By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15–17 (NRSV)
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 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. 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.”
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 like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The season of Epiphany is one of revelation. Last week we saw how God revealed the gospel in the stars to the magi, what that star was remains a mystery even after 2000 years although some have some convincing research. That revelation to the magi, showed us that God revealed the gospel to the gentiles, that God’s ultimate includes all people. It does not matter who you are, where you were born, what your social standing, or personal wealth is God loves you to such a degree that Jesus left heaven to be born. He grew up in a common family in a community of friends and family. He worked within his family business and was known in his home town as the carpenter’s son. And after thirty years he actively begins the mission he was born to fulfill.
I want each of us to consider this timeline before we proceed. Thirty years to us does not seem like much time. In our culture, people are not even considered actual adults until about that time. The age of thirty in our culture is often the beginning of many things. It’s when we start families, it is when we become set in a career that we hope to remain. It is when we start families. It is when we finally begin to feel as if we know who we are. Thirty for many of us is not that old, and when we consider the age of Jesus, we often think of him through the lens of our culture. Jesus was a young man when he entered his ministry.
This is not exactly the case. In the first century thirty was different. The boys would begin in their family business at around the age of thirteen, and they would work with the family their entire lives. If your father worked with ceramics, you would work in ceramics or most likely marry a man who worked with ceramics. If your father was a priest, you became a priest or married a priest. If you father was a laborer the same career path was set before you. The only way out was if you happened to be very intelligent and you parents were able to afford extended education with the rabbis or you entered the service of the government.
Jesus worked from the age of thirteen to thirty with the family, as a carpenter. He worked alongside Joseph, and the other members of the family for seventeen years, cutting stone and timber to build and repair houses and other buildings in and around Nazareth. Seventeen years, in today’s culture if you work twenty-five years with in one company your pension is matured, and you can retire, so if Jesus was in our culture today, he would be less than ten years away from this.
In many ways Jesus would not be what we would consider a young man, but an established man, if not an elder. There were very few careers where he would not be a master of his trade at this time. In his culture there would be only one area he would have been particularly young and that would be the priesthood, because a priest would begin their service in the temple at the age of twenty-five and continue to serve until, they were fifty.
Jesus would have been at an age that he would be considered established, he had made it over one very huge milestone, he lived to the age of thirty. Life expectancy in the first century was not what it is today. The average life expectancy during the first century and really till the 20th century was around thirty-five to forty years old. Today because of the advancements in medical sciences we live much longer, about twice as long. We often think of Jesus being young, but the event we read about today in scripture, Jesus would be like many of us here today, middle-aged at best. After already living a full life, Jesus then began something different.
Today we meet again on the banks of the Jordan river, we meet this enigmatic man John. We spoke about John a few weeks ago, so I will not go much deeper into who he is. He is Jesus’s cousin, and is a son of a priest. Yet John did not follow his father into this career instead he went out into the wilderness and began a different sort of ministry. He challenged the established religious industry, and from the testimony of his teaching we might be led to believe that he was disgusted with what religion had become. He would yell at the religious leaders and called them a brood of vipers. Personally, I do not know of many insults that would be worse.
John is preaching on the banks of the Jordan, and the people of Israel are going out to meet him. They go out because they have this expectancy, a holy anxiety that something is going on. Something deep within their spirit is telling them that they are missing something profound in faith. And they cannot find. They listen to the teachers and they are telling them the messiah is coming and that is what you are sensing. And as they teach them about this messiah, they are telling them what to expect. A king, a military leader, a man that will lead them from the heel of Rome into independence and prosperity. Could John be this man, clearly, he is charismatic enough to challenge the establishment but is he the one?
If we were to read all of John the Baptist’s message, we would find that most of what he taught was based on turning from the ways of the world and living a different lifestyle. This lifestyle he explained as, “bearing fruit worthy of repentance.” Which leads us to a significant question, what is repentance? When I look this word up it speaks of a changing of one’s mind, a change of heart, or direction. John is on the Jordan shouting at people telling them that they are going the wrong direction and need to turn around. But I want us to keep in mind, these people are not grave sinners they are the child of Abraham, God’s chosen people. These are the people who eat, drink, breath, and sleep religion. These are the most righteous of all people, their temple is the greatest temple ever built to facilitate worship. He is yelling at the righteous to turn around.
These people filled with expectation are going out to listen, they hear the message and they realize that there are areas in their life that they do need to turn. Then they wonder is John the one they have been looking for? Is he the messiah? He is out there screaming and dunking people under the water as a sign that they have been cleansed from their unrighteous past and can stand clean before God, yet when they consider him John rejects their thoughts. 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.”
This great charismatic teacher that has all of Israel leaving the towns and villages, to be immersed in the Jordan tells them, “You think I’m great. You just wait, there is someone else coming and I am not even worthy of being his slave.” John is not even worthy to perform the lowest task of the lowest slave within a house. He is not worthy to untie and wash the feet of the one who will come.
Think of all the people you respect and why. Consider all the value you place on their character or their accomplishments. John was the greatest preacher of his day, crowds were coming out to meet him, to listen to his message, enduring the ridicule he might bring them. Not just simple common people, but even the scribes, the teachers of the law. Each listening and many moved to the point that they walked out into the water to plunge beneath the waters. Yet John says, “Nope, I’m not the one you are looking for. I’m not even worthy to be his lowest slave.” John uses water to draw attention to a changed life, but the one that John is looking for will use the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus at this point is there among those people. He this established carpenter is standing with the rest of Israel listening to this crazy preacher, rant on religion and telling the righteous that they need to turn around because they are going the wrong way. Jesus was there and entered the water. According to the other gospel accounts John knew who Jesus was, and even told Jesus that he should not baptize Jesus, but Jesus should baptize him. John knew Jesus, yet there is a reason Jesus was baptized. Up to this point his life was established, he was the carpenter, everyone else knew him as a carpenter. For seventeen years that had been his life, now in the twilight years his life will turn and go a different direction.
Jesus was baptized to show the people of Judea that the carpenter they knew is no longer the man before them. The course they expected him to follow is now turning a different direction. And according to Luke, the first thing Jesus does after this baptism is that he prays. It is in his prayers at that moment that heaven opens, and the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove and a voice speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
For seventeen years, Jesus has lived the obedient life. He had lived the life expected of him. The life that his culture dictated to him. He was according to them, the son of a carpenter and that is what he would remain. But after the baptism Jesus turned from the ways of the world and pursued the life and lifestyle he was meant to live. The life of the Beloved son of God. The lamb who takes away the sin of the world. From that moment on Jesus turned from the life of a carpenter and pursued the mighty life John and all of Israel anticipated.
Often, we get caught up in the baptism of Jesus. We as Christians often mimic the activities because Jesus did them. But what was it that Jesus did? He was baptized because it was a sign, a religious and symbolic way of telling the people of Israel that Jesus’s life from that moment on would take a turn. The reality of it is that Jesus did not need to be baptized, nor does anyone else, because that is all it is a sign a symbol of the reality of what is and has already occurred. When John speaks of the one to come who will baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit and fire, he is speaking of something far greater than anything else, because water does not change anyone. Water may clean the outside of a body but something more must occur.
I spent some time looking up the significance of the words John used in his proclamation, and to be honest there is not any single understanding as to what he fully means. There are various perspectives that each work in some way. When we look at fire, it could mean judgement and punishment, or it can mean the purification of metals. I might also be referring to the disposal of unwanted chaff. From the statement about the winnowing fork being in hand to clear the threshing floor I tend to think John probably means getting rid of the unwanted chaff. But all these perspectives are good.
The fire is getting rid of the things that lack value. When a farmer is gathering grain, the kernels are encased in m material that has little or no use. When the plant was growing there was membranes that surrounded the seed protecting it from harm, but this membrane is inedible. Even if it is fed to animals it has the potential to cause harm. The beards of wheat have a Velcro like quality that can become lodged in the gums of livestock and cause infection. And as humans our bodies cannot digest the cellulose, so it provides no nutritional value for us. When the heads of the wheat are taken to the threshing floor the kernels are knocked out of these membranes and when they are scooped up and thrown into the air the wind will carry the chaff, the unwanted and worthless plant material, away and the kernels will fall back down. Eventually, the chaff will form piles on the edges of the floor and this would be removed and burned, leaving the kernel or the fruit.
The picture created by John’s words resemble his message, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The fruit is what is wanted not the chaff. The fruit has value, the chaff is simply residue, a byproduct, worthless. But what if we look at the words as refiner’s fire? Most metals are not found in a pure state in nature, but in an ore. The ore is the elemental metal crystalized with other elements forming a rock. When the ore is placed into fire the various elements melt at different temperatures. As the temperatures rise and cool these elements can be separated and you are left with a desirable and pure metal which can then be used to form various things like the vehicles we drove to get here or a ring to a marriage. Again, the fire removes the things that have little value so that the things with value can be obtained.
Now what about the Spirit? This also can mean a couple of different things. Some would say that it is God initiated, which means we repent or turn, because God does it within us. While others believe that maybe John is speaking of the wind which will blow the chaff away from the kernel and which intensifies the heat of the fire. No matter how we look at it, either God or wind, what is happening is outside ourselves. Our repentance or turning, the fruit we bear is a cooperation between ourselves and something that only Christ can provide. We cannot do it on our own.
John’s baptism is man initiated. Where the baptism of the one that comes after John is divinely initiated. When we work in our own strength, we do not always have the desired results but when we allow God to work within us it intensifies. When we repent, when we turn from the ways of our worldly systems and walk toward God in Jesus, the things lacking value blow away to be burned, and what is left is pure fruit.
All of Israel came to John to listen. They came because they were filled with expectation. The Spirit of God was working within them, but they did not know it. John spoke words of truth and they began to wonder even more. John then said I am not the one you seek but there is another and what I symbolize with water, he will actualize and intensify. But will we listen?
Jesus spent seventeen years of his adult life, living the life of a carpenter and one day he turned and went a different direction. He spent nearly his entire life, which was not necessarily a short or young life, being obedient to his culture and then he turned to follow the paths set before him even before time began. Time is not an obstacle to God, age is not a complication to God, our resources, our careers or lack thereof are not problems for God. Our genders, our education, our heritage, or nationality do not matter to God. All of that is mere chaff, it is worthless material encasing something much more important, the essence of your life.
The fact that each person is here today, means that like Israel before us we have some deep yearning and expectation we hope to meet. This is God urging us to that life. What will we do from here? The most charismatic man of that day, John said you are looking for the messiah, but I’m not it. I am not even worthy of untying his shoes. Yet he still said turn, repent. Turn from a life focused on the values of men, and pursue the pathways of God, now today. God has a life that he created you to fill in this community, a life where you will find hope, peace and joy. A life where you can be yourself and others will accept you. A life that is available to you and you can have when you turn.
As we enter this time of open worship, and holy expectancy I pray that each of us in this moment will consider the life of Jesus, as well as the life and testimony of John. I pray that we will consider the community around us and the community we hope to see. And I pray that we will repent, that we will turn and walk not according to the ways of the world, but in the ways of Christ, so our hope will become sight.