Epiphany 1 C: Christ, Wind, and Fire

The readings for The First Sunday after the Epiphany/The Baptism of Our Lord are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 43:1–7

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Acts 8:14–17

Gospel                   Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

We will focus here on Luke  and Acts.

Luke’s story of baptism can be scary, with its pitchfork, its winnowing (separating wheat from the chaff) and the burning of the chaff in unquenchable fire. But the winnowing and the burning are all for the sake of the wheat. To keep threshing floor clean and barn free of the dust that can easily explode into fire, and to gather and save the wheat, these things must take place.

You and I are the wheat. And Christ does this winnowing, cleansing, and gathering on our behalf. We are the wheat; so do not fear. Take heart!

Yet all the people around us and on the face of this planet are also the wheat. So we must not only take courage, but open our hearts. Luke’s story of baptism is about scary things that are happening in our lives right now. But they are things that are happening for our sake.

What happened 11 days ago in Boulder County, Colorado was also scary. And most certainly it was tragic. But it can inform the way we understand Luke’s story.

There was an “unquenchable fire.” It was an explosive fire that, within hours destroyed almost 1,000 homes and left thousands of people homeless—all their earthly possessions reduced to ashes.

At times like this we hear people say,  “It came out of nowhere.” But if we are honest, and look closer, we realize that’s not quite the case.

The obvious ingredients were dry stubble and wind. Not so obvious were our generation’s blindness, carelessness. All of us have been warned about climate change for two generations now, but we have done precious little about it. Of course, a single occurrence like the Colorado wildfire doesn’t prove climate change. But all we need do is wake up, open our eyes, and be honest, and we see historic droughts, fires, and floods, stronger hurricanes, tornadoes into December, a melting arctic, changes in ocean currents. And more and more polar vortexes here in Northern Illinois.

Yes, something radical is happening!

Luke shows us John who warns of wind and fire – not specifically tied to climate change, but definitely tied to the sinful human tendency to shut our eyes, take shortcuts, and fail to repent and correct our way of living.

How much evil falls upon us suddenly because over a long stretch of time we have failed to change our ways? Covid keeps spreading and mutating because we have not shared vaccine or worked together as a global community to overcome it. More people become and learn to act like criminals because we have maintained a criminal justice system that creates criminals. Polarization in politics grows because we have not worked for community strength the way we have to promote individual rights.

More importantly Luke tells the story of the Baptizer who points beyond himself to someone stronger and more worthy who is coming—who is now on the scene. Jesus will bring a reckoning for our carelessness, denial and cutting of corners. But it will be a reckoning for a higher purpose: the GATHERING OF THE WHEAT INTO THE BARN. Jesus baptizes with a Holy Wind—the Spirit of God–for the winnowing, and with the fire of judgment and cleansing. And it is all at the service of gathering us to God.

The Book of Acts shows us what this looks like.

The disciples experience the fire and the wind on Pentecost. These followers of Christ are devastated by the execution of their Lord, and paralyzed by fear of a similar fate. But, heeding Christ’s command they wait.

The first taste of cleansing fire is the death of Judas. Though he was numbered among the disciples and given the gift of a ministry, he chose to betray Christ and ministry, and is “rewarded for his wickedness” with an ugly death. That is the scary part of fire. It will burn.

But the other followers and Mary choose the better part, open their hearts, and believe the promises. Their flames are of a different sort as they are on fire with the joy of  proclaiming God’s love to everyone. Fire and rushing wind serve this higher purpose of gathering.

Then the Jerusalem church becomes for us the barn of John’s metaphor. Into it are gathered the good grain of people from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, Jews and gentiles alike, widows and orphans, rich and poor.

Those at the time of John the Baptist, full of hunger and thirst for Truth, heard John’s call to repentance and asked “What shall we do?” John answered them, “Open your hearts to all people instead of ignoring them or using them to enrich yourselves.”

So too, here in Jerusalem, the onlookers asked, “What shall we do?” And the Jerusalem church becomes a demonstration project for just how seeds will grow. The coming fire is no inevitable disaster. Each of us has a choice of being chaff or wheat; and the way to be wheat is to open our hearts. Just so the Jerusalem church organizes itself so that no one has too much and no one too little. And this church turns no one away: widows, orphans, a black from Ethiopia, gentiles—no one is a stranger or an enemy. Authentic church is a koinonia—one people.

The demonstration project of the church continues to this day. What John points to, what Jesus makes possible, what Acts illustrates—all this is the story of the wheat. It is the way God’s authentic church lives.

If we are to be baptized with the wind of the Holy Spirit, and with fire, we must give ourselves to the winnowing, the cleansing, and the repentance. This frees us to live like cleansed wheat—with wide open hearts.

The Spirit needs the fire. Without a judgment for those who foster fear, hatred, and violence, there can be no justice. And without justice there can be no salvation. It is for the sake of the wheat—for the sake of salvation—that God sends the Son to baptize with this wind and fire.

The message of John the Baptist, and of the Stronger One he points to, is well expressed in the words of the current Lutheran Affirmation of Baptism service in the service book, Evangelical Worship. This service addresses each of us with the choice to be wheat. It asks…

Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:

to live among God’s faithful people,

to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper,

to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

to serve ALL PEOPLE, following the example of Jesus,

and to strive for justice and peace in ALL THE EARTH?

Our response: “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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