Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the things that sometimes strikes me as odd is how we end our Gospel readings. No matter what the reading just was, we always end, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Now, when you end on the Gospel like we do today, “You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased,” it makes a whole lot of sense. That’s good news! Jesus is God’s Son who has come to take our place, to identify with us, and even to undergo a baptism for repentance, though He had no need to repent. But other times, our Gospel readings don’t have anything that sounds even remotely like good news. Perhaps it would end with something like the middle of our reading, “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.” “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Do you hear the contrast? What of that is good news?
Yet that’s exactly what Luke says of this kind of preaching in the very next verse. “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” How is this good news? John’s been spending most of his career warning the people around him of what’s to come, or more accurately, who’s to come. The Messiah is coming. But in John’s preaching, that’s not always a good thing. The Messiah is coming to judge. He’s coming to call out evil and get rid of it all together. Just before today’s reading, John cries out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And in today’s reading, he adds, “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. 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.”
Now, we don’t talk about threshing or winnowing much anymore, but we’ve got a number of farmers here that know what’s going on. You’ve got to thresh the wheat to detach the heads of grain from the rest of the stalk. And then, you have to winnow it to remove the light, dry stuff that’s pretty useless so that all you’re left with is the good wheat. It’s an intense process that used to involve hours and hours of hard manual labor. John here pictures the Messiah, Jesus, as the laborer. His winnowing fork is in His hand. As a farmer separates the good from the bad, The Messiah will as well. Just as the farmer burns up the chaff, so the Messiah will burn the wicked with unquenchable fire. “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” How is this good news? What good can a baptism of fire do?
Because I’ll tell you, we don’t deserve the baptism with the Holy Spirit, but the baptism with fire. At least, that’s what I deserve. My sins and your sins fly in the face of God’s truth. We know what we’re supposed to be doing, but we don’t do it. We know how we’re supposed to act, but we don’t act that way. We know what we’re supposed to avoid, but we do it anyway. We know what God wants, but end up doing what we want instead. We may hear what God has to say, but we don’t listen or obey. John the Baptist may do well to call us a “brood of vipers.” We’re called to bear fruit, but more often than not, we kick our feet up, sit back, and relax and let our branches wither and die. Yet “even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
But that’s not really what we want, is it? Leave aside the fire for a moment, and just take a look at our actions as Christians. We do know better. We don’t want to keep on sinning, but that’s just what we keep on doing. Time and time again, we come before God, wanting to serve Him, wanting to follow Him, wanting to do what He wants us to do. But so often our actions just don’t line up with our will. We can rightly say with the apostle Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” You and I are baptized children of God who yet struggle with sin. As Luther famously put it, you and I are at the same time both saint and sinner. We fight back against our sin, but seem to make no headway.
It’s for this very reason that Christ has come. He came to be baptized as one of us and take our place as one who needs to repent. He took our place in life, living perfectly under God’s will and submitting in all things to Him. He took our place on the cross, dying so that we may life, taking our punishment so that we might be free. Though He is the one who separates the wheat from the chaff, on that cross, Christ was burnt. He experienced God’s unquenchable fire, the baptism of fire that we deserve. By Jesus’ death, you and I are redeemed, bought by the precious blood of Christ.
“This is the Gospel of the Lord.” Yes, there is a judgment awaiting this world, a baptism of fire. But for all those who belong to Jesus, to all those who are called by His name, the fire is already spent. We have a Savior, a Messiah, God’s beloved Son who took that wrath for us. All this has been God’s plan from before the beginning. His words through the prophet Isaiah are for you as much as they were for the people 2700 years ago.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.’ ” Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Lobe den Herrn
B. A. Woell