First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana


Sifted, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
First United Methodist Church, January 13, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer

Sometimes we misunderstand.  We get things wrong. We mishear, we misread, we miss the inflection behind the voice, behind the words.

Perhaps we'll receive an email or a text message that is puzzling to us. A friend or relative or coworker sends a few sentences off to us with a twinkle in their eye and the hint of a smile but you can't see that. The message is fun for them and they want it to be fun for you, too, but you look at it and wonder: what is this about?  What are they saying?

Sometimes we'll go through days or months or years carrying a burden of what we heard someone say that wasn't their intention at all. But we received it, didn't ask for an explanation, and have carried it with us ever since.  And it ended up being a burden…a rift in the relationship…a bump on our journey.

As we read this morning's scripture, we can see there has been a misunderstanding. The people were filled with expectation, the text begins.  They are so ready, so wanting a savior who will bring down Roman rule, who will lead them, who will reform them into their own nation.  It is obvious that John is charismatic—people are drawn to him, they come out into the wilderness to hear him preach, in spite of his appearance and odd ways. They are moved by his preaching. There are so many who respond to his invitation to be baptized, to turn away from sin, to ask forgiveness, to begin a new life.  Looking around and seeing the great crowds of people, listening to his bold preaching, there are those who think he is THE ONE: he is the long-awaited Messiah.  But whenever someone suggests this to him, John is always very clear.  He knows he isn't the Messiah: his role is to prepare the way for the Messiah. 

Still, many are convinced that he is the one promised.

John tries to explain: I'm not the one you're waiting for!  He's not sure who the Messiah is, but he knows that his role is prepare the way for him.

"I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than me is coming. I'm not worthy to loosen his sandals! He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."  John then continues with an example from the agricultural world, talking about sifting the wheat from the husks.  In some translations the word used is "winnowing fork."  In the Common English Version, the word used is "shovel."  In earlier days, and certainly the first century hearers, would understand what John is saying. But in this day, when a whole lot of us haven't grown up on farms, and when huge machinery does all the work of separating, those words might leave us a little puzzled.  For me, the puzzlement has created some misunderstanding. I think I've gotten caught up in the words and missed the point.

Here's the process John was talking about: Grain is harvested and brought to the threshing floor where it's cleaned.  This is done by throwing the grain up into the air with a winnowing fan, which is a fork-like shovel (as described in this version).  The wind then does its work. The wind takes control of the process, separating the wheat from the chaff—which is a mixture of the heavy husks and straw.  The wheat falls away from the chaff.  The chaff is collected and burned, and the wheat remains safely stored in the barn.

John, and later Jesus, both preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  With this story of the wheat and chaff, it's the wind that does the work: it’s the wind that sifts/separates the good part of the grain from the bad and unusable part. It's the Holy Spirit that does the sifting of the good from the evil; the righteous from the unrighteous. The light of truth, or the movement of the wind, exposes the unrighteous.  Jesus holds the shovel, and the Spirit does the work.

John continues: "He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn.  But he will burn the husks with a fire that cannot be put out..."

So that's the part I've had trouble with.  This is the part I've avoided because I have a hard time understanding it. The God that I love and the Jesus I've come to know doesn't throw people out; He doesn't give up on us.  Along with this text, I think of a similar one where the sheep and goats are separated in Matthew 25. There are those who inherit the kingdom because they have offered food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, welcome to the lonely, and they've visited the sick and imprisoned.  Those who do not do those things are sent off to the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. Jesus says in that parable, "what you have done to the least of these, you've done to me."

So I begin to fret: what if I've misunderstood something, said something, done something or not done something, not out of meanness or disregard, but out of my own, frail, weak, less-than perfect humanness?  I don't want to be thrown out!

The part that I know and am convinced that I haven't misunderstood, is that God doesn't want us to live in fear or have to worry about what God has in mind for us. The bottom line is that Christ died on the cross for us, and wants us to live our lives with hope and righteousness and grace and love.  That's why he was born and that's why he died. But the truth is, there is chaff in each of our lives. There are pieces of us that get in the way of who God created us to be. For us to be good wheat that is useable—to be fully alive—we need to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, blowing away the shame, the greed, the racism, the fears, the addictions, the arrogance, the stubbornness, the meanness or whatever it is that sometimes rears its ugly head; whatever might get in the way of our relationship with God and one another.

It's true. There are those who don't want to live a righteous life. There are those who are evil to the core. I don't know how that happens or where it comes from, but if someone does not want God I think that God is respectful of that.

But there are many more who simply don't know God; who don't know Jesus. Those of us who do, have a responsibility to share the word of God's love and grace, so they can come to know him, too.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God doesn't call us to be perfect, but God's desire for us is to live our lives in thankful response to what God has done for us. God wants us to shed the husks, to let the Holy Spirit work within us, that we might be our best selves.

This morning's text ends with a word of grace. Jesus comes to be baptized. Everything we know about Jesus says he was sinless and holy, and yet he comes to the water and stands in line with all the others who have gathered to see John and to listen to him.  He's there with all the sin-sick and lost souls who are looking for a new way of living.  Perhaps he's there because he wants us to know that he's with us through all those times of our lives.  Our sins don't scare him away!  Jesus then goes under the waters of baptism, and he comes back up and prays. The sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice is heard from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness."  

One of the things I love to do early in the New Year is remember our baptisms. It is a time to remember that God has received us as members of God's family, that we've been given a new name "Christian," that our sins are forgiven, that we can start new, and that we have been claimed by God forever, no matter what. What husks might weigh us down, God's Spirit moves and can help us to shed them. Our lives can be whole.

Everyone is welcome to the baptismal font this morning.  If you haven't been baptized, come forward…if you let me know we can take care of that now or at another time!  There is a little disc in the water for you take with you, to help you remember your baptism, and God's claim upon your life.  May the waters remind you, and may the little disc remind you of these words, offered at your baptism:  "You are my child, my beloved. I'm proud of you."  

May you hear and not misunderstand.