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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
January 13, 2019 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Baptism of Our Lord, Year C

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: The Baptism of Our Lord C – January 13, 2019

Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


God’s Pitchfork


            There is so much rich imagery in the readings today, one hardly knows where to begin. In Isaiah, God promises to protect his people through turbulent waters and blazing fire, fulfilling the ancient office of the “guardian redeemer” – go’el in Hebrew –  who put the family’s interests above everything else. Along with the family imagery in Isaiah is the challenge to the family by the addition of new believers, as in Acts. And of course, we have the imagery of John the Baptist – fire and water, grain and chaff. And along with these images is a somewhat terrifying figure – the Messiah as an ancient farmer, separating wheat from the chaff, storing the good wheat in the barn and burning the chaff with, as John puts it “a fire that can’t be put out”.


            A commentary I read had little use for this image of a “farmer-god”. They see it as perpetuating a bad habit of dividing the world into “good” people and “bad” people. Add in a bit of latent anti-Semitism, and you easily have an image that divides Gentiles and Jews. But there is value in the image of the farmer-Messiah – an image that Jesus himself used. And since many of you come from farming families, it’s worth exploring.


            For thousands of years, long before the days of combine harvesters, farmers would harvest their crops with a sharp tool – a scythe, a sickle, or as still is done in some parts of the world today, a machete. They would gather the stalks of grain and take them to the threshing floor. There, they would beat the stalks on the floor by hand to separate the grain from the chaff. After threshing, they would take a fork or a shovel to toss the grain in the air so that the last bits of chaff would blow away in the wind. Imagine that kind of work. I get exhausted just thinking about it!


            So we have that image of the Messiah throwing the good grain into the air to remove the last bits of chaff. This has been heard as separating the “good” people from the “bad” people. But what if this has nothing to do with good or bad people? What if it has everything to do with what Jesus does with us to prepare us for his realm?


            We know that life is turbulent. Messy. Disorderly. Who here hasn’t felt like they’ve been tossed in the air, over and over again, like poor Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, when four ruffians take the poor squire and throw him in the air with a bedsheet? We all have. We’ve all experienced the chaos of life to greater or lesser degrees.


            Perhaps, though, some of this tossing about is intentional. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying that human suffering or the disorder of our world is always beneficial. It clearly isn’t. Pain is a very real thing. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can find a gift for us in the suffering we endure; in the “tossing” we all undergo.


            Here’s why. When the world seems to be going mad before our eyes; when the way we view the world doesn’t seem to hold water anymore; when we suffer the loss of friends and loved ones, we have to admit that we don’t have it all together. We’re not self-sufficient creatures. We’re not gods unto ourselves. No, we need to depend on the one who is the one true God and our one true Savior. But often, we don’t want to do that. We echo Satan’s view in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” We’d rather have our own little orderly realm, thank you very much. To shut out the chaos, we prefer to close ranks than open doors. We’d rather stay in our own little tribe.


            But Jesus doesn’t let us do that. No, Jesus takes God’s pitchfork (or God’s shovel), and tosses us into the air, so to speak – repeatedly – to separate out the useless parts of ourselves from the good grain we all contain. Jesus does this to refine us, to purify us, to make us more fully what he already sees us as – good grain.


            This whole life, then, is one, long, continuation of baptism. For many of us, our refining began (and happened) right here, in this congregation, when we were utterly helpless infants. We couldn’t speak for ourselves (except by screaming!), we couldn’t feed ourselves, we couldn’t move ourselves. We did four main things – eat, sleep, cry, and poop. And yet, it is here, at a font like this one, that God began to refine the good grain within us. It is here that God already saw us as good grain – as people with infinite worth to God. It is here that God said yes to us. God said yes to humanity – an irrevocable yes – by coming to earth in human form, by going into the same water that other humans were in. Think of how Luke tells the story. Luke describes Jesus being baptized while everyone else is being baptized, too. Imagine the smell! Imagine the wretched mass of humanity in that water! And imagine Jesus, stepping into that water, too, totally identifying with humanity – not just by his birth, but in a baptism of repentance! Jesus didn’t need to repent of anything, but underwent such a baptism to be more fully united with us and our topsy-turvy world.


            Jesus is fully united with humanity in its suffering in both his baptism and on the cross. This is why he refines us, “tosses” us. He wants us to experience his Father the way he does. He wants us to see others as he does. These two things are connected – we can’t experience the Father the way Jesus does without seeing humanity the way Jesus does. And with Jesus, there is only one barrier: stubborn, self-willed pride that refuses to live God’s way. There are no other barriers to Jesus. Not ethnicity. Not race. Not gender. Not sexuality. Nothing else.


            Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism that baptism is a daily drowning and dying to sin so that the new creation within us can rise up to love and serve God. What would that look like if we took that seriously in our everyday life? What would it look like if instead of cursing the tossing and threshing we undergo, we accepted it as part of God’s process of refining us for the kingdom? Perhaps we would be happier, and we would take more delight in the world and people that God himself loves, for which he sent his Son to save.


            Let us pray.


            Lord of all, when the chaos of life surrounds us and we are tempted to retreat in fear, strengthen our faith that whatever happens, we are under the life-giving sign of the cross through our baptism. Help us to see the tossing of life as a way you can refine us as the good grain you already made us to be. Amen.


© 2019, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.