The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
13 January 2019
St. Joseph-St. John, Lakewood
1 Epiphany / Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation,
and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John,
whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying,
"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."
As we should remember
from Advent lessons over the years
John the Baptizer does not come
to the Judean countryside to play.
He’s already called the crowd a brood of vipers
and questioned their commitment asking
“Who warned you of the wrath to come?”
Now that he’s been baptizing,
people are wondering if he will be the
military revolutionary to overthrow Rome,
the messiah they’ve been waiting for.
He tells them that he’s not,
that he’s not worthy to take the Messiah’s shoes off.
He tells them that he’s using water to baptize,
but the one who comes after him
will be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Then he starts talking about separating wheat from chaff,
deciding what to keep and what needs to go.
That’s pretty intense stuff!
Our passage skips ahead then to Jesus’ baptism.
For one reason or another,
Jesus’ baptism makes me think of
the “Do you bite your thumb at me”
bit in Romeo and Juliet.
I think that’s because so often Jesus’ baptism,
the story that sticks out about it,
is Matthew’s, where Jesus and John argue
about who should be baptizing whom.
Our version in Luke, today,
doesn't have that.
It’s Jesus going down to the water
and the Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove
as a voice comes from heaven
“You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.”
In John’s proclamation,
we have a duality: fire and water.
These are both scary, deadly forces,
particularly in the ancient world
where the sea was massive and unforgiving.
In thanksgivings over the water at baptisms,
the church recalls the way water is scary:
emptiness at creation, the flood, crossing the Red Sea.
We also recall the way God’s spirit
makes what is deadly life-giving:
moving over the emptiness, saving Noah,
getting the Israelites to safety while drowning Pharaoh’s army.
Water is a scary force,
and it’s a purifying force.
Fire is the same way:
a pillar of cloud led the Israelites through the dessert,
but a fire could destroy a town very quickly;
Isaiah has a vision of hot coals being placed on his lips
and the Spirit descends like a fire at Pentecost.
The baptism of John is a baptism to start purification.
Jesus’ undergoes this and gets his Father’s blessing,
before he goes to his own purification.
Up next in Luke, after Jesus’ genealogy,
he goes to the wilderness to fast for 40 days.
Upon his washing with water
Jesus goes on a long retreat
and what he needs to do to fulfill his work in the world.
He’s tempted but follows God.
John and Jesus both give us models
for our lives as baptized members of Christ’s body.
Our own baptisms are purifying and restorative:
washed from all sin, buried into Christ’s death,
raised to his resurrection, called to walk in the newness of life.
The Christian life constantly requires purification, too.
We make vows for following Jesus,
vows that we break — so we confess our brokenness
and renew our vows again and again.
John talking about a winnowing fork,
separating wheat from chaff, throwing chaff in the fire
It doesn’t sound very hopeful or much like Good News!
I think it most certainly is, though.
What’s not to like about a finer product,
a more refined world,
and just society where grift is gone?
John’s promise of Jesus separating
the good from the bad gives hope for those
suffering at the hands of the bad.
It invites us to remember that God is just
and in the end of days all things will be made well.
It invites people now, today, who are victims
of greed and corruption, people going unpaid because of xenophobia and racism
hope that it’ll all work out.
John’s message of purification
by water and fire
isn’t just a message for the hurting and oppressed in the world.
The call we have today
as we renew our own baptismal promises
and then have our annual meeting
is to ask what purification we need to be undergoing.
What does following Jesus look like? What stays, and what goes in the fire?