Baptism of Our Lord
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who comes in judgment. Amen.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus,
which all the gospels agree
is the start of Jesus’ public ministry.
John the Baptist has been preparing the way,
preaching in the desert
getting the people excited about the coming messiah
and Jesus comes out to the wilderness,
and Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us
that the heavens open,
the Holy Spirit descends like a dove
and the voice of God is heard affirming Jesus as beloved son.
That’s the general outline of the story
that we think of when we refer to the story of Jesus’ baptism
But each gospel writer
puts their own spin on the story
and in Luke we have the first part of our gospel reading
where the people ask John if he is the messiah he’s been preaching about
and John says: "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."
and only then does Jesus come and is baptized
and the heavens oven,
the holy spirit comes down in the bodily form of a dove
and the voice of God is heard naming Jesus beloved son.
And the thing is,
it’s so tempting to skip the first part,
John’s depiction of the judgement by the coming messiah,
we’d rather jump straight to the baptism,
we’re Lutherans after all,
we love baptisms,
they give us the warm fuzzies
and this is Jesus’ baptism,
so let’s get right to the good stuff,
and skip the talk of unquenchable fire,
we’re really not fire and brimstone people
we can’t really truly talk about baptism
and what it means for us
without talking about judgment.
Because the truth is that the world is messed up
and that we are messed up right along with it,
if it weren’t we wouldn’t need a savior.
and the truth is
that there is good in the world and good in us
but that good doesn’t seem able to override the bad,
we need help
And that’s where God comes in
God who created the universe,
who is merciful
wanting to look for the good over the bad,
we have a God who is committed to this creation
and making it work,
there was that one time we hear about in Genesis
where God got so frustrated with the evil of humanity
God sent a flood to wipe everything out
and start over with Noah and his family and a boat of animals
but after the flood waters went down
God realized it wasn’t such a good solution
and promised to never do that again.
God is merciful
and committed to this creation
and God is committed to justice,
and since God is committed to justice
there must be some judgment,
the separating out the good from the bad,
that is God’s job.
too often, however,
Christians have taken it upon themselves
to play the role of God
and judge others
- and not surprisingly the people they say God decides against
are the very people that they themselves don’t like
so we tread carefully with talk of judgment,
We also get uncomfortable with judgment talk,
even when it’s all God’s job
because we have this idea that it’s an all or nothing thing,
and even what I call popular Christianity
has made judgement an up or down thing,
judged good you go to heaven,
bad to hell, often associated with fire,
and while there is some biblical basis for this
- see Matthew 25 and the sorting of the sheep and the goats,
it’s always much more nuanced-
than the straight up or straight down version
which is wielded as a weapon of fear
to exact strict social behavior in the image of those wielding the weapon
and very rarely is there talk of the mercy of God.
The picture John is paints
with his talk of the coming messiah
is much different,
the way John tells it
the judgment of the messiah
is a process throughout life,
the one who is coming will sort the good from the bad
in each person
and uses fire for purification rather than punishment.
John uses the process of threshing wheat as his analogy,
after the wheat is harvested the grain needs to be separated
from the straw and the husk around it- the chaff.
In Jesus’ day
animals would walk over the harvested grain
and their weight would separate out the kernels from the straw
then the harvester would take the winnowing fork
kind of like a shovel
and throw scoops of the straw and grain in the air,
the wind would blow away the lighter straw and chaff
while the heavier grain would fall down to be collected for use.
The wheat and the chaff are two parts of the same plant.
One part is more useful than the other
and it takes some hard work to separate the two.
There is good and bad in all of us,
and it takes some hard work to separate out which is which,
and that is what Jesus came to do.
As we encounter his teachings,
his stories and parables
we face the refining judgement of Jesus,
a life of discipleship
is a life of separating the wheat from the chaff.
And that is hard and painful work,
as anyone who has done any amount of work on themselves will tell you,
it’s hard to let go of old resentments,
it’s hard to separate out prejudice from truth,
it is tempting to give up,
no matter how great the promised outcome may be
separating out the wheat from the chaff in ourselves
can seem impossible,
and frankly on our own it is
and that is where baptism comes in,
a sign of the mercy of God,
who says I claim you as mine
no matter what
because I love you and I will be with you throughout the painful parts of life-
we heard God telling the Israelites this
in the passage from Isaiah,
God never promises that life will be easy
what God does promise is to be there through it all.
In baptism we are claimed by God,
who promises never to leave us
whatever life brings
and we are joined to Jesus the messiah’s death and resurrection,
which means that in the end
God judges us as if we were Jesus,
in a word perfect.
In baptism we are made saints 100%
and yet we are still 100% sinners
And while the math doesn’t work out
we know in our hearts
the truth that God loves us
and that we are in need of the refining judgement of Jesus
in Jesus we are set free to live both of those truths,
we are freed to live a life
where love is the law that guides our actions,
a life where we are held secure in the love of God as we are refined,
we are free
all because of Jesus,
the son of God,
with whom God is well pleased. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.