Luke 3 15 As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ,
16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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 So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he shut 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 the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”
Show Me Your ID. This is the Sunday when the traditional readings focus on the baptism of Christ. We have two sacraments in the UCC: baptism and… communion. For a few minutes, I’ll show you where the tradition of baptism came from.
In baptism, everybody finds out who you are; people are identified. That’s one of the purposes of baptism. It is a debut, a coming-out, a public introduction – originally intended for people who want to express faith openly – and in our churches for parents and their children. Around the 5th century, baptism started to include children so that families could express faith in Christ together. And whom are they identifying themselves with? Jesus… and you, the church. When you say yes to Jesus Christ and become part of Christ’s body, you are identified. And baptism is a public moment for that.
In baptism, you have an ID you didn’t have before. Do you have ID? In our culture, in order to live as a whole, functional person, you’ve got to know who you are. But as a Christian, your identification is bigger than that.
Ever have to come up with appropriate ID for a passport or drivers’ license? Of course. Have you ever asked a five-year-old for some ID? After stumbling around for a while, what do they do? They point to their parents. There’s some good symbolism there. With your baptism ID, you point to your Parent.
In the story from Luke, this is the time and place where Jesus gets his public ID. “…the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (3:22) He is publicly owned by God at that moment. He leads the way for us in baptism, and when this voice speaks, our faith allows us to hear God saying the same thing to each of us. “You are my child; with you I am well-pleased.”
John the Baptist. The person speaking in the first part of the reading is John the Baptist. John is a wild, hermit sort of a character who comes out of the desert to tell the people ofIsrael to prepare themselves for the Messiah. He was alone in the desert, but he wasn’t alone. For hundreds of years around the time of Jesus, people had been living this isolated, deprived lifestyle by choice, sometimes in village groups, sometimes alone in caves. They still do. In the Judean desert, there are Greek Orthodox monasteries that follow a simple lifestyle focused on prayer.
They do this as a spiritual discipline, removing all of the daily distractions that might keep them from prayer, from worshiping God. They generally eat no food other than what was necessary to stay alive (John ate locusts and honey). No clothes other than what little they needed to protect themselves from the weather (John wore animal skins). Anybody who did this was looked upon as a holy person. When they came out of the desert, they were treated with a kind of awe and respect. This is why John was able to gather a crowd. And this is what happens when the crowd gathers:
John baptizes with water, which is symbolic for cleaning sin away, and you don’t come to be baptized unless you realize you are dirty. In the ancient Jewish synagogues, next to the door, there was always a small pool for washing yourself in the presence of God. This is a Jewish thing John is doing, and the people understand it. In the Jewish religious culture, cleanliness really was next to godliness, and there were ceremonies to make you clean. The only difference is that John not in a building; he’s outside, out in theJordan River.
He’s out in the world. He’s still in the presence of God, but he’s gone public. He’s reaching out to everyone, Jew and non-Jew. There might be Romans in the crowd. He’s reaching out to everyone who will listen, so you have to picture many different kinds of people in the crowd on the river bank. You could be in that crowd.
No privacy here. It would be like us having our baptisms out on the front steps by the street so that everyone driving by could see. When you are baptized, you are saying to your friends and family, to everyone, “I am not the same; I’m heading in a new direction. I belong to God.” When a child is baptized, the parents are saying “we belong to God.”
Wheat and Chaff. John is a strange guy and impressive preacher, but he is not the Messiah. He says that the Messiah has his own way of baptizing with the Holy Spirit (v.v. 16-17), which is like threshing wheat, which is done with big machines in the field today. The husks of the wheat are separated from the parts that are edible. In those days it was done in flat area of packed earth called a threshing floor. The ground that the Jewish Temple stood on was originally a threshing floor (see 1 Chronicles21:28 – 22:1).
Can you picture Jesus the country boy? He grew up and lived in a rural town in an area not too much different from this. It’s a safe guess that he knew all about raising wheat and even though he was a carpenter, in this country town,Nazareth, I’ll bet he helped out in the wheat fields from time to time. He knows what a winnowing fork is (like a wooden pitchfork). As a carpenter, maybe he made winnowing forks.
John is baptizing with river water, making the outside of you clean. Jesus is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit. That’s his winnowing fork. He’s working with your wheat and separating out the chaff. He’s got to get rid of the chaff, the useless stuff.
Is chaff so bad? It keeps you from becoming what you should be. It’s the stuff in your life that isn’t good for anything, but it takes up space. To grow, you have to get rid of it. Maybe it’s a habit, maybe an attitude. Maybe an addiction. Maybe a relationship. Maybe you like your chaff, but you know it’s not helping. Maybe your personal landscape looks so winter-bleak, you don’t see a future, but that’s not how God sees it.
Driving around the countryside is a little different right now, compared to summer, isn’t it? Empty fields, bare trees, frozen rivers. It looks dead, but God doesn’t see it that way. That stuff is a recipe for life. God sees great things coming.
I have a little math problem for you. Take the number of your age and divide it in half. Are you the same person you were half your life ago? Do you remember what you looked like? The sort of things you were interested in? Do you have things in your closet, or attic, or basement from those days that might be worthless, but you can’t bring yourself to throw them away?
In the back of the basement, in a neat stack are about a dozen boxes mostly filled with children’s’ clothes and toys from about 20-25 years ago. There might be a few things in there that have sentimental value, but when the grandbaby comes, they’ll get new clothes and toys. So that stuff in the boxes? Some of is okay for Goodwill, but much will go to a landfill, I’m afraid.
That’s a metaphor for so much stuff in our lives. It’s got to go! And this is a little scary. You have to change. You have to grow. Some of it might be comforting to think about, but you can’t live back there. There are things you have to keep, but many things you have to be willing to let go of. You treasure the past, but you don’t live in it. Likewise, maybe there are some things you picked up along the way that you really should get rid of. Maybe you’re the same, basic sort of person; there might just be a little more of you! Even though the core is still there, I’d be willing to bet that in many ways, you aren’t the same person today. And I’d bet that for the most part, you’re thankful for that.
I know that for myself, many of the changes that really took root and grew are connected with the time in my life when I consciously made a commitment to belong to Christ. There’s a better way to describe that: there was a time, a moment, when I understood the commitment God has made to me.
This is what happens if people follow God: crops are harvested and the parts God doesn’t need are thrown away. Praise God. Aren’t you thankful for some of the things God has helped you get rid of? And we grow, and as we grow personally, the body of Christ grows together.
I was listening to a radio interview not long ago with an author named Michael Norton whose book is called 365 Ways to Change the World – How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time. He said one thing that got my attention.
“The biggest problem in the world is not AIDS, it’s not global warming, it’s not world poverty, and it’s not war. It’s apathy. It’s the fact that we feel like we can’t do anything about any of these problems. We actually can. And I would say that it’s only by doing things that the problems get solved. It’s not governments, it’s not big organizations. It’s individuals caring enough to go and do something that will create change.”
For us, I believe it’s personal faith that gets that ball rolling – our own individual connections to the God who is saving us. Faith in the risen Christ. Then families of people believing. Then as a church, each of us contributing that one thing we can do well. Then collections of churches.
God is committed to us. We don’t have to worry about God, God is faithful to us. We are people who believe God gives life and power to live. What we need to work on is our own commitment to God, and to exercise our own faith, and carry our ID proudly together.
Prayer. O God, in this new year, we see a lot of potential for good things and we head into it with faith, even though there may be opportunities for problems. But we thank you for the gift of a new year, and all the opportunities that come with it –opportunities to love and be loved, opportunities to make new discoveries, opportunities to find our true and best selves, and opportunities to give ourselves away in your service. We thank you most of all for being with us. We hear your voice saying, “These are my people, with whom I am well pleased.” May we live up to your blessing. Help us be faithful to you each day during this new year. We know that you walk with us every step of the way through your son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.