SERMON: Through Unquenchable Fire

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Baptism of Our Lord / First Sunday After Epiphany (Lectionary 1, Year C)

  • Isaiah 43:1–7
  • Psalm 29
  • Acts 8:14–17
  • Luke 3:15–22

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “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. 17 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.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15–22 ESV)

There’s something about threshing floors in scripture.

They aren’t just the place where the wheat and barley are brought in, where the hard physical work of pounding the stalks of grain to separate grain from chaff. They are sacred places, where the sweat of human endeavor meets the all-too capricious grace of God — grace given in soil, sunlight, rain. Or the lack of these things.

Scared places. It was a threshing floor on the far side of the River Jordan where the sons of Israel mourned their father’s death before buying him in the promised land. It was upon a threshing floor that Gideon laid a fleece and twice tested the command of God to go and save Israel. It was upon a threshing floor that Ruth, the Plucky Little Moabite Girl™, seduced her redeemer Boaz, guaranteeing that David would be born and become king of all Israel. It was upon the threshing floor of Oran the Jebusite that David and Solomon built the temple, the house where the God of Israel dwelt amidst his people.

Sacred places. Holy places.

And places of judgment. Because here, at the threshing floor, we finally know — is what we’ve done enough. In this place the work of human hands meets the all the things God gives us that are beyond our control. Do we have enough? Have we done enough? Will there be enough? Farmers — and that was most of humanity throughout most of history — understood just how subject they were to things they didn’t control and couldn’t even begin to understand. All they knew is that the stuff of life, today’s and tomorrow’s meals, and of future harvests, came from this place, and as they worked beating out the harvest they tossed clouds of sharp, itchy and swirling chaff, good for nothing except kindling.

Or to disappear in a stiff wind.

We have today John speaking of judgment. He begins this conversation with the crowds that come to him by calling them a brood of vipers and asking them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And yet, despite the verbal abuse, the people come to John, in anticipation and expectation. They sense, feel, know, that the time of judgment and redemption is at hand. Is John the one?

No, John says. Another is coming — he will baptize with fire, and he will work that threshing floor until the harvest is in, all of it, and there is nothing left but grain in the barn and chaff in the fire.

An unquenchable fire.

Judgment is coming upon that sacred place where the dirty, sweaty, daily work of human hands meets the overwhelming power of the divine.

It’s hard to speak of judgment. Especially a harsh judgment of separation that ends with chaff tossed into an unquenchable fire. We seek a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, and inclusion. A God who leaves the 99 to look for the lost one. A God who welcomes the wastrel son who absconded with his part of the fortune and squandered it on riotous living. A God who forgives and welcomes even penitent thieves into his kingdom.

But there can be no forgiveness, no mercy, without judgment. I’m not merely an unfortunate soul. I’m a sinner. I am lost. I am afraid. I am faithless, a coward when it counts. A betrayer. I trust too much in the work of my hands. I put my faith in gods that did not make me and cannot save me. I have been judged. Am I fruit or am I chaff? What will I become when I hit that threshing floor, when all that I am meets all that God has done and is doing? Will I bear fruit in keeping with repentance?

If I’m chaff … well, that fire of judgment awaits. Maybe it’s the eternal fires of a place we’ve taken to calling hell — some smooshing together of Hades, Gehenna, the special hell that is Tartarus, and the Lake of Fire where all of those places will be consigned. And maybe that unquenchable fire is the destruction brought about by war and conflict, in which Babylon, in which a Roman army, in which Modernity and Enlightenment, destroys the City of David, knocking down the stones of that very temple built upon a threshing floor.

If I’m fruit, it’s because Jesus was light and heat and good soil and rain. It’s because Jesus waded into the water with me. Even as John the Baptist warns the people — and tell me, which of you would go seeking redemption and salvation from a preacher who had rather pointedly called just one of many wriggling, poisonous snakes? — that another is coming with fire and the Holy Spirit, they keep coming. Into the water. It didn’t matter that John said he was unworthy. The people knew what he was giving them. They knew the word and promise of God when they heard it.

So they kept coming. Into the water. Until there were none left to be baptized. Then Jesus came, last, after “all the people.” There he was, at the banks of the River Jordan, the only one in no need of this water, of repentance, of forgiveness. And he waded in. Together, with us, in this water.

He is the beloved Son. We share in that, his anointing, that deep and intense love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he … he shares our judgment. He is thresher and harvest. We nail him to that cross and raise him high outside the walls of Jerusalem in anticipation of the judgment to come. He dies, not for us, but with us.

And just as he walked into that water with us, he walks through the fire of judgment with us. And he is not burned. He is not consumed.

Like a grain of wheat, Jesus is beaten out upon a threshing floor by calloused human hands covered with blood. Jesus is planted. In the ground. And he rises from the dead — new life out of death. This is the promise of God. That the judgment to come may separate the wheat from the chaff, and consign the useless bits to an unquenchable fire. But we who are with Christ need not worry. We will rise again with Jesus.

Because he has gone through water and fire with us.

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