Baptism of Our Lord
Baptism of Our Lord.22 Luke 3:15-22
The Baptism of our Lord by John in the Jordan River is a bit of a puzzler. For instance, John says “I baptize you with water but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 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 barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire…”
The first puzzler, for me, comes in the next line when Luke comments: “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” Good news? A baptism of fire is good news? Is that why you got coal for Christmas, so the fire could burn hotter? Ho, ho! Merry Christmas! What fun! And the winnowing fork in his hand to clear his threshing floor? What a treat! Who among us does not relish a good winnowing? And the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire just sounds like a party, doesn’t it?
This is good news?! Not sure I can handle the bad news! If being baptized by fire and winnowed like wheat and burned up like chaff is good news, well… then, wow! Can you imagine what John’s plain old news might be like? Or do we even want to try to imagine what the bad news might be? Kind of a puzzler, right?
Any guesses? Well, they shortened our Gospel today, a bit excessively in my opinion. If we go back to the beginning of this chapter, we’ll see that John gives a hint as to the bad news… to quote from the fine new Adam McKay film “Don’t Look Up” basically the bad news is “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”. That’s the bad news to which the baptism by fire, winnowing like wheat, and burning of the chaff is good news.
I know. You’re still like “I’m not exactly jumping for joy at this, not exactly seeing how the baptism by fire, winnowing, and burning is not a worse case scenario? Well, the worst case is that we all die and that’s it. We’re gone. Burned up. Taken out like the trash. The baptism, winnowing, and burning means death is not the last word. Which is good news.
But why are we all going to die? Well, the Old Testament, especially the first three chapters of Genesis is crystal clear on this: sin. Sin is the sole cause of death since Adam and Eve first died. Oh, I know. You think death is caused by excessive fun, or old age, or cancer, or viruses, or smoking, or pastry. Uh, no. Not according to Scriptures. Scriptures say: sole cause of death is sin. If Adam and Eve had not sinned and passed that original sin onto all of us their children we would never die! We’d never get sick, sad, lonely, hurt, never catch a cold, break a leg, or get cancer. We’d have a perfect, eternal life of peace and joy.
But we can take remedies to prevent death and sickness ourselves, right? Exercise, diet, being cautious of illness? Uhm, well… this is an appealing lie—the denial of death as Ernest Becker called it in his 1974 classic work. But we’re all going to die; and no, there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
The question is not if but how you’re going to die. And with Christ the answer is redemptively. God in Christ uses death to snuff out sin once and for all. The baptism of fire, winnowing, burning of the chaff is to redeem not destroy us!
That’s what the baptism of fire is doing. John says the gift he brings from God is a baptism of repentance (not a great translation of the Greek μετανοια which is a compound of two simple Greek words μετα meaning “change” and νους meaning “mind” so, literally, change of mind. But the Greek νους is broader in meaning than our word for mind. νους is not just our thinking, but it’s all the elements of a life—our attitudes, desires, purposes, plans—our whole outlook on life—what it’s for and why we care…
What’s good about this baptism to change our mind, our whole outlook, is that it’s the beginning of a fix. God isn’t abandoning us to death, but using it to redeem us. Too many people think the chaff are bad people and the wheat Good Christian folk. But we are all a mix of wheat and chaff. It is the chaff in us that needs burning and killing. The killing is no fun! Even Jesus, God’s Son, facing it on the cross didn’t like it one little bit. Death is bad.
But God uses this bad thing for a good end. He changes our mind that is set on sin and sets our minds on him and his goodness, beauty, and truth. He winnows us like wheat, sifting the chaff of our sin and burning it up by death. Which is probably as enjoyable as the dental surgery I’ve got on my calendar first thing tomorrow morning (Merry Christmas!) But getting the tooth to stop hurting is worth the short term pain. While the rot of my sin is bad, killing that, burning the chaff is necessary for the wheat in me to live forever.
So how does baptism do that? Well, that’s our final puzzler for today. Jesus is born fully human and fully God. Two natures, one Person. But his human nature is completely free of sin because it is the body of God himself! But on the cross—for the great exchange of our sin for his righteous life to work—Jesus somehow has to become (as Paul says in Corinthians) “sin for us”, sin personified, like the scapegoats in the Old Testament. They killed one and sent the other one into the desert for Azazel the demon of death.
But how does Jesus (who is perfectly sinless!) take on the sin of the world so he can kill it dead on the cross and rise triumphant? And the simple answer is John’s Baptism! The Greek speaking Eastern Church of the first 5 centuries understood this better than the Latin speaking West. Don’t get me wrong now: I’m with Gregory the Great who thought the Greeks were too clever to be trusted and had brought more heresy into the church than truth. East is least and West is best!
But, the blind squirrel sometimes finds a nut. For the East, the Baptism of our Lord is a major festival, along with the nativity and the paschal feast of Easter. Because ancient Israel was a nation of priests. They took care of the sin of the world, took it on themselves by their wayward ways. And God made use of that. John’s Baptism was like a toxic waste dump. All Israel came out, confessing their sin and naughtiness and John said, “Dump that sh..tuff in the Jordan River! It’s polluted physically, might as well pollute it ontologically!”
John’s baptism of μετανοια took all Israel’s original sin and dumped it in nasty River Jordan. Then Jesus came, the spotless lamb, the scapegoat (and the Lion of Judah at the same time, don’t forget!) and he sucked up all that sins of the world (and original sin) into himself. That’s why John balked at baptizing Jesus. But, the Lord said: “Permit it to be so now, for thus we fulfill all righteousness.”
The ancient icons all show the Jordan River as Black with the world’s sin, and Jesus both sinless and yet sin personified after the Baptism. By Word and Sacrament, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the fire that burns up our sin, kills to make alive, winnows the wheat he made us to be and burns the chaff in us, so, at Last, we stand pure and holy.
Bad news turned good, see? Happy Baptism Day! In Jesus’ Name. Amen.