A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
The Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2012
Kyndall Rae Renfro
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
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 granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
The Baptism of our Lord typically conjures up warm, cozy images of a gentle cooing dove descending from heaven and the voice of the Father speaking the cherished words, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” These lovely images are how Jesus’ baptism ends, but warm and lovely is not how the story begins. Instead, things begin with John, who was known for many traits but lovely wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t much for warmth either; his prophetic tongue had only one temperature: blazing hot. Thus the story of Jesus’ baptism begins with John’s rather ominous proclamation about the Messiah: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Most people hear that line about chaff burning up in unquenchable fire and jump immediately to think about the fires of hell, fire for the wicked, eternal damnation, what-have-you, but according to John, the fire is for you, the baptize-ee. You will be baptized with Spirit, and you will be baptized with fire. Fire is not what happens to you if you don’t get baptized; fire is what happens if you do. As John tells it, fire is part of baptism. The fire comes from Jesus and works in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, and these are the ingredients for a baptism with the Messiah.
If you’re confused (or nervous) don’t sweat. There’s a winnowing fork involved, which clears things up tremendously.
The winnowing fork, as you may already know, was what the farmer used to scoop up the grain and toss it in the air, because the wheat had to be separated from the yucky, unusable part called chaff. The farmer would toss the whole mix into the air and then let the wind do the job of separating the wheat from the chaff. The wheat, which was heavier, would fall back down onto the threshing floor, while the wind would carry the chaff off a bit, separating the two parts. The grain was kept, and the chaff was burned, all thanks to the wind for dividing them.
You may also know that in Hebrew the word for Spirit is ruah, and in Greek the word is pneuma. Both ruah from the Old Testament and pneuma from the New Testament mean Spirit, but they also mean wind, breath, the movement of air, etc. Thus Spirit is understood to be like wind. You can imagine, I’m sure. The Spirit moves where it wills unseen but felt, invisible but full of power, unpredictable and uncontainable, capable of gentle breeze and ferocious storm, untouchable and yet as close to you as a gust running through your hair. This is Spirit, the ruah of God, puema, God’s breath, God’s wind.
So, what if we re-imagined baptism using John’s imagery? What if baptism is when you get thrown in the air by the winnowing fork of God, the Wind, i.e. the Spirit, blows through, and you are purged?
Perhaps we could even say the heavier, meatier, created-in-the-image-of-God parts of you fall back down to the threshing floor while the yucky, unusable parts of you get blown into the fire, like your sins are being siphoned away. Baptism may be a way of splitting us open, letting the wind and water of God wash through us and have its way—our very first faith act of surrender.
We tend to talk about baptism as an encounter with grace, and it is, and but grace may not be as lovely and warm as we might have hoped. Grace may, in fact, burn. Writer Belden Lane says God’s grace sometimes comes like a kick in the teeth, arrives in some grotesque form that will startle us into seeing our sin, recognizing our need. Grace is the prophet’s voice that “disturbs us into accepting our condition” and receiving our healing. According to John, the grace of baptism is meant to be hot, intense, and frightening as it washes your sins away or singes them off with fire.
There’s a reason they used to baptize in rivers, rather than in ponds. You needed water that was neither neutral nor calm. You needed water that was rushing, forceful, turbulent—something that moved like wind—otherwise you might not get the point that this was dangerous business. Parts of you are going to die—all for the sake of new life and resurrection, of course—but dying is still deadly all the same. It takes a lot out of a person, to die, and I suppose that’s the point. We have a lot we need to be rid of.
Of course, we know from life experience that certain sins stick with us, even after baptism. We’ve learned firsthand that we will need the Grace of Purging again and again. John calls this the unquenchable fire. It keeps burning, which I think is a way to say the process of purgation never ends. Which is not a punishment, by the way, but a great mercy. You enter the process by way of baptism, but the baptismal waters are only the beginning. The purifying, the transforming, the separating out of your good from your bad, all that will last a lifetime. The saints have given it various names: sanctification, growth, illumination. The point is: baptism gets you going, but Grace and Spirit and Fire will follow you all the days of your life. Baptism is the way you say yes. Yes to God, yes to holiness, yes to transformation. For the rest of life your chaff will keep being drawn out. God will keep on harvesting your grain, finding what was created in you and meant to last, meant to be kept, meant to be given for the good of the world, meant to be valued.
It’s much more effective, evangelistically-speaking, to save fire for the damned and spare the baptized. Hell-fire will win you more converts, typically, than this talk of dying and purging and baptizing with fire. It is far more attractive if grace is the thing that pulls you out of the fires rather than grace being the thing that meets you inside the fire.
Understandably, some people grow up in the church but never take the plunge, not really. They’d rather just stick their toes in but keep their clothes and hair dry, thank you very much. Like a person who will ride in boat with a lifejacket but is scared to get wet. I grew up swimming like a fish, learning about water as naturally as I learned about walking, but not everyone has that experience. Some people never learn to swim at all and thus they spend their days on land, in boats, afraid of water, afraid of drowning. I have heard, though, that if you dunk your baby under water before they turn six months of age, they won’t be scared of water later in life, and they’ll probably grow up to be good swimmers. If you think dunking sounds like a cruel thing to do to a baby, I learned this from Ryan. (His kids seem okay so far.) But the point is, maybe that’s what baptism is like. You’re an infant to the faith when you get started, and the first thing we do is dunk your whole head underwater. You couldn’t be less equipped to face turbulence, so down you go, into the waters, relying on Spirit to see you through. Right away you are learning to let go of that which can’t save you in the end.
All of this seems to beg the question: Why would Jesus get baptized, if he had no sins from which to be purged? I always been told he did it in order to be an example to us, and I suppose that’s true, but I’ve never found that to be a particularly compelling reason. There must be more to it than that.
My hunch is this: Jesus didn’t have any sins to confess, but Jesus did have to die. Dying was part of what he came here to do. Surrendering. Letting go. Suffering. Giving one’s life away. It would take a great deal of trust to finish what he started. So symbolically, he dies in the waters of baptism; he begins his ministry with an act of surrender.
Right after his baptism, he will head to the desert for forty days, a wild terrain that will require radical dependency on the provision of God. Just like entering the waters of baptism, survival will be uncertain and faith will be a necessity.
There is so much one gains walking with God, living by faith as a recipient of grace, that is true. But there is so much one loses too, walking with God, living by faith as a recipient of grace. You acquire a drastically loosened on grasp on your false salvations. I think Jesus got baptized in the Jordan in preparation for the temptations of the desert and in preparation for death. To show us that we have much we must lose before we can live. Much to let go off. Much for the Wind to blow away if it wills. Chaff to burn. It can be very frightening to lose so much and not many people choose it, not really.
But as another prophet once said, “When you pass through the waters, God will be with you. When you walk through the fire, you will live.” Amen.
 Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, 32.