"The Wheat and the Chaff"

1 Epiphany.C.21(Baptism of Our Lord)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

It’s the month of January and tis’ the season for new beginnings. Amidst the advertisements for diets, exercise equipment, health memberships, beauty treatments and such, the start of the new year also heralds flyers announcing the sale of all things organizational. There are boxes of all sizes, closet systems, shelving units and canisters—a myriad of items to systematize and corral the flotsam and jetsam of our lives. Not only, does it seem, that we hold hopes of paring down our figures—the same holds true of our clutter as well.

Along with Marie Kondo, who asks us to part with anything that doesn’t spark joy when we touch it, Bullet Journaling, designed to organize our thoughts, and the new rage of 2022—organizing items by color! There is also Swedish Death Cleaning, (durstadning) which is the process of getting rid of all of the stuff you’ve accumulated through the years that you don’t need any more—so that no one else has to do it for you after you die. The idea is that life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance. From a practical Swedish perspective, Mess is an unnecessary source of irritation.

I get that. After the extravagance of Christmas, most of us are ready to pare down—not only the plates of cookies, but also to put away the ornaments and decorations which, at this time in the new year, begin looking a little tired.

All of which brings us to the wheat and the chaff, described to us in the Gospel lesson this morning. Here we encounter John the Baptiser on the banks of the River Jordan on the occasion of the baptism of our Lord. John speaks, saying: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”

Not surprisingly, we don’t tend to linger over the words about wheat and chaff (understandably, thoughts of the unquenchable fire tend to make us a bit nervous) and so we skip ahead to the joyful news of the baptism of Our Lord. However, this morning I would like to talk about the wheat and the chaff.

To begin, chaff is the loose, outer covering on wheat and other grains that must be separated in the threshing and winnowing process of harvesting grain. To accomplish this, farmers would take a winnowing fork to a gathered pile of wheat and throw the whole lot up into the air. If you had something of a light breeze your job would be made a bit easier, because in this process the air forcefully removes the chaff from the wheat—blowing it away, so that the heavier wheat falls to the ground in a pile. This is done so that the wheat can be gathered for use. As for the waste materiel (the chaff), well, it is not of any use and is thus destroyed (often in fire). Things have not changed much since ancient times. We still go about the business of separating the wheat from the chaff. Think of it as a process of getting rid of what you don’t need, in order to keep what is valuable and meaningful.

Listen again to John the Baptist: “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.” Years ago, I heard these words as a threat. In the vision John proclaims, it is easy to see people separated into two distinct categories—wheat or chaff. One is of value, and the other is destined for perdition. But I’ve several more years on me now—and it seems to me that we humans are more complex than that—heavens, even the grass from which the wheat kernels come is more multi-faceted than that. Perhaps the wheat as well as the chaff are a part of each of us. And our lives (and our baptism) is a means by which the two are separated.

This is what brings us to Baptism. John’s Baptism was a call for the people of God to repent—to turn away from what was wrong in their lives, and to wash themselves as a symbol of this intention and try to do better. It was not lasting—because John knew, (as do we all) that those attempts (like many of our new year’s resolutions) only last so long. What John is alluding to in this lesson is that the baptism that will come with the Messiah will be a lasting baptism consisting of the Holy Spirit and fire. The baptism which John foretells is a baptism which doesn’t expire. It is not dependent upon our goodness—but upon the grace and mercy of God.

Consider that baptism isn't so different than the work of the farmer, winnowing fork in hand, casting the grain to the wind, saving what is of value while the chaff—the worthless parts, are blown away. In Baptism, it is the Holy Spirit that cleanses us, renews us and strengthens us as we follow our journey in Christ. It is God who forgives us our sins and calls us His children. God makes us worthy—all else is simply chaff—which is burned away—sin and death are no longer a part of who we are, what is left behind after our baptism is of weightier value—destined for mercy, grace and eternal life. Simply put, don’t think of the wheat and the chaff as people; think of them as part of who you are.

This morning we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. It’s a momentous occasion—not only in the life of our Savior; but in our lives as well. This moment sets the stage for the coming Kingdom of God. It is what makes the renewal of our Baptismal Vows particularly meaningful on this day. As you reaffirm your Baptismal Covenant, you are reminding yourself of your renunciation of evil and affirming your faith in Christ. Imagine letting go of the chaff which clings—those aspects of our lives which distract us from the more glorious business of following our Lord. Let go of selfishness, pride, anger and greed, and focus on the doing of God’s will, of loving all persons, of working for justice and peace and honoring creation. It might not change the size of our clothing or the current state of our closets and drawers—but certainly, our hearts and our spirits will be lighter, brighter, and perhaps our feet made stronger to carry the Good News of God to the world. In the name of our Redeemer. Amen.