Scripture: Luke 3:1-22

Well good day to you all. I hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year. We are here to see what God has in store for us in 2017. At least I hope that’s one of the reasons why we are here.

Now, if you haven’t been with us since Christmas Eve, you’ve missed a lot, because Jesus is now 30 years old! As a parent, I know kids grow up fast, but I’m pretty sure it’s only been a few weeks since we celebrated his birth! But here we are, moving right into his baptism as an adult.

First though, we have Luke telling us about John the Baptist, or John the baptizer as some of my Baptist friends like to call him.

The way Luke introduces John the Baptist is rather interesting. Luke lists off all these big names: Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and many others. All these big names with great power and authority in the region. And after he lists all these people Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

I’m sorry, who?

Zechariah, isn’t he that priest out there somewhere in a village? Has anyone heard of him? Who is he? And now we’re talking about his son? Who really cares about some son of a nobody living out in the wilderness?

Well, it seems God does because John has received a message from Him. And John is passionately delivering that message to everyone who comes to him. Also, John is baptizing people. He is taking them into the Jordan River and submerging them as a sign of cleansing them from their sins and also as a sign of repentance from those sins. And it seems as though crowds of people are coming to him.

What’s interesting as well about John is that after we’ve heard the names of all these powerful people who live in great palaces, or temples, or big homes as signs of their great power and wealth… where is John living? He is in the wilderness.

The wilderness. A dirty place. Muddy. Lots of bugs. There could be dangerous animals. There’s no shopping centres or grocery stores. It’s not very convenient. In fact, for Jewish people the wilderness might be perceived as unclean, wild and dangerous.

Why would someone go out into the wilderness when you have everything you need right here at your fingertips?

That’s a good question.

The reason we might go out into the wilderness is to get away from all this convenience. To move into a space where we might need to let go of some of our control and learn to depend on someone or something else. We might need to step away from the fabricated world we live in to remind ourselves of who we really are and what’s important to us.

If we look at the Old Testament, there are some great stories of God changing lives. A lot of them happen in the wilderness. Jacob wrestled with God in a tent as he was travelling home to see his brother. Moses met the burning bush, where God spoke to him, on the side of a mountain. God took a whole nation out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness for 40 years to teach them what it would be like to live as God’s chosen people. We can see a pattern that God uses wilderness experiences to form relationship.

When we need some time “away from it all” where do we go? Do we head to Sydney or Halifax? No, here in Cape Breton we head for the Cabot Trail or a beach. Or if we’re lucky enough, we have a cottage we can go to. We head out into nature, we head into God’s creation.

Why? Because that’s where we find peace. We can’t find it among the chaos of streets and buildings human beings have made.

This fits in the with the Biblical pattern that God also meets us in those quiet places. In a way, it’s hard to disagree with people when they say they don’t come to church because they can meet God in nature, or on a golf course (obviously they are better golfers than I am if they can find God there), or climbing a mountain or on a beach, because it is true. But it’s not the only place we can meet God. And often, how many of those people who are meeting God in nature are actually going there to deepen their relationship with Him? Or do they just enjoy the nice feeling before they have to head back in to the noisy office?

In short, meeting God in nature is good. But it’s not how we learn more about Him or grow in our relationship with Him, unless we are going there intentionally, with our Bibles, with our prayers and seeking Him intimately. Notice how Jacob, Moses and even the Israelites all had intimate encounters with God in their wilderness experiences which transformed them because they allowed God’s message to penetrate them.

John, in speaking with those people who come to see him at the shores of the Jordan River, they are hearing a message from him which is inviting them to change their lives. He is asking them to repent from their sins and seek forgiveness. God’s forgiveness.

John preaches that we cannot rely on our ancestry or our rituals. The people he was preaching to were quite confident they didn’t need to do as he was asking them to do because they were Israelites, they were members of Abraham’s family. And because they were members of Abraham’s family they saw themselves as the chosen people who inherited the promise God made to him and his family.

Think of it today as if you might be talking to someone about church, but they will say, “I’m a Christian. I’m grew up going to Carman, but I don’t go to church any more.”

They are claiming they are a Christian because of their family history. That’s not how it works!

What does John have to say to these people? He says, “Don’t rely on your family history, God can make children of Abraham out of rocks if he so chooses. So bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

So the crowd asks, “What do we need to do?” They want to know what this fruit looks like.

The first response is a simple one. If you have an extra coat, give it to someone who needs it. Be generous and loving.

But then the tax collectors ask what they need to do. Now I’m sure people in attendance were expecting John to really rip into them. Tax collectors? You don’t get much more corrupt than tax collectors! Surely there’s no saving them from the depths of hell. So grab your popcorn, the show is about to start!

But what does John say to them? He simply says, “Take no more than you need.” John is asking them to treat everyone fairly. Stop ripping people off.

And what about the soldiers who have come? Surely these men of war are going to be in lots of trouble with John? No, John again says treat everyone fairly. Do your proper job for what you are paid. Don’t take more than what you need.

We’ve seen this as we went through the Old Testament over the last few months. God wants us to be faithful, yes. But he also wants us to be just with one another. To be faithful, is to be be fair, loving and kind to those we meet. It’s funny because it’s not our natural inclination, at least not as a general society. If this was our natural inclination as a society, then there’d be no poverty; there’d be no homelessness; there’d be no need for food banks.

But these things do exist because as a society, we’ve failed one another. It’s a sad thing to say, but there’s truth to it.

John is telling those who are coming to him to be baptized, those who are asking for forgiveness, and their seeking to repent of their sins, he’s telling them that if they are serious about this, then we all need to be taking better care of each other. That’s part of what it means to become closer to God in life.

John is delivering a pretty good message. It’s a challenging one, but it’s also one that people are responding to, because we know the crowds keep coming, and people want to be baptized by him. They want to be closer to God, and right now, he’s the only one who seems to be able to deliver the message. The people aren’t getting it in the city, they aren’t getting it from their religious leaders, they aren’t getting it from the government, yet they sense a deep desire to hear his message and they seek out John. John is coming across like he’s some sort of Old Testament prophet as he declares Good News about God and makes reference to the one who is still to come.

It’s getting to the point where people are wondering if he might be the Messiah. But he’s not, and he continues to share his message.

John tells the people he is simply the messenger. He is the prophet who is preparing them all to receive the true Messiah. John says this one who is coming is far greater than him, so great John doesn’t even deserve to be in his presence. And the one to come will have a far greater message as well.

The truth is John’s baptism is temporary. He is calling people to repent of their sin and seek forgiveness from God. This is all part of the process towards receiving the true gift God wishes to share with us. That is the Holy Spirit, which John says the Messiah, the one who is coming, will give to us.

We’ve talked a bit about the Holy Spirit at times recently. The Holy Spirit is from God and it is what turns our lives completely around. Jesus is the one who gives the Spirit. As Jesus left his disciples at the end of the Gospel of John, he breathed the Holy Spirit into them.

A key part to receiving the Holy Spirit is to first be cleansed from our sin. We need to give it up and give it to God. And there may be times when we need to do this over and over again until the Holy Spirit descends upon us, and even then we will probably still sin once in a while. But when the Holy Spirit comes, we can be assured that our lives will change.

What we do in this church is special. We are doing more than just coming to meet each other on a Sunday morning. We are doing more than just coming and singing some songs and to hear a good story.

We come to church because we think God has something to offer us.

We come because we think that what He offers is better than what we can find elsewhere.

And we come because we believe there is something to be gained because we are here.

Why else would we come? We could be doing lots of other things that are more fun, or restful, or entertaining than what we might find here. So there must be something that keeps drawing us back.

That something is a taste of the Holy Spirit which Jesus is offers.

We may come to church thinking we could never have a life changing experience with God. Or maybe we think we’re past that point in our lives. Or that we’ve already had it and we’re good to go for the rest of our days.

But receiving the Holy Spirit is just another step in the journey. We change, absolutely we do, but God’s isn’t finished with us yet. The Holy Spirit is what directs us and guides us. It will continue to do this as long as we are open to hearing from it. There will be times when maybe we need to be corrected when we have gone off course. It’s ultimately between us and God what sort of life we will have and what sort of changes we will need to make in order to live as Christians.

John also makes mention of burning away the chaff with unquenchable fire. He says Jesus will come with his winnowing fork and separate the good from the bad.

We can look at this from a couple of angles. One is that Jesus will take the bad people away, sending them to eternal punishment. He will send them to hell. This seems pretty straight forward doesn’t it? Don’t live how God would want you to live, that is to live faithfully and justly, then you will pay the consequences of such a life.

I will admit to a certain amount of uneasiness around this. There are so many variables in someone’s life. What about someone who makes a death bed confession? What about people who don’t know God at all because they live in a part of the world where our God isn’t worshipped or taught? What about children? What about people we know, maybe even in our own family, who are good people, and we love them, but they don’t follow Jesus Christ? It’s tough to process this.

The Bible is pretty clear though. We need to know God in Jesus Christ if we are to live with him for all eternity. We can hope for some leniency, but I’m not sure we’ll find it. We just need to trust in God that He has a far greater plan than we can see, and just try and live our own lives as faithfully as possible. And along the way, if we can help someone else come to a greater understanding of Jesus, then that’s all the better for them, and it might help calm our own fears a bit.

The second way we can look at the burning of the chaff is to remember that in the Bible fire is often a sign of purification. So if we take this angle, and I’m not saying this is any better than other ways, it’s just another way. Both ways, I believe, are relevant and important.

If we look at the fire as being used for purification, and if we look at how John is calling people to repentance so they may receive the Holy Spirit Jesus is offering, then we can look at the winnowing fork as a way in which Jesus is purifying our own lives.

Jesus wants to take all the good stuff in us and use it, and us, to do good things. But, there are bad things in our life which keep us from being able to fully engage in this work.

The winnowing fork is used by farmers as a tool to separate the good parts of the harvest from the bad. The farmers scoops up a pile from the floor and throws it into the air, and the heavier seeds fall back down while the leaves, and weeds blow away. The seeds are what we want, the weeds and leaves we want to get rid of.

Back when I was a young man, I spent a few weeks working on a blueberry farm. We were given a bucket and a hand rake and sent out into the field to pick the blueberry harvest. One thing I remember having was a very sore back for a few weeks that summer. For those few weeks we were paid by weight. We were paid by how many pounds of blueberries we could fill into our buckets. Every time we had a full bucket we took it to the manager who weighed it, wrote it down on our sheet, gave us a new bucket and back into the field we went.

My friend and I noticed quickly that if we had a bucket which had a lot of leaves in it, that even though the bucket was full, we wouldn’t be making as much money because the leaves were taking up too much space, and they weighed less than the blueberries. So we figured out, that instead of just dumping our rake into the bucket, if we held the rake a few feet above and let them fall slowly into the bucket, the leaves blew away and our buckets were significantly heavier! By the end of the harvest, my friend and I were the top paid workers because we brought in the heaviest buckets, even if we were going a bit slower than the other pickers.

We had discovered a way, which was nothing new obviously because this method was clearly used in Biblical times, to remove the unwanted bits from our bucket leaving more room for what we wanted to collect.

Now think of Jesus coming into our lives this way. We all have good things in us. And we also have bad things in us. Jesus wants to use the good things, and he wants us to have much more of them. But the bad things are taking up too much space.

We need to let Jesus come in and take out those bad things. We need to let the Holy Spirit, which is so often represented by wind, we need to let it blow out all the bad stuff in our lives so that Jesus can put more good stuff in.

And if we let Jesus do this, the bad stuff will blow off and be taken into the unquenchable fire. That is, it will be destroyed. Gone. It will be no more. Finished. Forever!

Doesn’t this sound like a good thing?

I know I’ve had (and probably still have) things in my life that I need to let go of. Things have impeded me from doing everything God could be using me to do. When I do let go of some of those things, it’s like a weight lifts off your body. You feel so much freer, so much closer to God!

We can all have that if we just ask God to show us the chaff which we need to let Jesus burn from our lives.

Is it an easy thing? No it isn’t. Sometimes God needs us to let go of something we think is very important in our lives. We think it’s so important that we can’t possibly see how it is negatively impacting our relationship with God.

And sometimes we just can’t let it go. We know we should. We may even realize it’s not good for us at all. But we see it as being to big of a part of our life to let go. Or maybe we’re too scared to let it go because we can’t see what comes next. Or maybe we’re scared because we are afraid of what else God may ask us to let go of.

Believe me, it’s not easy at all. And it can be scary.

But God will replace it with something better.

John puts us on the path to this realization for the need to change. He’s the one who calls us to repent and prepare for Jesus coming into our lives.

Who is this Jesus?

Well, let’s take a quick look at the end of our reading, those final words we read from Luke 3, verses 21 and 22. The baptism of Jesus.

First, it’s interesting that Luke doesn’t say the John baptized Jesus. Maybe it’s because John has stated that he’s unworthy himself to be in his presence and Luke could be sparing him from looking otherwise.

But we know from other sources, John baptized many people, including Jesus. And when Jesus came up from the water we hear God speak these words from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

God tells everyone in attendance just who this Jesus is. During the birth narrative others announce it. Mary, the angels, the shepherds, and in Luke we passed over this story, but Simeon and Anna also announce it. But at his baptism, when Jesus is 30 years old and starting his ministry, God himself makes it known that Jesus is His Son, the Messiah, the Promised One.

And the prophet John the Baptist sees the promises and prophecies from the Old Testament come true.

Jesus, the Messiah, the only Son of God, has come.

And great things are going to happen. Lives are going to be changed. The world is going to be changed.

And it has, one person at a time. One life, one heart, at a time.

And we are all part of this life changing movement he created. The church.

The invitation is here if you haven’t accepted it for yourself yet. Jesus has come for you. Are you open to allowing his gift of the Holy Spirit come to you and make you a child of God? To burn away the sin you carry so that you may experience the incredible love of God in your life?

This is the Good News! God has great plans for you.

And so I ask, will you, in 2017, make this the year to fully live your life for him?

Let us pray…

Lord Jesus,

You have come into this world to burn away the chaff so that your goodness: God’s love, grace and mercy may be known more fully in our lives.

And so we ask you to show us what it is we need to let go of so that we may live more fully and receive the full power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Lord Jesus, help us to see that great plan you have for us, our church, and our world so we can live as you would have us live.

We ask this in your most holy name. Amen and amen.