The Baptism of our Lord – C LSB #’s 400, 731, 397
Text – Luke 3:17
His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor & to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.
WHEAT & CHAFF
One of the things I remember from childhood is walking along the edge of fields of wheat. I remember because for some reason a ripe field of wheat swaying in the breeze with the sun shining upon it is a sight that I appreciate. I also remember, because somewhere along the line, I was taught how to shell a head of wheat in order to eat the kernels.
You take a ripe head of wheat in your hands & roll it like this until all the chaff is stripped off. Then you carefully blow the chaff away & you’re left with the grain, which is eatable. I guess it’s one of those rituals that is passed down from generation to generation when you’re raised in the midst a farming culture.
In the sermon text, the picture that John the Baptist paints for his listeners is a very familiar one to the Jews. Because farming was one of their chief occupations, threshing floors were found almost everywhere. They were simply hard packed dirt located in open fields where the wind had easy access in order to quickly separate the wheat & the chaff.
The threshing floor represents the part of the world that God has placed us in. It’s the context in which we live our lives. It’s the good times & the bad. It’s your job, your home, your family, your school, your friends & your enemies. The threshing floor represents everything about your world, believer & unbeliever, saint & sinner.
The wheat are the people who have repentant hearts. The chaff are those who have refused repentance, for whatever reason. God is the thresher man whose separation of the wheat & the chaff is a labor of love. And because it’s a labor of love that separation is not entirely put off until Judgment Day, but begins already in this life. Once death arrives your eternal future is decided. Judgment at the final resurrection simply makes public what has already been seen & determined with your last breath.
Other well-known Biblical imagery, dealing with the concept of separation, speaks of Judgment Day like this: “All the nations will be gathered before Him, & He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:32) On the Last Day the promise of God will be fulfilled; separation will be completed for eternity.
Still another Biblical text brings in imagery from those who make their living off the sea. “When the net was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down & collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come & separate the wicked from the righteous.” (Matthew 13:48)
Do you hear the cadence in these phrases – wicked & righteous, goats & sheep, wheat & chaff? That cadence is meant to march you & me down the road of truth. Many human beings who are alive in this world today will be condemned to hell by God almighty. The sermon text pictures it by saying the Creator will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
That’s a fire which will never go out. The punishment will never end. The people in hell will never find rest. That picture has been lost in our culture. It’s not uncommon for pastors to be asked, “Why are there times when God commanded the Israelites to kill every single person in a city or nation that they had just conquered?”
Our people have lost the picture of a God who is Holy. They no longer understand how the God they know could harm even a flea. The problem is they know only half of Yahweh. People don’t read or don’t comprehend anymore the point of the OT – Jesus Christ is not optional. If you reject Him, as so many in the OT did, you will be removed from His presence for all of eternity. In particularly bloody imagery Jesus tells His disciples it is better to cut off your hand or foot than to spend eternity where the fire never goes out. It’s better to pluck your eye out than to be thrown into hell where the worm does not die & the fire is not quenched.
For the people that Israel conquered, which God ordered to be killed, their death in this life was nothing compared to the punishment awaiting them in eternity. But it’s easy to feel sorry for them because that costs me nothing.
There are living men, women & children whom we have personally spoken with, worked with & lived with who are also on that death march to hell. Have we the courage to warn them before the day in which God has appointed them to die? PAUSE
In the OT book of Leviticus it says, “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (15:31 ESV) The people that Israel was ordered to kill were being punished for their unbelief, but that was not the only reason they died.
God was also keeping His chosen people, Israel, separate from those who were hardened in unbelief & idolatry. God was protecting His children, by separating the wheat & the chaff. Could it be that some of God’s children need protection from you? Could it even be said that you are your own worst enemy?
John the Baptist recognized that in himself. Some, who heard him speak, wondered if he might be the Christ. But John answers, “…I’m not even worthy to be his slave & untie the straps of His sandal.” (John 1:27 NLT) The Baptist was well aware that he was his own worst enemy, & he knew that about the people of Israel as well.
That’s why John was warning them – the wheat & the chaff are even now being separated. Sin & rebellion are also engrained in our nature, & we too must always be warned of the coming fire. We should never take for granted the evil that still lives within. It cannot be asked but politely to leave. The trials & sufferings we endure in this world, in this threshing floor, they are meant not only to separate us from hardened unbelievers, but to separate us from the sinful nature within us. And each of you has felt the pain of that process.
The opening hymn for this service was written for the celebration of Epiphany, a time when Christ is still a child. The lyrics speak of the guiding star that led the Magi to the Messiah. This morning it’s not even three weeks since we celebrated the birth of Jesus, yet in today’s Gospel reading He has aged already 30 years.
In about three months we mark His death with the services of Good Friday. One of His seven words from the cross is this: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” It was there that God’s own Son suffered the greatest separation of all, as He became the chaff which bore the unquenchable fire; a fire that you & I fully deserved.
In Holy Communion we receive the blood that He shed there for the remission of our sins. It is the blood of that Christ, who is the final fulfillment of the Passover Lamb, which marks & separates you so that the angel of death will pass over you. It is we who are the wheat that our Lord gathers into His barn for safekeeping. PAUSE
As parents in a farming culture willingly pass down certain rituals like the shelling a of head of wheat in ones hands, it should bring even greater joy to pass down the comforting news that Jesus has removed everything that once separated us from the love & majesty of our heavenly Father.
The sufferings & trials of this life are not meant to harm, but to separate us from evil that we might never again be separated from our Lord & Creator. As we welcome that good news into our own heart, there are people who have not yet heard but who will rejoice at the news of a God who loves them & searches for them even among the chaff of this world. It’s a labor of love for our Lord to seek that which was lost. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. And while on the cross that Son endured complete separation from His Father in order that you might never have to. Amen.
O God, forsake me not! Lord, I am Yours forever. O keep me strong in faith that I may leave you never. Grant me a blessed end when my good fight is fought; help me in life & death – O God, forsake me not! Amen. LSB 731:4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet