Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany -Deacon Sherm Everett

 

It appears to me, on reflection, that today’s Gospel is a story that has two parts, two different perspectives to be considered.

One part represents what I will term “Old Testament” thinking.

The second part  I would term “New Testament” thinking.

Stay with me for a moment while I try to explain

In the first portion of the Gospel, John replies to the question:

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah?,
John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; … 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.”

Let’s think a minute about this “Threshing Process”.

The threshing  process was the act of separating out grain by the feet of people or oxen, stamping on the stocks of wheat, and later, tossing them into the airwith the use of a winnowing fork. A threshing floor is  a specially flattened outdoor surface, usually circular and paved, or inside a building with a smooth floor of earth, stone or wood where a farmer would thresh the grain harvest and then winnow it.

 

Bundled sheaves of grain would be opened up and the stalks spread across the threshing floor. Pairs of donkeys or oxen would then be walked round and round, often dragging a heavy threshing board behind them, to tear the ears of grain from the stalks, and loosen the grain itself from the husks.

After this to complete threshing process, the broken stalks and grain were collected and then thrown up into the air with a wooden fork-like tool called a winnowing fork. The chaff would be blown away by the wind; the short torn straw fragments would fall some distance away; while the heavier grain kernels, would fall at the winnower’s feet. The kernels could then be further sized or “cleansed” by a screening devise, that assures further discrimination.

The statement: “ to tear the ears of grain from the stalks” is a visualization that caused me to stop reading and think.

When we consider the fact that God had created that initial kernel of grain that grew into the shock that was harvested. Those mature kernels had provided nourishment and a source of comfort for many people.

It appears to me that we read what God has created is now “judged” in a process, which separates the the kernel from the straw and chaff, the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats.

Where some form of physical violence is required to accomplish the harvest.

 

John, who was raised in the Old Testament tradition and Nazarite Law. His teaching and belief  is the basis of foretelling the expectation of how God, in the past-has identified, judged and dismissed those, who were considered non-followers of the Law and his word.

John, says that this action is what we can expect from the coming Messiah.

Purely, Old Testament reasoning!

 

John the Baptist was God’s appointed messenger. Before Jesus began his ministry, John had been announcing to the people throughout the regions of Jerusalem and Judea to prepare for the coming Messiah. He was calling them to repent, turn from their sins, and be baptized, which was considered by Judaism, to be the rite of purification.

 

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Or do we dare ask, what was God’s purpose?

Maybe some background information will help us to understand.

The real significance of the rite of Baptism can not be derived from the Levitical law; however it appears to have had its origin in Babylonian or ancient Semitic practice.

Baptism was practiced in ancient (Ḥasidic or Essene) Judaism, first as a means of penitence

The Baptism of the proselyte or convert has for its purpose his cleansing from the impurity of idolatry, and the restoration to the purity of a new-born person.

 

“Ye miserable mortals, repent; wash in living streams your entire frame with its burden of sin; lift to heaven your hands in prayer for forgiveness, and cure yourselves of impiety by fear of God!”

This is what John the Baptist preached to the sinners that gathered around him on the Jordan; and herein lies the significance of the purification by water of every convert. He was to be made “a new creature”  “The convert comes from darkness to light.” It is quite possible that, like the initiates into the Ḥasidic or Essene beliefs, the proselytes were, by way of symbolism, suddenly brought from darkness into light.

If one wants to be “converted” to the belief, that person is require to be purified by water.

 

If we follow this train of thought, Jesus, as one who had come to be among the suffering , allowed himself to be immersed. For the rites of immersion, anointing, purification by water, and the like, are the steps which the proselyte or convert has or had to undergo.

 

John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

 

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and all who watched saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, ablaze on him. Those watching heard a voice from heaven which said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

 

So, we wonder, Why did Jesus come to be baptized?

One answer would be that It was the start of his mission and ministry on  earth; bringing to those suffering grace, love, compassion and peace, especially to the poor the widowed and infirm. … The visualization of the  Holy Spirit descending on him in bodily form like a dove. And the voice …  “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

This event has been commemorated in the Feast of the Theophany by Eastern Christians. Most Christians in the Western tradition call this the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of God to humankind..

 

So here we have the other-side of the reflection.

Which, we must remember, Jesus is about acts of righteousness, and not baptism in and of itself. He did ask people to go wash [purify] themselves in the Jordan, however baptismal  rites were performed by his disciples.

Jesus Christ the Son of God is the Righteous  One; Through the Spirit, he gives the gifts of righteousness to all people who are repentant and wish to change their lives.

Those believing are declared righteous by the Holy Spirit working in them. Those blessed with the Spirit live their lives concerned with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong;  They live and breath – the quality of being just and fair.

In John, we see the essential “rite of purification” in order to be saved.

In Jesus we are blessed with the essential act of rightfulness, faith in the saving grace of righteous acts.

Our baptism is symbolic of that event which took place at the river Jordan, acknowledging our awaking of the Spirit within us, which is the Spirit of forgiveness, love,compassion and inclusiveness toward all … ourselves and those we encounter.

Purely, New Testament reasoning!

However, it seems to me, that the two reasoning’s are up and against each other!

The one flourishes in many parts of the world.

As one example: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza.

While the other struggles in many parts of the world.

 

“Let it be so now; it is proper for us to “struggle” to fulfill all righteousness.”

Amen.

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