Luke 3:15-18; 21-22
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
As many of you know, I have some unusual hobbies. These hobbies don’t hurt anyone, and they provide me with fresh, great-tasting, and often cheaper-than-I-could-buy-in-a-store food items. I even recently tried making my own sauerkraut, which turned out okay, but still tastes like sauerkraut, just a little better than normal sauerkraut!
My experiments with this “slow food” movement probably started when I first roasted my own coffee beans. I know that I’ve shared about my coffee before, but I’m going to share about it again today. This is the slow food that I have produced the most often and most of, in part because I can make really fresh coffee and have it for less than half what I would pay for good coffee at a coffee shop. So about every two months I purchase around six pounds of green coffee. The beans look like shelled peas, but hard and dense. I’ve tried to eat some green coffee beans, and let’s just say that hasn’t become a common practice in our house.
The roasting process is important for a number of reasons. The bean itself undergoes both a chemical and physical change as the temperature gets up to over 400 F. First you hear a small “crack,” which is the sound of a little bit of moisture escaping the bean. After the first crack the coffee has arrived at the point where we can drink it, and it has changed from a pea-green color to a light brown color. If you stop the roast there, you will have what we commonly call a “light roast.” If you go a little bit longer, the coffee will make a different cracking sound, which the creative people who invented coffee roasting simply call “second crack.” This sound is made when the cellular structure of the coffee bean changes, the fibers known as cellulose actually break, and it sounds like someone is breaking really tiny sticks. At this point we call it a “dark roast.” If you keep exposing the coffee beans to heat, you will eventually end up at a Vienna Roast, or an Italian Roast, which is a favorite among Starbucks drinkers. These roasts bring the bean to a point where they start to carbonize, which is a fancy way of saying that they turn black and start to taste like charcoal. I believe some coffee roasters like to take some beans to this point because it is easier to mask the taste of cheap beans when they all taste like charcoal, but that’s just my opinion.
There are a number of additional physical changes that occur during the roasting period. One of the most noticeable when you observe someone roasting coffee is that about the time the coffee enters into that first crack, you will see a bunch of little particles flying through the air. It almost looks like the roasting coffee is being attacked by gnats. Even though you can’t see them in the green bean, which appears to be solid, green coffee contains a significant amount of chaff. It is really fine and really delicate. If I took a handful and threw it in the air, it would slowly fall to the earth, and I would throw some in the sanctuary for everyone to see, but then I would just have to clean it up later.
I know that some of you enjoy a good cup of coffee. How would you like it if I took a handful of this coffee bean chaff and…put it in your morning cup of joe? Some people put cream and sugar in their coffee, why not coffee bean chaff? I could even grind it up, mix it with some hot water or milk, and then pour it in your coffee. It doesn’t sound too good, now does it? The chaff, even though it is a part of the coffee bean, is not something we want or desire. It is just bad.
Our text for today introduces us to a grownup John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Both of these men are moving toward their calling, but John comes on the scene a little earlier than his cousin Jesus does. And John is doing some pretty extreme things. He is critiquing the religious leaders, teaching some extreme ethics of sharing your food and clothing, and calling all people to repentance. It sounds to me like Jesus and John had some similar ideas, because Jesus is going to do the same kinds of things that John is doing in the early parts of this chapter. Of course, one of the major differences that we find is that John is enacting a symbol of repentance by taking the converts down to the river and performing a ritualistic cleansing we know as baptism.
With their similar message, it isn’t surprising that people start to wonder if John is the messiah, the anointed one from God who would bring reformation to the religious system, freedom from the Roman oppressors, and well-being to the impoverished. So when the people start to question John’s identity, he come right out and says that he is not the messiah. Oh yes, the messiah is coming, John assures the people. But Johns sets them straight in verse 16: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John baptizes with water, but the messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. You may recall that the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, can also be translated as breath and wind. Spirit, breath, and wind all share a number characteristics. They are all invisible, but they are powerful. You can be knocked over by the wind, and you can be knocked over by some people’s breath.
To understand this passage, we need to keep in mind this connection between breath, spirit, and wind. John says that the messiah will baptize with Holy Pneuma and fire, a Holy wind and fire.
John then goes on in verse 17 and tells us, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
I know that there are some here who have more experience raising and processing wheat than I do, so please forgive me if I fail to report the process with 100% accuracy. Today we take $100,000 machines known as combines through our field to harvest wheat, and these combines cut the wheat off at the ground, remove the grain from the plant, and shoot the empty stalk and head of the wheat out on the ground. But back in the old days, even before there were things like wheat threshers, people would cut their mature wheat and bring it into their barns, lay them on the floor, and let them dry down for a period of time. Then, on a windy day, the farmer would open the doors on both side of his barn, take a pitch fork, and start throwing his wheat harvest into the air.
The kernels of wheat, which are what you would grind to make flour, are the most-dense part of the wheat plant. So when the wheat is thrown into the air, the kernel falls straight down, even in the wind. The next densest part of the wheat would be the stalk of the plant, which would blow in the wind a bit, but collect in a pile inside the barn. Wheat stalk is also valuable for animal bedding; we commonly call it straw. But there is an utterly useless part of the wheat as well, the chaff. It is a lot like the chaff that my coffee beans give off when I roast green beans. It is delicate, airy, and blows away in the wind.
The hope when you thresh wheat in this way is to have two distinct piles inside your barn. One pile is made up of wheat kernels and the second is the wheat straw. These are things that you want to keep. These are the things that you worked hard to grow, develop, and harvest. But you absolutely do not want the chaff to stay inside your barn. You want it to blow far away from your barn, house, and other valuable things. That’s because chaff is highly flammable.
After I finish roasting coffee, I make sure to dump any chaff that has accumulated in my roaster outside where it will breakdown and rejoin nature. However, in some of my lazier times, I have skipped this step. Thankfully, I was roasting the coffee outside, because it caught on fire, melting, my roaster and my heat gun. Now that was what you call a dark roast!
John describes the baptism that Jesus brings as being of the Holy Spirit/Wind and fire. He says that it is like a thresher who separates the good parts from the bad. I know that this can be interpreted as Jesus sending some people to eternal punishment and some to eternal reward. And indeed, Jesus does talk about hell more in the Bible than anyone else, like when he talks about separating the sheep and the goats. But in those stories, he is talking about separating two things that are already distinct from one another. One sheep goes here, one goat goes there. But here he is talking about taking apart something that is whole. The kernel, straw, and chaff are all a part of one stalk of wheat. I believe that John is saying that Jesus will take the good that is within us and separate it from the bad that is within us. Because we all have both good and bad within us.
In cartoons when a character is trying to make a difficult decision, we often see that character depicted with two little figures sitting on their shoulders, whispering into their ears. One figure is a devil and the other is an angel. The devil is tempting the cartoon to do one thing while the angel is encouraging the cartoon to do another. Though this is obviously a silly and overly simplistic example of this pull to do good and do bad, I think it is a somewhat accurate depiction of what is actually going on within us 24 hours a day. Within us is a little good and a little bad. For some people, this temptation to do bad may be sexual. It may manifest itself in lust or even in infidelity. Or maybe it has to do with envy or jealousy, which makes its way to the surface when you end up spreading rumors and gossiping about others. Or maybe that little bit of bad makes you want to steal that candy bar from the local gas station. We know that these things are wrong.
But for many of us, there are other bad things, other chaffs that maybe don’t seem so bad to us because they don’t cause us to cheat on our spouse or steal from the local gas station. But these things are chaff, none the less. They are little pieces of impurities that keep us from being what we could be, what we were created to be.
I have chaff, bad, undesired stuff that keeps whispering to me, “You’re not good enough. You’re not appreciated. You’re not loved. Not by your so called friends, and surely not by God.” And when I do receive some kind of love or appreciation, I often find myself saying to myself, “Self, you were able to fool them for a minute. But one day they will figure you out.” And even though I know on one level that I too am a beloved child of God, I also know that it is easy for me to be overcome by the chaff. Chaff, if allowed to accumulate, can suffocate you.
This is why John says that when the messiah comes, he will baptize with the Holy Spirit/Wind and fire. Not only is Jesus bringing his winnowing fork to separate us from our chaff, he is going to blow it away with his Holy Pneuma. But that isn’t enough. We need to get rid of that chaff and simply cannot allow it to accumulate and suffocate us. So Jesus’ baptism is also a baptism of fire. It burns it all up.
But I want to offer a word of caution here. Yes, I believe that Jesus can and does burn up the chaff and all of the bad stuff in our lives that keep us from fully living. But this is where the metaphor breaks down a bit. Because in the real world when something burns it cannot be returned to its original state (for most things, some gases are excluded). If you burn a paper, it cannot return to be paper again. Burn a log, it will never be a tree. But this metaphor breaks down a bit because even though Jesus wants to burn the chaff away from our lives, far too often we find out that this chaff can return.
I know that there are people who have been healed from addictions and from suffering. I know that some people have made drastic changes in their lives and they have never looked back. I am not saying that the burning of the chaff is never permanent. What I’m saying is that it often isn’t.
I think that we can even see this in Jesus’ own life. No, Jesus didn’t sin, but he did have chaff that kept coming back and bothering him. He must have, or else he wouldn’t have been human and couldn’t have experienced everything that we have experienced, as the writer of the book of Hebrews says that he did. I think Jesus’ chaff was questioning his own role as messiah and what was required of him.
This is why we find the clouds opening and spirit descending on Jesus as a voice rings out from the heavens, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Not “Hey everyone, this is my son…” No, this is directed to Jesus. God is reminding Jesus of his divine sonship and his role as the messiah. These words of love and affirmation from God burn the chaff away, for a while.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, he goes out into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. Now there’s some chaff-speaking, discouraging words in your ear! And what does the devil repeatedly utter to Jesus? “If you are the son of God…” This tempter knows what Jesus’ chaff is, and he tries to capitalize on it. But that chaff has been burned, for now.
A few chapters before he is captured and crucified, Jesus goes up to a high mountain and is transfigured. He meets Moses and Elijah there and they chat a bit. About what, I can’t say, but it was probably about sports or the weather, because they are men. No, I’m sure it is about Jesus’ mission and identity. They talk about Jesus’ chaff. And the voice of God comes again from the heavens, “You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” And you can smell the chaff burning.
Finally, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is out praying with his disciples and he is worried about what he knows is coming, and understandably so. He asks God if there is any other way to do this. He may not be questioning his identity here, but he is questioning his mission. This time he does not receive an audible answer, but he does get an answer. Three days later, the chaff is burned away when he bursts forth from the grave. And this time, that chaff is burned up for good.
What does it mean that Jesus brings a baptism of the Holy Pneuma and fire? It means that Jesus will separate the good and the bad from within us, blowing away the bad, leaving nothing but the good. And little by little, Jesus will burn that chaff with a fire that cannot be quenched. How do I know? Because we see it in Jesus’ life as well. And the baptism that Jesus offers is an invitation to follow his ways.
No, the burning of the chaff may not be complete and it might not be permanent this side of eternity. But what the burning of the chaff says is that you will no longer be defined by the chaff. For once the chaff is gone, you have a new identity. You are wheat. You are in Christ. You are baptized with the Holy Pneuma and fire.