Saturday, January 23, 2021

“Jesus and the Pitchfork” - January 10, 2021

Text: Luke 3:1-22


Children grow up before you know it, don’t they?  Take Jesus, for example.  Two weeks ago, he was a baby, born in Bethlehem, and then last week a 12 year old at the temple, causing consternation for his parents.  Here we are one week later, and he is a grown man.  Time flies.

Our scripture today focuses on John the Baptist.  As you may have already noticed, Luke likes to set things in the historical context.  “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee… and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.”  This is a kind of timestamp.  Tiberius began his reign in the year 14, so this is the year 28 or 29.  Jesus is around 30 years of age.  

Just as Jesus has grown up, so has John.  The last time we read about John, he was not yet born.  He was leaping with joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greeted her.  Now he is out in the wilderness, the crowds flock to him, and he rains down judgment.  It is not exactly a warm and fuzzy message.

John is challenging the traditional powers, challenging religious authority.  He says, you don’t have to go to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem, you can come out here in the wilderness and repent of your sins.  That list of political and religious authorities that Luke begins with may be more than just a timestamp – John, and Jesus whom he points to, represent an alternative to those powers, a completely different kind of power.  Luke is painting a big contrast.

John lays it on pretty strong.  “You brood of vipers,” he says.  “And don’t even get me started about Abraham as your ancestor.”  He is saying that their ancestors’ merit and their family identity is not enough.  They are responsible for their own lives.

John calls for repentance, for change of life, and people are drawn to it – maybe because people know they need to change their lives.  And so they ask, “What shall we do?”

John’s response is very interesting.  If you have two coats, share with somebody who has none.  If you have extra food, share it.  If you are a tax collector, don’t rip people off.  Soldiers were among those who came to John – presumably Roman soldiers who were part of a peacekeeping force.  John tells them, don’t shake down people on the streets for protection money – be satisfied with your pay and don’t resort to extortion.  

The bar seems kind of low.  Maybe they were expecting John would say something really hard.  Don’t cheat and steal doesn’t seem that tough.  Share the extra you have doesn’t seem that hard.

This may seem easy, but it can be deceptive.  If you have an extra coat, share it.  Well, the hard part is deciding what is extra, isn’t it?  I’ve got an everyday coat I wear, really a ski jacket.  I’ve had it for years.  Then I have an older parka that is my snowblower and blizzard coat.  And a dress coat.  And a rain coat.  And a lighter jacket.  And a windbreaker and a couple of fleece jackets.  And some sportcoats and suit jackets and – well, what do we really need and what is extra?  

When do we cross the line - on coats or anything else – to more than we need, to indulgence?  The challenge is to live a life of openness and sharing and caring for those who do not have enough rather than a life of accumulating for ourselves.  There were people who literally did not have clothes to wear.  Do you share your extra coat?  That coat represented security.  John calls for the vulnerability of sharing.

I love that what he calls for is so tangible.  He doesn’t just say, be concerned for justice - he spells out how to do it.  And this isn’t just for the uber-rich – he calls on regular people, like tax collectors and soldiers – to treat others fairly and not just look out for themselves.

People are wondering if perhaps John is the Messiah, and John says, “No, one greater than me is coming; I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.  I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.”  And then he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This sounds pretty hard core.  What is John is talking about?  A winnowing fork?  Some of us wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork.

Here’s the way it worked: before grain was ground for flour, it needed to be as clean as possible.  After harvesting and threshing, it contained a lot of chaff – the outer husks of the grain and other stuff you did not want in your bread.  To winnow, you might take a basket of grain and go outside on a windy day and pour it into another basket.  In doing so, the chaff would be blown away while the heavier grain would fall into the basket.  Another method would be to use a winnowing fork.  After grain had been beaten out of the husks, or threshed, you would have grain on the floor mixed with chaff.  You would take the winnowing fork and throw the grain into the air, allowing the chaff to be blown away.

It is interesting to me that Jesus is pictured by John with something like a pitchfork.  This seems seriously fire and brimstone.  Did you know that the devil is never described in the Bible as having a pitchfork, but Jesus is?  All these years, we’ve seen those cans of Underwood Deviled Ham, with the little red devil with a pitchfork, and it turns out they were wrong all along.  Jesus is the one with a pitchfork!  This being Iowa, with Grant Wood and American Gothic, I would have thought that this image of Jesus with a pitchfork would have caught on, but for some reason it hasn’t.

The question, of course, is what John meant by this image.  It sounds as though John is saying that when the Messiah comes he will separate the good from the bad, and the bad will have a price to pay.

But this is not the way Jesus characterizes his own ministry.  Jesus was not about separating people, but bringing people together.  He was not about excluding people, but including people.  He did not treat people as chaff to be discarded.

Here is the thing: chaff is mostly part of the wheat plant.  So maybe this is not about separating good and bad people, but maybe it is about working on those parts of our own lives that need to change, that we may need to leave behind.  We all have some chaff.

In a reflection on these verses, Tom Ehrich asked if perhaps we have misunderstood John here -- if we have misplaced the emphasis of his words.  Luke goes on to tell how Herod the ruler was offended by John’s rebuke and imprisoned John for a time.  Ehrich says that John’s offense lay in insisting that the coming of Jesus represented a need for people to decide between good and evil.  That was not what Herod wanted to hear, and it’s not necessarily what we want to hear either.  

Ehrich wrote, “John said what few dare to hear, which is that life matters, how we take each day matters, our behaviors draw us close to God or not, and, while not all in life will be wonderful, all will be filled with the wonder of God.”

The choices we make matter.  We can choose to accumulate for ourselves or share with others.  We can choose to not rock the boat or we can choose to stand up for what is right.  We can love our neighbor or we can ignore our neighbor in need.  We can look out for our own tribe or we can value all of God’s children.

Like you, I was – astonished and mortified - to see an angry mob descend on the Capitol on Wednesday.  It was hard to believe what we were seeing.  Something that got my attention in the midst of all of it was a giant Jesus Saves banner that some of the rioters were carrying.  It was really striking.  

How did we ever get to this point?  To me, the scene was not just sickening; the actions of some of the people there were blasphemous.  People were using Jesus as a kind of mascot for their own cause.  

John said, “Don’t tell me how you are children of Abraham.  What matters are your actions.  Today, John would say, “God couldn’t care less about your Jesus signs or your Jesus talk.  God demands a new way of living, faithful living that shows love for your neighbor.  

I mentioned this at our devotion on Thursday night.  As we talked about it, we agreed that we can all make Jesus our mascot to bless whatever choices we make.  John the Baptist calls us out on that.  We all have choices to make about how we live and whether we will choose Jesus’ way.

Jesus made a choice himself.  In humility, he submitted to John’s baptism.  He was there, among the people.  He was baptized like everybody else – he did not think himself above others.  He recognizes his connection to the community.  He does not act like he is special.

But there is confirmation that he is special.  After his baptism, as he was praying, there is a voice from heaven saying, ”You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  For Jesus, his baptism was an experience of affirmation of his identity and calling.  God is delighted in him.

Our baptism represents the choice we have made to follow Christ.  It represents repentance and trust and faith and is an experience of God’s grace.  In our baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter…you are my beloved son.”

As Christians, we are called to live out our baptism by following in Jesus’ ways, by continuing his ministry on this earth.  We don’t think of ourselves as needing a winnowing fork to live the Christian life, but maybe that’s not a bad image.  We consider various ideas, throw stuff out there and allow the wind of the Spirit to decide what’s good and what’s not, what builds up and what doesn’t.

It’s not just obvious choices between good and bad; we have to separate the important from the merely urgent, the good from the best.  We have to learn to separate those things that are attractive but fleeting from that which is solid and lasting.  

We have to learn to separate those core beliefs and values and commitments that matter most from those more peripheral matters that are not so important and on which we sometimes need to just agree to disagree.  A winnowing fork just might come in handy.

This is not to say that the choices facing us are always easy.  But in all of our decision-making, we live in God’s grace.  In those times when the way does not seem so clear, we can rest in knowing that God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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