Wheat and Chaff, Water and Fire 01/13/19 (Epiphany 1C)

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22
January 13, 2019
First Sunday after the Epiphany/Baptism of Christ (Year C)

Holiday remorse. Ever hear of it? It’s “the guilt-driven response you have to holiday excess that becomes the catalyst for New Year’s Resolutions and intentions. What happens is that we go through the holidays abandoning most – if not all – restraint, while indulging our bacchanalian impulses. Bellies full, we manage to sleep well at night clinging to the rationalization that, come the new year, we’re going to lose the weight and get in shape. Yes, and I can show you a holiday road to hell paved with New Year’s intentions.” [1]

So how are those New Year’s resolutions going for you? If you’re still going strong, congratulations! You’re way above the other 80% of us who will have fallen off our improvement wagon by mid-February.

In all seriousness, though, there’s something interesting going on here in this impulse to make resolutions every year. It’s good to have goals and to want to grow and change in positive, healthy ways. But it could be that underneath all of those positive goals and hopes for healthy change lies a perhaps less helpful basic assumption, and that is this:

We are never good enough. And it feels that until we get better, until we do better and are better, we’re not worthy of love.

Now, again, as with the resolution-keeping, it may be that this is not something you particularly struggle with. You may pretty much feel like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” But most of us, if we’re honest, probably feel – at least from time to time – that we’re only as good and as worthy as we strive to become – and we never really get to the ideal, of course.

If you are struggling with feeling “not enough” these days, it could very well be that John the Baptist’s words to the crowd at the Jordan River seem pretty harsh and maybe even existentially threatening: “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.” (Lk. 3:17)

What if I’m the chaff?

People often hear this passage and assume that the unquenchable fire means hell. And if I’m the chaff, then I’m headed straight for the eternal fires of hell. But one scholar pulls us back from that precipice when he says, “I’ve always been amused at those who take the latter part of this verse literally, but not the former. If hell literally is an unquenchable fire, per this verse, then heaven is literally…a granary?” [2]

In other words: hold up. Let’s not assume this is a passage about good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell where they will burn for eternity. Let’s look at it more closely.

As you may already know, wheat is made up of two parts: the grain and the husk. The husk is a hard outer shell – the chaff – which forms around the soft inner seed. The seed is edible; the chaff is not. To loosen the inedible chaff from the inner seed, the grain is pounded – or threshed. Separating the grain from the husks is done by winnowing – most often in Jesus’ day by throwing the whole lot into the air and letting the breeze blow the lighter chaff away.

So yes, sure, wheat/good; chaff/bad. Right? Again: not so fast. It turns out, of course, that the chaff has a purpose: it protects the seed as it grows. It’s absolutely necessary for a certain period of time.

What if, in John’s analogy, it isn’t that some people are wheat and others are chaff? What if, instead, John is reminding us that we all are both wheat and chaff?

Or, to put it even more precisely, what if all of us are wheat, but we all have a little bit of chaff built up around us – possibly originally to protect us – which is keeping us separated from one another and from God and, in a deep sense, separated from our truest selves?

The chaff is a constellation of things: it’s all the habits and behaviors and attitudes that we’ve adopted over time to protect our vulnerability, to keep us from getting hurt. And our most vulnerable spots are the parts of ourselves we aren’t satisfied with; the parts of ourselves someone else or society has told us to be dissatisfied with; guilt or shame over things we’ve done or left undone. The chaff is our own voice or culture’s voice saying that deep down we just aren’t good enough.

But that’s not what God’s voice is saying to us. Through the prophet Isaiah, God – the one who created us, the one who formed us – says, “Do not fear, 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.” (Isa. 43:1-2)

But it’s so hard to hear that message, isn’t it? I mean to really hear it. Those other voices are so loud – the ones that tell us that sure, God will love us, but only after we earn it. Sure, God will forgive us, but only after we prove we’re worthy of it. It seems we just can’t quite believe that it’s possible that God already loves us, just as we are. We get it backwards. We think God will only love us after God forgives us, and since we’re not good enough we can never really, completely, earn that forgiveness.

But that’s not it at all, no matter how true those thoughts feel. God forgives us because God already loves us. All the ways we mess up or fall short? Those things are just part of the human condition. They don’t change the fundamental truth of God’s steadfast love. And yet it’s often so hard to fathom that God looks at each and every one of us and calls us beloved.

And we’re not the only ones to feel this way. After all, Isaiah had to speak those words to someone, didn’t he? Someone before us, I mean. Clearly God’s people in Judea in Isaiah’s time needed to be reassured of God’s love. Even Moses and St. Paul struggled to believe that they were good enough, that they could be loved and could serve God the way they were. I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who can believe in the inherent worth and loveableness of others while struggling to believe that the same can be true of me.

So what is our God to do? We’ve been given prophets, kings, sages. We have whole libraries of scriptures, stories, songs. And still, we just can’t quite accept our belovedness.

So God sends Jesus, the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Holy Spirit: the breath of God which will blow away the chaff that has hardened around our hearts.

The Holy Spirit: the fire that burns that chaff up, using it as fuel to strengthen us as we grow in God’s love.

The Holy Spirit: the water that touched our foreheads at our baptism, when we were named and claimed as God’s own.

This morning we heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism. One of the details I love about this passage in Luke is that we see that Jesus is not alone. This is not some private ritual held apart from the crowds. No, when the dove descends and the voice comes from heaven, declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved, we hear that “all the people were baptized.” I picture a crowd of people, all of them wet or waiting to get wet, and right in the midst of them is Jesus. He’s praying, as maybe many of them are as well, but he’s surrounded by others who have come seeking a sign of God’s love and forgiveness.

All the people.

When we were baptized, we were baptized in a community of faith, into a community of saints. We stood then, and we stand now, in a long, long line of people stretching before us and after us, all one human family. Each and every one of us is a beloved child of God. All of us part of not only a human family, but a family that includes the God who loves us as a parent loves a child. It’s a family that includes the Son of that parent – who is also our parent – and who therefore is our brother. One family, held together by love.

And each and every one of us in that big family, that big community of saints, has been baptized, just like Jesus was. That’s another thing we get backwards. It’s not that Jesus gets baptized like we do. The amazing thing is that we get to be baptized like he was. We get to receive this visible sign that God loves us truly and deeply and completely – “warts and all.”

As professor and pastor David Lose says, “In baptism, God proclaims God’s love for us; calls, names, and claims us as God’s beloved children; gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit;…and then, because of God’s love for us, God also promises to forgive, renew, and restore us at all times.”

So today we are going to do as Christians across denominations like to say: we’re going to remember our baptisms, and be thankful. We are going to remember that on that day, perhaps many, many years ago, we stood – or were held – and we were baptized. And a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved. With you I am well-pleased.”

Thanks be to God.

[1] Joseph Luciani, “Why 80 Percent of New Year’s Resolutions Fail,” U.S. News & World Report, 29 Dec. 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Beloved Son, Delightful Servant.”




Leader: Dear friends, on this day of re-creation we recall all God’s saving acts through water.
We remember Christ’s baptism, and we claim and remember our own.

People: We gather at this font of living water
to celebrate God’s ever-flowing redeeming grace.
We long to draw ever deeper from the well of God’s mercy.
We celebrate the Spirit with us – refreshing, renewing, making us one.


All who are able may stand.

Leader: Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
People: I do.
Leader: Do you believe in God?
People: I believe in God, the creator of heaven and earth.
Leader: Do you believe in Jesus Christ?
People: I believe in Jesus Christ, the one who redeems us all.
Leader: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
People: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of life that sustains us all.
Leader: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and community, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Leader: Let us pray.
People: In this and all we do, keep us faithful to our Savior Jesus Christ, forever and ever. Amen.


Come, come to the water.
Come, you who are thirsty.
Come to the water.
For the mighty acts of God are known to us through water.
Water, that primordial pool of creation over which the Spirit hovered.
Water, that cleansed the whole earth for new beginnings, new growth.
Water, that divided so slaves could walk to freedom on dry ground.
Water, our bath, our tomb, and our womb.
Water, by which we are adopted as daughters and sons of the Most High.
Come to the water and give thanks to God whose mighty acts are known to us through water.

[People are invited to come stand at the font.]

Let us pray.
We thank you, God, for the gift of creation
called forth by your saving Word.
Before the world had shape and form,
your Spirit moved over the waters.
Out of the waters of the deep,
you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life.
In the time of Noah you washed the earth
with the waters of the flood,
and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning.
In the time of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam,
your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery
to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the promised land.
In the fullness of time you sent Jesus Christ
who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb.
Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan,
became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well,
washed the feet of the disciples,
and sent them forth to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

[Water is poured.]

Bless by your Holy Spirit, gracious God,
this water,
that by it we may be reminded
of our baptism into Jesus Christ
and that by the power of your Holy Spirit
we may be kept faithful until you receive us at last in your eternal home.

Eternal God, you have come to us in Jesus Christ,
given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit,
and forgiven all our sins.
Bless us now with the grace we need to fulfill what we have promised.
Keep us faithful to our Savior Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

You are invited to come forward and dip your fingers into the water;
you may touch them to your forehead if you wish.
And as you come, remember your baptism, and be thankful.

[Repeated for each person: Remember your baptism, and be thankful.]

Let us return to our pews and sing together “God, When I Came into This Life,” No. 354 in The New Century Hymnal.

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