First Sunday in Epiphany
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
15The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16John replied to them all, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I'm not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can't be put out."18With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. ... 21When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness."
“Take me to the water, take me to the water
Take me to the water to be baptized.”
How many of you remember your baptism? How many remember stories of their baptism? Any one remember confirming the baptismal vows their parents made for them at a confirmation ritual? How many of you –- baptized or not -- wonder what the heck IS this baptism thing? And why is it so important anyway?
Is it essential to your faith?
As we gather around Plymouth’s baptismal font this morning we are unified in our remembrances and in our questions. I remember my baptism. I was ten. I was fully immersed in the baptistery of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. It was at the beginning of a Sunday evening service. Dressed in a white robe I had come to this moment after a significant amount of earnest prayer during the times of silence in our worship services. I had walked down the middle aisle of the church during the final hymn of a morning service to signify that I wanted to profess Jesus as my Savior and join the church officially through baptism. A week or so later I had a private conversation about my understanding of this with the kindly, older pastor. Then came the evening of baptism. I remember the instructions in detail. I remember the moments of immersion and being led out the other side to dry off and get dressed. I remember entering the worship service already in progress wearing my wet hair slicked back in a pony tail as a badge of honor. I was one of the newly baptized. In times of doubt I have remembered this ritual of commitment as one might remember marriage vows. I made this decision at 10, and even though I may be confused, discouraged and despairing, even mad at God, the commitment pulls me back into mysterious relationship with the Holy One known in scripture, worship prayer, in Spirit and in the person of Jesus. Any details of your baptism story coming back as I share my story? Any remembrances of a time when a hot shower felt literally life-saving, or the plunge in a cool pool or a bottle of water? When has water brought you new life?
Baptism per se does not make you a Christian. Baptism is a visible and outward sign of an invisible and inward faith commitment made by a person or on behalf of a person. It is a sign, a marker on the journey that we begin at birth towards wholeness in God, maturity of faith and our soul’s search for meaning. The water is not magic. Yet we know the power of water in our everyday lives. We all have experienced water how cleans dirty hands and faces, how it revives a dying plant, how it can quench our thirst. With these sense memories, the ritual act of baptism holds the vivid imagery of being cleansed, of beginning again, of new life and revival from the dead. Potent imagery we can hold on to throughout our lives as a foundation for starting anew time and again in faith through confession and forgiveness, through immersing ourselves deeper in prayer during times of dryness or despair, through sensing a call to spiritual growth and new work in ministry which is the provenance of every Chritian.
I suspect that Jesus needed the ancient Jewish ritual of cleansing from sin that was the meaning of baptism in his time as a marker for himself, for his own faith, as he began his formal ministry. It was also a sign to the people on the riverbank that were followers of John. And I’m sure the story of John’s announcement of Jesus’ ministry spread rapidly throughout his followers and beyond. How could you forget the words of the your teacher, who has brought you to new faith, when he says, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I'm not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Each year in the church season of Epiphany we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the water of the River Jordan. As we have remembered together, it’s imagery is rich and palpable.....however, the gospel writer of Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t baptize with water. John did, and we are united with Jesus in the experience of this powerful ritual. Yet according to John, Jesus came to bring the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. I don’t know about you, but those sound a lot more dangerous than the ritual of sprinkling or pouring water over someone’s head or being intentionally and carefully immersed in water. A lot more out of our control!
John’s description of Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire as a winnowing process could be interpreted as separating the good people from the bad people, in the present or in the end times. During Jesus’ time the religious establishment would have thought it was separating the Jews from the Gentiles....fortunately our earliest Christian sisters and brothers discovered this separation did not need to be kept. Jesus broke that barrier himself as he healed Gentiles in several stories throughout the gospel of Luke. And the story of Pentecost in Acts (brought to us by the same writer as Luke) shows that Spirit has no prejudices! God’s spirit is for all!
So what if John was not invoking such a literal meaning as separating people good from bad? What if the imagery of winnowing is about a kind of baptism in itself? John says of the one who is coming, “The shovel –- the winnowing fork -- he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can't be put out."
The action of winnowing is separating the wheat seed where all the growth potential, the nutrition, is stored from the outer protective covering of the chaff which is not necessary for food or planting after the wheat is harvested. Winnowing involves wind and fire. The seed is thrown up into the air with the shovel and the lighter chaff blows off while the heavier seed falls to the ground to be gathered. The waste product of the chaff, the unnecessary protective covering which would prevent the seed from sprouting or being useful in food, is eventually gathered and thrown in the fire.
Baptism with water is about new life, about coming into the community of Christian faith, about turning toward the ways of God as a new direction on the journey in life. What if baptism through the winnowing process of wind and fire can be seen as a baptism of liberation for individuals as well whole communities of faith? After his baptism by water, Jesus entered his ministry of proclamation and healing and calling people into relationship with God and one another. Jesus’ earthly ministry was a dynamic movement to reclaim and build God’s realm of justice and love. According to John, Jesus’ baptism brings the cleansing wind of Spirit that blows away protections and obstructions that are no longer needed so we may see clearly the realm of God. Jesus’ baptism of Spirit and fire takes our communal and individual protective habits of scarcity, fear, greed, and pride that separate us from our fellow human beings and throws them into the fire of God’s forgiveness! They are toast! Trash that we no longer need. And the Spirit not only blows them clean away, but also burns them up so we can’t even reclaim them. We are rid of all the old stuff, the chaff, that weighs us down. We are new, fresh, seeds of God’s power and growth in the world.
In Jesus’ baptism through the Holy Spirit and fire, we are invited into the whirlwind of God’s love, a process of winnowing that will literally change our lives, forever. And just as we can remember the church’s sacrament of baptism by water every year and all that it’s life-changing meaning, we can also remember that Jesus’ invitation into the winnowing of Holy Wind and Fire. We can join anew the movement of building God’s realm of justice and love here and now.
Here at Plymouth baptism signifies participation in God’s Movement, God’s realm. The movement Jesus remembered and re-established in his times, the movement of God’s refining Love blowing through our lives, ridding us, cleansing us, of all that is not an essential part of who we are created to be in God’s image. Reminding each one of us as Jesus was reminded through the message of the dove.... "You are my Son, you are my Daughter, my Beloved One, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness."
God finds happiness in you, in us! Isn’t that amazing! And isn’t it something to witness to and share with the world!
Take us to the water, Let us feel your Holy wind.
Bring us through your cleansing fire
So we may be baptized.
Amen and amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.