The Lord, the Fork and the Scalpel

January 13, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 13th January 2019, Baptism of Christ.

Overall Luke’s Gospel is quite gentle. It was, after all, written in part to reassure the Roman authorities that Christian faith presented no threat to the civil order. It encourages readers to live with compassion and in peace. And that’s what makes its fiery episodes stand out all the more.

Such as when John the Baptist stirs up the people to respond to the coming Messiah: “He will baptise 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”.

The scenes with which we’re so familiar at Christmas – the song of the angels announcing the theme of glory and the infant lying in the manger – quickly become more adult in his gospel, and the golden glow of nativity, which slips down so well with the Port, turns suddenly to fire.  Jesus in his baptism brings not only the Holy Spirit but also fire.

Jesus is coming, we’re told, with a winnowing fork –  to lift the wheat, the harvest he is due, into the wind, to remove the straw and loosen the husks around the grain, all the chaff, which is then burned with unquenchable fire – a judgement from which nothing useless ever escapes. It’s a frightening image.

Like most of you here, I have been baptised. Perhaps like some of you here I was not baptised by particularly devout parents. In 1960 it was still the done thing. Baptism only became important to me when I was converted at the age of 17 and confirmed.

Whatever your own experience, though, baptism holds the highest possible value in the New Testament, because brings our life under the judgement of God. In baptism, we are purged and purified, not by fire but water. The metaphor changes, but the process is the same. The dross of our old self is drowned, destroyed, so that we can live a new life in Christ.

For those who have passed through this purification, God’s judgement lies, in some respects, behind us. Those who have been baptised need never fear God’s judgement. This conviction is what kept the Reformer Martin Luther going through the darkest times of doubt and persecution.

And yet we do not escape judgement entirely. The old nature, though already put to death through baptism, has again and again to be set aside, in order to go deeper into the gift of new life. And for this to happen we have to welcome God’s judgement on our lives day by day.

Think again of John the Baptist’s image. It’s not just telling us about the Messiah, but about the world we inhabit. It is not some humdrum place, where we can just get on with things as long as we’re not bothering other people too much. It’s like a winnowing floor, where every corner and square inch of ground belongs to God, and where God’s judgement is pending. We have not been left to our own devices in a secular, neutral space.

That why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom and why Benedictine monks are reminded in the Rule of Benedict that they are always seen by God in heaven, that their actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.

The only way we will become aware of this is by prayerful openness. Luke makes this openness key to his account of Christ’s baptism. Jesus is baptised by John with others, but only while he is praying does the Spirit descend on him.

The rite of baptism is radically incomplete without prayer, but with prayer comes the fire of the Spirit, to burn away the chaff and leave only the grain as we yield to his judgement.

We shan’t perhaps have too much trouble in noticing chaff in the world today. It goes by many names. Wickedness would be one. Psalm 1 describes the wicked as being like the chaff that the wind drives away. But the chaff I want to focus on today goes by the name of posturing.

Posturing is what people do to bolster their positions and points of view. There is often a grain of truth somewhere in their argument, but it gets lost in displays of outrage and disgust and in gambits designed to gain power. In my view, it’s one of the more exhausting features of the Brexit debate and thank goodness that Fiona Bruce isn’t prepared to tolerate it in her new role as Chair of Question Time.

So let’s take posturing as the chaff we are trying to hold open to God’s judgement in prayer. How does this work? A good place to start is with ourselves; as judgement is meant as a message to God’s people, and to those who seek communion with God, in the first place.

As soon as we start to pray, we find a layer of ourselves which, St Paul would tell us, belongs to our old nature – it’s a jumble of thoughts and feeling – anxieties, hates, loves, fear – pretty primal stuff.

When we pray we have to accept all these chattering monkeys, which if left to themselves would colour and drive our behaviour, not to judge them ourselves, but to allow God to judge them.

These feelings and thoughts that crowd in on us, and which we suppress out of discontent with ourselves, are not necessarily sins, but they do need to be transformed and integrated through God’s judgement, so that passions and instincts of truth and substance can emerge. It’s a steady and lifelong process, which we all struggle to allow.

And here perhaps we ought to change the image of fire burning up chaff to leave wheat elsewhere to another biblical image, of precious metal itself passing through fire to be tempered and refined.

Posturing happens when we don’t fully know our own truth or their own shadow and so we end up doing damage, even though we aspire to do good.

Prayer helps to put us together, because as we pray no-one is telling us how good or bad we are, how far we have or have not progressed on the road to sanctification.  We are simply opening our hearts and lives to be judged by God and changed, whatever our truth and substance currently is.

I started off by saying that Luke’s was a gentle gospel, and it is. You’ll remember that it’s the gospel that gives us the great parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, but the relationship between fire and gentleness needs drawing out.

Luke is right that you can’t have peace or compassion without salvation, without God’s radical intervention. It is an intervention we resist, especially if we are rich, religious or proud. All this is straight from the pages of the gospel. But God is not prepared to stand idly by and let the consequences of our sickness play out in death. He comes with his winnowing fork and fire, which are the instruments of our salvation.

Change the imagery once more and hear a poet of the 20th Century. We are no longer out in the country but in a place where our plight must be confessed if we are to survive at all, the hospital and the surgeon’s table:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel

That questions the distempered part;

Beneath the bleeding hands we feel

The sharp compassion of the healer’s art

Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care is not to please

But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

[T S Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker, IV]