Isaiah 43:1-6a; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
When slaves remembered the troubled waters of the Atlantic Ocean that brought them here from their homelands, they saw it as a baptism. And they sang the song we just sang about that experience. “Wade in the waters. The Lord’s gonna trouble the waters.” Later in the service we will renew our baptism. I want to prepare us for that by reminding us that the waters of baptism are troubled and troubling waters. Images of winnowing forks and unquenchable fire take us out of our comfort zones.
The first time I saw a farmer separate wheat from chaff I was living in Peru. I was on my way to visit a community that was establishing a new home away from violent persecution from the Shining Path guerillas. In the wee hours of the morning, one of the daughters was grinding the coffee, the mother walked around ready to break the neck of the chicken we were going to have for breakfast and the father was winnowing the wheat – all were firsts for me. Watching the farmer made me think of today’s Gospel.
In order to fulfill its purpose wheat must be separated from the chaff. The farmer lifts the wheat and chaff together with a winnowing fork. And since chaff is lighter than wheat, the wind carries the chaff away, while the wheat falls back to the ground. That’s exactly what I saw happen that morning. At the end there is a pile of wheat, while the chaff lies scattered around the barn to be swept in a single pile to be incinerated. It has outlived its usefulness. That doesn’t make it bad. It simply means its purpose is fulfilled before wheat’s purpose is. Chaff is a good thing that needs to be discarded at a certain point. Of course, once wheat has been eaten it becomes waste as well. It becomes fertilizer or new soil.
So when John says that Jesus’ baptism by Spirit (or wind) and fire will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff he’s telling us that when we’re baptized into the reign of Christ, things that belonged to our prior life must be separated from that which belongs to our new life. That can be an experience that shakes us up. The waters of baptism are troubled waters. When I pray over the water of baptism it’s not a coincidence that I pour water into the font. The water needs to be moving. Baptism is practiced in troubled waters and its impact is for the troubled waters of life. Luke calls this “good news” because Jesus will initiate a new relationship between God and humanity as the people, leaving behind what keeps them safe but unfruitful so they can live out in real life the implications and consequences of the purifying wind and fire of God.
Luke describes Jesus’ baptism in more peaceful terms also. The Holy Spirit descends gently like a dove onto Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That doesn’t sound like crooked being made straight or rough being made smooth. Nor does it sound like wind and fire. The image of a dove wafting down from the sky is much gentler. This morning each of us will renew our baptismal vows. Most of us doubt our belovedness, at least sometimes. It’s not that we ever stop being beloved. It’s just that sometimes we find it hard to believe we’re beloved – both ourselves & each other.
Luke is the only Gospel that tells us that Jesus was praying when heaven opened. In Luke, every time Jesus does something important he prays first. Here he’s being ordained for ministry. When he called the disciples, “he went out to the mountain to pray.” When he and the disciples begin to face major conflict in the ministry he taught them how to pray. Before being taken to be crucified he prayed in Gethsemane.
The North African Desert Mothers and Fathers were people dedicated to prayer. They tell the story of a monk who came to his spiritual guide with a question about the next steps in his spiritual journey. The monk described his monastic solitude & daily rituals, and then asked what more he could do in order to experience God in his life. His spiritual guide simply responded with the words, “Become fire!”
Fiery followers of God encounter challenges that can overwhelm. To become fire is to take risks, test new behaviors, and undertake new and strange adventures. As exciting as the new adventures may be, they may also heighten anxiety or make people turn back from the pathway God has invited them to follow. So we must remember two aspects of baptism. First, God’s word to Jesus (“you are my child, my beloved”) reminds us of God’s unconditional love for every child at every season of life. Prayer reminds us of that when the evidence we’re looking at leads us to the opposite conclusion. When we breathe in God’s spirit & bathe in God’s healing waters in prayer, we radiate God’s fire.
Secondly we need to remember that our baptism is by wind that blows the chaff away & by fire that burns it so we can’t change our minds and try to get it back. No matter how dearly we appreciate how some parts of our lives have served us, fruitfulness only comes by letting them be blown away and burned. What is the chaff of my life, whose past usefulness I may acknowledge but which I need to shed in order to be useful in the present stage of life? If we found security by staying in our own neighborhood we may be called to go a place that feels scary. If being shy has always made us feel safe, we may be called to speak up for something we believe in. This is good news: the chaff that the Spirit burns and blows away would otherwise enslave us to the safety of the past rather than liberate us for the risky faith of the future.
The troubling waters of baptism don’t only exist in our personal lives. They impact the way we serve a troubled world. There’s a scene in the movie Romero that connects troubles of a nation to the waters of baptism. Just after Oscar Romero became Archbishop of El Salvador, he was invited by a wealthy family to do a private baptism for their child. That was common practice by bishops in El Salvador. They were chummy with the wealthy of El Salvador. Archbishop Romero was close friends with these folks as well. But he was experiencing a conversion amidst the troubles that El Salvador was experiencing, and due to the courage of some of his priest friends who were exposing him to the truth about El Salvador. So rather than respond as expected Romero responded by saying, “I would be happy to baptize your child next Saturday in the Cathedral. We do baptisms every Saturday.” The mother of the child was furious. “I will not allow my child to be baptized in the same water as those filthy Indians.” That’s chaff, & it has to go.
When ML King was in jail in Birmingham a group of moderate clergy from around the U.S. encouraged him to be less extreme in his views and actions in order not to create more racial tension. King wrote a long response that we know as the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. At one point he wrote: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
People of faith today face another such moment in our nation when the waters of baptism may expose us to trouble. It may feel like we have a choice as to whether we’ll allow it to take us there. John reminds us, however, that the Powerful One has the winnowing fork in hand. We may choose to leave behind the chaff of our lives today, or face the winnowing fork tomorrow. But God will not leave us unfruitful, and that is Good News.