[This was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during worship this morning.]
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
From 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 as 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 and how we fit in.
The Epiphany season of the Church Year, which began this past Wednesday, on January 6, is a time in which an even greater mystery than our own personal identities unfolds for us.
The season always arrives after the Twelve Days of Christmas, a nearly two-week period when 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 commonplace. Children are born every day. It’s hard to imagine, when we open our copies of The Logan Daily News or The Columbus Dispatch tomorrow that we’ll see a headline screaming: “BABY BORN!”
If there were such a headline, we’d probably yell back at the newspaper, “Unless it’s my kid or grandkid, so what?” The Epiphany Season gives us the answer to the question, “Jesus was born. So what?”
Today’s Gospel lesson is a start to answering that question. We read part of today’s Gospel lesson a few weeks ago, during Advent. In every Advent Season, we have two Sundays devoted to the ministry of John the Baptist. His ministry was all about preparing people to welcome the Messiah, God’s Anointed King, the Savior. Today’s lesson tells us that some people even thought that John might be Messiah.
But John tells people that it’s not him, that their picture of the Messiah is 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.”
Then it happened. People got their first glimpse of the Messiah. Luke, the writer of our Gospel 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.’” .
As we consider Jesus at the Jordan with John the Baptist, how is our picture of Who Jesus is clarified?
And, how does our picture of Jesus help us see ourselves more clearly?
We see those questions answered, I think, in at least four ways.
First,, we see them answered in the disclosure of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. God was good for His ancient promises. God’s Word never lies. God did send an Anointed One. And this Messiah, just as God had promised in the Old Testament years, would overcome our sin by suffering and dying for us and then rising to allow us to live forever with God.
We also see our picture of Jesus unscrambled and we see ourselves more clearly in the revelation that the Messiah will baptize believers with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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 at him sternly 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 so that they too will want to give their lives to Jesus.
Can people see that fire in us as Christians?
Can they see it in the life of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church?
As one challenging preacher once asked, "If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us of the charge?"
In the other New Testament book written by Luke, the book of Acts, we're told the story of the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ first followers. When it happened, those first Christians 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 to a new life for all who repent and believe in Him. They were on fire.
Through this same Holy Spirit, we can be too.
A third way our lesson shows us Who Jesus is and Who we can be when we follow Him, is seen in that, when Jesus prayed, heaven opened. 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, as followers of Jesus, are never promised an easy life. We can be assured, as I learned again this past week from some of the correspondence I received from people who didn’t like affirmations on my web site of Jesus as the only way to God, that we will offend people when we strive to be faithful.
But we are also promised that God will be with us always. Paul says that followers of Jesus live in the assurance that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“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.”
When we pray, we don’t control God or others; we ask God to come and take control on earth as in heaven.
Several years ago, I read an article from a Florida newspaper profiling Archie Griffin, who became college football’s only two-time Heisman Trophy winner while playing at Ohio State. Griffin, in his playing days, was about 5’7” and 170 pounds, a shrimp among monsters.
He graduated from college on time and inspired others to do the same thing.
He never made the party scene.
How did he resist the dark side of athletics which seems so often to overcome superstars?
I found part of the answer in that article, where Griffin’s younger brother, Ray, remembers their college days: "[Archie, Ray says] 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 was having a strong conversation with the Lord, I'm telling you."
Archie had a so-so career with the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL. But even then, he impressed others with his work ethic, his determination, his willingness to go the extra mile, his pleasantness to strangers who walked up to him.
How did Archie Griffin become the man he is? I believe he is the person he is because through prayer in Jesus’ Name, heaven is opened to him. Heaven is opened to us when we pray!
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 in Judea 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, His Church--in spite of the fact that none of us are entirely desirable. We’re saved by God's grace, by which God receives all with faith in Christ into the Kingdom of God.
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 internally, so that when we finally do stand in heaven’s halls, only what’s good and pleasing to 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 my frequent prayers is, “God, kill off anything in me that isn’t from You!” All that isn’t from God in us is going to die anyway; so, why not allow God to help you get rid of it now: the bad habits, the secret sins, the unloving thoughts or ways of living?
King David had a similar prayer request to mine, although in more eloquent language. You can find it in Psalm 139. "Search me, O God, and know my heart," he said, "test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
In Jesus’ Baptism, we begin to see Who Jesus is. We also see that He wants to give us a life like His.
We see that Jesus is the Messiah; that He means for us to be on fire with His love, grace, and power for living and sharing Him with others; 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 or sinful in us 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!”
Who might you and I become—what sort of church might Saint Matthew become--if we truly let Jesus Christ have our whole lives--if He were our Messiah, if we were on fire for Him, if in our prayers we let Jesus into every nook and cranny of the world, and if we let God work constantly to make us more like His Son?
I would love to see God unfold mysteries like that. Wouldn’t you?
May Epiphany, 2010, trigger a new revival in our faith in Jesus and may it spill all over our family, friends, community, and world. Amen!