A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Luke 3:2-3, 7-17, 21-22
Ok, so this is supposed to be Baptism of Jesus Sunday, but I’m not really going to talk about that at all. Well, his baptism serves as a backdrop, but really this scripture passage, and this sermon, are all about John the Baptizer. In Luke’s telling of the tale Jesus is almost an afterthought, and his baptism is practically a throwaway line. The message is all about John’s message!
Key to understanding that message is understanding what a threshing floor and a winnowing fork are. Most of us don’t know that word winnow. But it rhymes with minnow, so in an attempt to communicate what John is saying…I offer you this song! A song about the S.S. Winnow!
[to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island”]
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a faith filled trip
That started in the River Jord(an), our Lord his forehead dripped
Now John was a holy, wild man, who ranted, raved, and raged
The brood of vipers wondered if Messiah was uncaged!
Messiah was uncaged!
If you’ve two coats give one away, if you’ve resources, share
If cheating is your stock in trade, then henceforth “Don’t you dare!”
Now separate the wheat from chaff, by winnowing blow away|
The transformed heart must fruit produce, you can’t go forth unchanged
You can’t go forth unchanged!
With water I will baptize you, but this is just the start
One’s coming who will baptize true, with fire in your heart.
The crowd baptized, then Jesus too
From opened skies, dove came down
The voice of God, said
“You’re my son, beloved one,
Filled with Spirit and fire!” [/end]
Now that I’ve softened you up is this the right time to call you a brood of vipers?
It’s not exactly the most pastoral way to talk about your congregation!
I suppose we might call John a “fire and brimstone” preacher – but actually, that language refers to preachers who bluster on about scaring listeners with threats of hell and damnation if they don’t profess the right theology. That’s not what John is doing here at all.
Baptism for John isn’t a “get out of hell free card”, it’s an “it’s time to turn around and really embrace this new life” message.
Baptism is the symbol of that new life. He’s actually more of a tough love preacher.
The interesting thing about John’s approach is that he lays on the tough love pretty thick! He doesn’t pull any punches. And apparently he draws big crowds for it. Remember, this is out in the wilderness. It wasn’t just at the neighbourhood church. Those people gathered there had to make a journey to get there. They didn’t just hear a commotion or see a crowd down the street and wander over to check it out. John was becoming known for this. The word was spreading, and it was all word of mouth! And clearly, it was no secret because there were even some soldiers in attendance. Now, whether they were there on duty or off duty, we don’t know. But they too were there – getting some tough love.
And the very first thing John loves them with is calling them a bunch of snakes!
And more than that, he accuses them of being snakes that only really want a little water for making their snake-skins feel a little better.
Instead, John wants them to shed that skin – take on a new skin – and live differently.
In verse 8 he says it straight out, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”
If you’re going to repent – the Greek word is metanoia – which means to “rethink everything, to question your assumptions, to have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values” [Brian McLaren].
It literally means to change your worldview, to “go beyond the mind you have.”
To repent is to change your path, to change your way of living from a self-centred, self-indulgent, self-important way to living God’s way of communion, and compassion, and connection – God’s way of selflessness and generosity and kindness and love.
Those are fruits worthy of repentance! A little refreshing water on your dry skin is not even close to being the point.
John berates the crowd for thinking that because they are children of Abraham they’ve already got it made – they’ve already got all the blessings and they’re home free.
That’s like saying, “Well, I go to church, even pretty regularly, so I’m all good. I just go on Sunday morning and it makes me feel better so I’m happy.”
John would have a field day with much of what passes for church, I think.
Ask yourself, “Am I here just to feel good, or am I here to change my life?”
To their credit, the crowd is convicted. “What then should we do?” they ask.
John answers with what has become a famous line, verse 11, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
You see, the problem with that line is that it has no zing for us.
I bet everyone here has a closet at home with extra coats that they never wear.
Even if you went home right after worship today and immediately gave away those coats you’d be missing the point.
I mean, that would actually be a good thing to do because those coats could really help someone in need, but that’s not really the point he’s making.
If we take him literally we’ll miss it. Coats had a deeper meaning for them than they do for us.
In their time giving away your second or outer “cloak” meant risking much.
It meant sacrificing mightily.
It certainly meant discomfort, and possibly danger because your cloak helped you stay warm and protected. Giving your cloak meant becoming really vulnerable.
It wasn’t about thinning out your excess stuff that you’d never even notice – it was about really risking, and sacrificing, and giving.
It’s too simple for us to give away coats or food. So how about this?
Instead of just saying, do you have two coats? Are you sharing?
How about we say, do you have any money? Are you sharing?
Or how about this – do you have a house? Are you sharing? And I don’t mean with your own family!
All of a sudden we start to squirm. Yes, we have money, and yes we have houses – but they’re ours!
“You mean I’m supposed to share that stuff too? But that would be…….uncomfortable!”
Now we’re starting to understand the tough love.
John says to change your life.
Even the tax collectors and soldiers there want to change – and do you remember what he taught them?
Want to change your life? Don’t cheat. Don’t extort.
Don’t use the power you have for selfish and unethical purposes. Don’t be a jerk!
Good advice for anyone!
And to demonstrate how hard this life-change stuff is to get, and to drive home how big a deal this is, John uses an image that for them would have hit them right between the eyes, and for us we kind of say the words and they roll right off – because we don’t have a clue what he’s actually talking about.
John says, verses 16-17, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”
How many of you actually know what a winnowing fork is, and how a threshing floor works?
Well, everyone in John’s crowd knew what they were, and they fully understood that threshing and winnowing are not exactly dainty operations.
Here’s a short video that shows us what threshing and winnowing look like.
John says Jesus has a winnowing fork. That’s like a pitchfork!
And he’s going to jam it into our lives (symbolically) and throw us up in the air and shake us until the bad stuff in our lives is separated out and flies away.
The wind is the agent of change!
And I hope you all remember that wind and Spirit have the same meaning in the bible! Jesus works the pitchfork, and the Spirit works the wind.
Threshing and winnowing are not gentle and sweet.
Changing your life, turning from what was and claiming a new Way, living a life worthy of repentance and bearing the spiritual fruit of love, are not easy things.
But we tend to blow right through the threshing and winnowing part of this passage because we want to get to the nice baptism part.
And again, because of our culture I think we’re in great danger of misinterpreting and misunderstanding the point of baptism.
I think our problem with understanding this passage might be that in our tradition it’s usually babies that get baptized by sprinkling some water on their foreheads while we all go “awwwwwww”. That’s not what John the Baptizer is doing.
Baptism by immersion – which is how John did it in the Jordan River, and still plenty of our Baptist and other friends do it – plunges a person entirely under the water.
The action is meant to symbolize dying when you go under – which is exactly what would happen if you stayed under – and then it symbolizes rebirth, renewal, new life when you re-emerge and take that glorious, fresh breath of air.
But John goes even further than that. He says that the one who is coming next – meaning Jesus – won’t use water.
Not drops, not immersion.
Nope, that’s not strong enough stuff for Jesus, apparently.
John says Jesus will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit!
Well, I’ve never heard of a church that ever actually tried to do that!
Can you imagine if instead of water we used fire!?!?! Yikes!
Obviously, John is speaking metaphorically. Painting a picture for us. So what does that picture mean?
It means take whatever image works for you and apply it to your spiritual journey.
If drowning in the waters of baptism and re-emerging renewed for a fresh clean start works, then go with it.
If the idea of fire burning away the crud that has built up on your life, like the process of refining gold and burning away the stuff until the precious thing is revealed works for you, then go with that.
If the idea of threshing and winnowing, with being shaken up and then having the Spirit blow through you chasing away the bad stuff you’ve accumulated works, then have at it.
Notice what’s in common here.
The transformation actually requires a real transformation.
After the water, after the fire, after the winnowing, we are not the same!
And we can’t live the same.
Last week we talked about how after having a spiritual experience we travel on by another road.
Baptism of water and fire, and threshing and winnowing are spiritual epiphanies – transformational moments that lead to transformed living.
The only problem I have with all this is that it can make it seem like once you have the experience you’re all done.
Once the Wise Men encountered Jesus they went home.
You only get baptized once.
After the winnowing the grain gets baked into bread.
It can all feel like it’s “one and done.”
So that’s why when you came into the sanctuary today you had to pass by the baptism font. There is a sign on it that says, “Remember your baptism.”
If you didn’t do this already, then before you leave today I’d invite you dip your fingers into the water and touch your forehead and pause for a short and powerful prayer.
When the water touches your forehead it’s like you’re being reborn again. And again, and again, and again.
“One and done” does not describe my spiritual journey. At all!
Maybe you’ve seen that meme on social media?
On one side it says how other peoples’ spiritual journeys seem to be straight lines into maturity and depth. The line on the other side is anything but straight.
Mine is all crazy squiggles!
So maybe the point of coming to church isn’t to check off a box, or get a little moisture for our dry snakeskins – maybe it’s to be constantly reminded of our baptisms, our spiritual transformation – and maybe it’s to remind ourselves that we’re all works in progress, all constantly needing a little water, or fire, or winnowing to keep us on the path.
And maybe we might consider renaming this place.
We could call it the S.S. Winnow!
[Gilligan’s Island theme again]
So join us here each week my friend!