever is good.
More often than not, I hear preachers grab this image and use it as a threat. “So, which are you… are you wheat… or are you chaff? Will you be taken to God’s storehouse, or will you get burned in the fire?” That is not what John is saying. John would speak to those kind of preachers, saying… “you vipers. How dare you bully the people and threaten them with what is meant to be good news.”
The good news of this God is that God will not give up on God’s promises. This God stays faithful to all God’s people even when God’s people do not stay faithful in return. This God sees the brokenness in all of us and calls us sin no more, and then gives God’s self, Jesus of Nazareth, to the winnowing fork, the cross. This God is buried and spouts to new life, and this God flies away to the fires of Gahenna, so that all God’s love and all God’s promises are fulfilled throughout all time and places for all God’s people and all God’s creation.
Christ’s sacrifice tosses us up into the air. God in Holy Spirit blows across us and baptizes us again and again and again, sometimes with water, other times with fire, to separate the good ways we love God and love neighbor and love self, the wheat, from those other ways we ignore God, betray neighbor, or abuse self, the chaff. God the creator, christ, and consoler is using wind, water, and fire to break all things down, and sort it all into what can grow love justice and peace, and will be replanted, from what cannot, and needs to be burned away. God is doing that with us. God is doing that with families. God is doing that with churches and communities. God is doing that with organizations and nations.
This God in Jesus the messiah is breaking all things down into our smallest words, decisions, and actions, and tossing us into the wind, to be burned away if not for God’s good, or to be gathered, stored, planted, and watered if for God’s good.
Being a Christian is not about being wheat. It is about constantly being broken down and tossed up by the cross of Christ so that holy wind will blow across us, and and holy fire will burn away any thoughts, habits, words, actions, rituals, ways we spend our time or money, burn those away, that are not bearing good fruit for God. And there in the air, whatever good we have is gathered and stored to help us together survive through any hard times ahead, then replanted, watered, and harvested to benefit all those beyond or after us.
A Christian should everything to get flipped upside down over and over again. A Christian should expect to be broken down over and over again. A Christian should expect to be tossed from the solid ground into the air by the cross of Christ, be purged of the chaff in our lives by holy fire, and to have the good of our lives gathered for the benefit of others.
There, in the air, in the wind and fire and water of God, that is where God changes us and farms our lives to be good fruit in the garden of God. Let’s pray…
Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more. Amen.