Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Take a look at some pictures. Try to guess who the kids are. They all became famous as adults.
First, who's the boy holding the dog? It's him.
Who are these two? It's them.
How about this guy? You guessed it.
Try this one. Here he is.
One more. Did you know?
The moment a child is born, all sorts of speculation begins. Who does she look like? What will he become?
The fact is that all of us are born mysteries. In some ways, we spend our whole lives unscrambling the mystery of our psyches and souls to figure out who we are and where we belong.
The Epiphany season of the Church Year, which begins on January 6, is a time in which an even greater mystery than our own personal identities unfolds for us.
The season arrives at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which begins on December 25. It's a period during which we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
But, you know, as wonderful as it is to welcome a baby into the world, the birth of a child is a pretty commonplace thing. Children are born every day. It’s hard to imagine, when we open our copies of The Cincinnati Enquirer tomorrow morning that we’ll see a headline screaming: “BABY BORN!” If such a headline did appear, we’d probably yell back at the newspaper, “SO WHAT?”
Epiphany is dedicated to remembering how God in Christ answered that question about the baby born in a barn in Bethlehem: Jesus has been born. So what?
The incidents from Jesus’ life and ministry that are talked about in Epiphany are sort of like those images they put on the Jumbotrons at baseball games. The picture of a ballplayer is scrambled into fragments and slowly, the fragments in which the photograph has been divided are put back in their right places. As the picture becomes clearer, you hear more and more people from around the stadium reacting with recognition.
As happens when the picture is put in order on the stadium Jumbotron, all the Bible lessons in this season dispel the mystery of Who Jesus is. And in the process, we also learn who we are.
We looked at a part of today’s Bible lesson a few weeks ago, on the Third Weekend in Advent. You know, in every Advent Season, the time that comes just before Christmas, we have two weeks devoted to the ministry of John the Baptizer. His ministry was all about preparing people to welcome the Messiah, God’s Anointed King, the Savior.
Today’s Bible lesson begins by remembering the anxious anticipation with which some were waiting for this King. Some people even thought that John might be the guy. It begins, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah...” But John tells people that their picture of the Messiah was incomplete. “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.”
“You think I’m something?” John was saying. “You ain’t seen nothing yet! The Messiah will make me look like a nobody!”
Then it happened. People got their first glimpse of the Messiah. Luke, the writer of our Bible lesson, says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 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.’” .
So, now two questions:
- How is our picture of Jesus unscrambled from this incident?
- And, how does our picture of Jesus help us see ourselves clearly?
First, of course, we see them answered in the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah. God was good for His ancient promises. He did send an Anointed One--which is what Messiah or Christ, means--Who would overcome our sin by suffering and dying for us and then rising to allow us to live forever with God.
Second, we see the four questions answered in the revelation that the Messiah will baptize believers with the Holy Spirit and fire. What does that mean?
Once, an English bishop visited a sleepy little church along the Thames River. The village priest was discouraged and depressed, because he wasn't really accomplishing very much. Finally, the priest confessed, “Bishop, I can't say that we are setting the Thames on fire.” The bishop looked him sternly in the eye and said, “Young man, I am not the least bit concerned about setting the Thames on fire. What I want to know is, if I take you out and drop you in it, will you sizzle?”
When we open ourselves to Jesus Christ, He wants to set us on fire with a blazing, passionate love for God and for our neighbors and with a fiery faith in Him that brings light to everyone around us.
Can people see that fire in us as Christians?
Can they see it here at Friendship Church?
In the other New Testament book written by Luke, the book of Acts, he tells the mysterious story of the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers. When it happened, those first Christians it’s said were given tongues of fire that allowed each of them in their own way to tell the story of the God Who so loved the world that Jesus died and rose to open the way of a new life to all who follow Him.
They were on fire. Through this same Holy Spirit, we can be too.
A third answer to our questions about Who Jesus is and Who we can be when we follow Him, can be seen in that when Jesus prayed, heaven opened where He was. When we pray in the Name of Jesus, heaven is opened and God shows up.
But don’t get too sentimental about that. When heaven opened to Jesus at His baptism and the Father called Him the Beloved Son, it was the opening act in a ministry that would send Him to a cross! We are never promised an easy life. But we are promised that God will be with us always.
“Prayer is not about getting what we want,” says Brian Blount, a professor of New Testament at Princeton University, “or even what we oftentimes are sure is right for us and those around us; prayer is about unleashing the frightening, unstable, uncontrollable power of God.”
You know there’s going to be a sort-of-important football game tomorrow. This past week, in anticipation of this contest, an article in a Florida newspaper profiled Archie Griffin, who twice won the Heisman Trophy for being college football’s best player. Griffin was about 5’7” and 170 pounds when he played fullback, a shrimp among monsters. He graduated from college on time and inspired others to do the same. He never made the party scene.
How did he resist the dark side of athletics and achieve so much? I think I found part of the answer in that article, where Griffin’s younger brother, Ray remembers their student days:
"He would get up in the morning and would pray on his knees for 45 minutes before he went to school...I'm not exaggerating. He would be bobbing his head. He was having a strong conversation with the Lord, I'm telling you."Archie had a so-so career with the Bengals in the NFL. But even then, he impressed others with his work ethic, his determination, his willingness to go the extra mile. Those qualities rarely come naturally to us. (I know that they don't come naturally to me!) I’m sure that Archie Griffin would tell you that he has nothing to do with them. They come to him because through prayer in Jesus’ Name, heaven is opened to him.
Our nation mourned and buried another former college football player this past week, the one-time center for the University of Michigan Wolverines. His name was Gerald Ford and our nation was blessed, in one of the darkest times in our history, to have him as our President. During the farewells last week, I heard the historian Douglas Brinkley tell a vignette about Ford I'd never heard before. Every night, from the time he was a little boy until he died, when he prayed, he also recited a passage from the Old Testament:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,Ford's life wasn't always peaches and cream, you know. But it's clear to me that he was strengthened for great challenges because of his daily habit of relying on the God we know--and he knew--in Jesus Christ!
and do not rely on your own insight. (Proverbs 3:5)
Fourth and finally: We learn Who Jesus is and learn about ourselves when we consider that Jesus comes to those who follow Him with a winnowing fork.
Winnowing forks were used in the ancient world as part of the process of harvesting crops like barley or wheat. On the tops of hills, barns were built with openings on either side, allowing the constant winds to blow through. As the harvested crops were brought to the barns, the forks were used to toss them up to be caught by the wind. What wasn’t desirable blew away. What was good remained.
Jesus shows us that He’s the Messiah by gathering us into His barns--His kingdom--in spite of the fact that none of us are entirely desirable. We’re saved by God's grace, accepting all with faith in Christ. But Jesus is also fitting us for heaven when we’ll live in the presence of God. And so He commits Himself to winnowing us so that when we finally do stand in heaven’s halls, only what’s good and pleasing remains.
The real us.
The God-formed us.
Lutheran pastor, Paul Gauche, says, “Christ winnows that which isn’t necessary..." And then Gauche asks, "Got any bad habits? Got any behaviors that seem to hold you back...from where you think God is leading you?”
If you can answer yes to either of those questions--and I know that I can--resolve now that you’ll allow Jesus to daily use His winnowing fork on your life so that you can become your God-formed self. One of the prayers I’ve been praying lately is, “God, kill off anything in me that isn’t from You!”
In Jesus’ Baptism, we begin to see Who Jesus is. We get a hint of the resurrection toward which He’s moving. We also see that He intends to take us with Him and give us a life like His.
At His baptism, we see...
- that Jesus is the Messiah;
- that He means for us to be on fire for Him;
- that when we pray in His Name, the power of heaven is unleashed on earth; and
- that those who follow Jesus allow Him to separate us from all that’s useless so that we’ll be fit to stand in the presence of the God Who wants one day to say to each of us, “This is My Beloved, in Whom I am well pleased!”
I would like to see how God would resolve such mysteries. Would you?