Baptism of Christ C/Ordinary 1/Epiphany 1
January 10, 2016
Gossip column editor – one who separates the wheat from the chaff, and then prints the chaff!
Just in case you are not a pre-industrial-age farmer, chaff is the husk that covers a grain of wheat. To sort the wheat from the chaff, you ‘winnow’ it – toss them both into the air and the chaff blows away, while the heavier grain falls back.
It’s sorting the live grain from the dead husk, the useful from the rubbish, and that’s what John was saying to the people coming to be baptised. John was aware that there were people coming because it was fashionable. He pulled no punches in making it clear what the deal was. John had a very clear three-point sermon:
- You have to change on the inside (repent)
- Show that you have changed on the inside by changing on the outside (produce fruit)
- It matters (separating wheat from chaff)
In the parallel passage in Matthew, we hear more detail. “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, John said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matt 3:7ff) We can’t see the change on the inside. Only God can see that. We see the outside deeds, but we can’t see where those deeds originate. From a changed heart or from a desire to look good?
It’s easy to fake repentance, and even great deeds, as Jesus said in Matt 7. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” Ouch! Their faith was not real. It looked great from the outside, but had no inside. So how can we tell what’s real beauty and what’s just good make-up? How can we tell real repentance from following the crowd? How can we tell wheat from chaff?
Plant it, and if it grows, it was wheat. If nothing grows, or just thorns, then it wasn’t wheat, however wheaty it looked.
Now while stating again that only God truly knows, we would expect such a radical change as a heart transplant to show in a person’s life. This does not, most emphatically does not mean that I can look at the people next to me in the pew and say, ‘Well her Bible isn’t well-thumbed and he missed prayer meeting last week, so obviously they’re not really saved.” Nope. That’s not how it works. The checking of the fruit is for me to do, about me. I don’t get to judge other people, that’s God’s job.
However, this does raise the thorny issue of people who ‘used to be’ Christians. I know a couple of people who used to describe themselves as Christians and used to do all the Christian stuff, but now one is a militant atheist and the other totally secular, even though he would still put ‘Christian’ on a form. A very private faith, or was it ‘churchianity’, going along with the crowd, like some of the people coming to John for baptism? Had it been all outward show with no life; all chaff and no grain? I don’t know. It’s a hard question. And it does not matter what I think, God will sort it out on the final day. My place is to make sure I know which side I’m on, to “confirm my calling and election”, as in 2 Peter 1.
I went to the funeral of a friend’s father and heard the vicar tell, with bland smile, of ‘Frederick’s simple, quiet faith’. To the best of my knowledge, his funeral was only the third time Frederick had been to church, the other two being his baptism and wedding – and those only happened in church because ‘that was what you did’. Now, it’s not the outward ‘stuff’ that is important – sitting in a church doesn’t mean you’re a Christian any more than sitting in a garage means you’re a car. But when I became a Christian in my late teens, there was a poster going around which read, ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ Frederick would have got off scot-free.
There is much head-shaking in recent years about the ‘decline of Christianity’ according to various polls and surveys. But I find it rather encouraging. I do not think that there are fewer Christians now than there were 50 years ago or 100 years ago. I think there are fewer nominal Christians. A lot more people went to church back then because of culture rather than faith.
Jesus knew all about those who merely talked the talk, and had stern words for them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 7:21). And the difference between being in the kingdom and not is not a fence or a white line on a playing field where you can walk along with a foot in each camp. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus describes it as a ‘great chasm’. You cannot sit on the fence. There is no fence to sit on.
So let us all, at the start of this new year, look at where we stand before God. Let us not assume that our heritage or our church attendance or our baptism certificate grant us citizenship of heaven – only God’s Holy Spirit can do that. Is he living in you today?
You will need a sheet of paper and pen or pencils.
The Jordan River, where John was baptising, was a symbol of new beginnings for the people of Israel. They had crossed the Jordan to start their new life in the Promised Land and here they were baptised as a symbol of the new life within.
Draw the River Jordan down the middle of your paper and on one side draw in the Promised Land. This stands for God’s Kingdom, filled with those of all nations who love God. The other side is the desert, the secular world, and John was baptising people to show that they had crossed from one side to the other.
Decide in your mind where you are on this map. Do not draw it on – this is between you and God. Perhaps you are in the desert looking across and wondering what the Promised Land is like. Perhaps you are midway crossing. Perhaps you are on the edge of the Promised Land but missing the freedom of the desert. You could also consider where some of your loved ones might be on this map, as a spur to prayer.
When you have decided where you are, tear your map in half down the middle of the river and reflect on Jesus’ words, that between the two sides “a great chasm has been fixed”.
Lord Father, Lord Jesus, Lord Holy Spirit,
Fix my heart this day on your Kingdom,
That I may never waver in my devotion to you.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 New English Translation
While the people were filled with anticipation and they all wondered whether perhaps John could be the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but one more powerful than I am is coming—I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clean out his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized. And while he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my one dear Son; in you I take great delight.”
New English Translation
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