Rev. Teri Peterson
Just the Beginning
11 January 2015, NL1-19, Baptism of the Lord
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
You brood of vipers!!
I’ve always wanted to start a sermon that way. I have no idea what situation or text would make it appropriate, and no clue what the sermon would actually be about, but it’s fun to say. You brood of vipers!
It makes me wonder if John the Baptizer—whom I often call JTB—had been waiting for the opportunity to say it too. I picture him standing waist-deep in the Jordan River, calling people to a renewed commitment to living God’s way, when all of a sudden he sees the people who have murmured against him, undercut his message and his character.
It’s no wonder he shouts at them, really. These are people who scoff at John’s ministry, believing that because they grew up in the church, they don’t need to do anything else. They see themselves as the keepers of the tradition, ready to point out when we haven’t done things that way before, ready to offer their perfect bloodlines as evidence of their faithfulness. John wants them to know that God can do amazing things, both with the children of Abraham and with those who will be adopted into the family tree. God calls us all to bear fruit, not just to stand unyielding even if the tree is dead.
John’s words at the end of his rant have echoed through time: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We have read this as a threat, and used it as one too. If we don’t ask Jesus into our hearts, if we aren’t baptized, if we don’t go to church often enough, if we don’t read the right translation of the Bible, if we don’t support the right political party, we might turn out to be chaff, thrown into an unquenchable fire.
Or rather, if other people don’t do these things, then they are chaff—useless, a nuisance, only worthy of being carried away by the wind or burned.
We have forgotten something important about chaff and wheat. Namely: chaff is a part of wheat. These are not two different things, they are together. And as grain is growing, chaff is important—it is the hull that protects the grain from bugs, from the elements, from falling prematurely off the stalk. It is, in most grains, a hard shell that builds up as the stalks grow and the heads mature.
At the harvest, the chaff must be separated from the grain in order for the grain to be useable. That husk is stripped away and sifted out, until what’s left is a pile of grain ready to be ground into flour and turned into bread, and a pile of husks ready to be swept away.
What JTB tells the Pharisees and Sadducees—and everyone else listening that day on the riverbank, and all of us who continue to read his words—is that a life committed to God’s path is a life of letting God strip that husk away so that we can be useful. Much though we might want to hang on to those layers of protection we have so carefully built up, the reality is that those layers keep us from fulfilling our calling. It is only when they are removed that our true nature is revealed and we are ready to be used for God’s purpose.
It can sometimes hurt, and sometimes be confusing, when God pulls off the husks we have so carefully put in place. It makes us vulnerable, and it changes our whole view of the world. Where once we saw through layers of protection, now we see as God intended, and the light can be overwhelming.
If it’s any consolation, this was just as true for good old JTB as it is for us. The final words of his temper tantrum are barely out of his mouth when Jesus wades into the river next to him, and he finds himself protesting. This is all wrong, this isn’t how the story is supposed to go, he wasn’t prepared for this. John had worked it all out, and he was the one who would set the script…except all of a sudden, John and Jesus were standing there together and John discovers that he still had more husk to peel away, more chaff to be winnowed and burned. Through his protesting, Jesus gently pulls…it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness. Not your self-righteousness, not your righteous anger, but true righteousness—right relationship with God, each other, and creation.
In order for us to be in the right relationship to God, and to each other, and to the community, this is the way it must go. Jesus has come to be the next steps on the way, and John is not in charge of the story anymore. He has to give that up and allow himself to be a part of God’s plan, not only his own.
And as Jesus comes up from the water, when both he and John are at their most vulnerable, the plan is revealed in one word:
That’s what Jesus lived, died, and rose to show—that under all those layers: Beloved.
In the life of Jesus we see that we don’t need all that tough husk, because even as it protects us from those things we would rather not see, it also blocks us from knowing Christ in all his fullness. When we stay huddled inside the chaff, our grains of wheat shrink and rot from lack of light. It’s almost as if we are trying to push away grace because we find it uncomfortable to let go of our security blankets. But even inside that dark hull, the reality is the same: Beloved.
No wonder baptism is the ritual we use to symbolize God’s grace already at work in our lives—before we can put up all those layers, before we can respond, God is already there, making kernels of grain that will feed the world, and growing requires water. Baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, and it is the beginning of our communal Christian story. In the water, we see right relationship with God and with each other. Because of course one grain of wheat doesn’t get very far, but many gathered together can create an abundance. It is in this community where we remember that underneath it all is one word: love. It is in this community where we can have some of the husk stripped away, because we are growing into mature faith that is ready to be used for God’s kingdom, and that’s going to mean letting go of our own. It is in this community where we support each other, challenge each other, and practice authentic relationship as we find ourselves broken open again and again for the sake of the world. And around us and in us will be the water of life abundant and eternal, swirling with the voice of God, whispering and babbling and singing and roaring: beloved.
This is just the beginning. Over and over God will pull back more and more layers, and we will squint at the light, and wish we could stay under the covers, and watch as our protective husks are blown away by the winds of the Spirit. Over and over, every time we encounter God’s gift of water, we remember the covenant: that at the center, we are beloved, and we are made for a purpose: to come together into something useful and nourishing for God’s world.