"Life Is The Threshing Floor"
Sermon Delivered By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 10, 2010
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He has his winnowing shovel with him, to thresh out all the grain and gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.
I want us to consider the meaning of John’s words this morning because they give us a deeper insight into what Jesus would be bringing to humanity during his ministry.
Often our first response to these verses is to assume that John’s words are about God’s final judgment of people. Few of us are given hope by the image created when the chaff is thrown into “a fire that never goes out.” Such images scare us to death!
Is John giving his listeners an earlier version of the separation of “the sheep and the goats?” I think not. In fact, what John is telling those gathered is a truth that the Christian church has seldom taught through the centuries. Jesus once said, “I have come into this world for one purpose – to speak about the truth.” (John 18:37) What truth has been missed by the Church?
Let us look at John’s metaphor. Consider a grain of wheat. All of us know that we never eat wheat in its natural form. It must be separated from its outer husks before the wheat can be ground into flour.
What John was telling his audience is more akin to what happens when a butterfly leaves its cocoon. More importantly to us, he was revealing what we take with us and what we leave behind when we transition from this life. Our spirits are gathered into the barn while everything else is discarded.
Consider how Eugene Peterson’s translation captures the spirit of John’s words with remarkable precision. John said,
I am baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I am a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He is going to clean house – make a clean sweep of your lives. He will place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he will put out with the trash to be burned. (Luke 3:16-17)
I want you to think about the process being described by John. We are familiar with the metaphor that describes the separation of “the sheep and the goats.” (Matthew 25:32) We were taught about the giant chasm that separated a very poor man named Lazarus from a stingy rich man. When both men died, the rich man found himself in Hell. He cried out, “Father Abraham, please send Lazarus to dip his finger into some water and cool off my tongue because I am in great pain in this fire.” Abraham refused to help. In essence he said, “You made your bed, now you lie in it.” Abraham continued, “Lazarus is now enjoying himself here, while you are over there in pain.” (Luke 16:23-24) He had no empathy or compassion at all.
This kind of scene conjures up the image of a group of angels roaming around Heaven. One says to the other, “Let’s see what is happening to all those people who are suffering in Hell because they never got with the program. It’s too bad that they did not make the quality choices we made. Just look at them. Here we are having accepted our eternal reward and there they are suffering forever! Isn’t that a shame?”
Is this really the truth Jesus brought? Could love ever tolerate eternal suffering because some people remained ignorant about spiritual matters? John was telling his listeners that the one coming after him would bring a new understanding to the human condition. That is what Jesus brought.
Everything we create in the physical world is like our sandcastle. When the tide comes in, everything about our lives goes away. Only the angel within us is what transitions. The cocoons, our husks that housed our spirits stay here. Even the memory of us held by others, which is more individual interpretations of our lives, will fade as generations come and go.
One day, I was talking to my dad about some of his childhood experiences with his second cousin, Earl Wise. As a little boy my dad helped Earl put his freshly fried potato chips into brown bags to sell on the street corner to passers-by. Most of us are familiar with the Owl that is still featured on the bags of Wise Potato chips. That is the company Earl founded.
I asked dad about the significance of the owl. I asked him about the kind of man that his cousin was. My dad had only vague memories of Earl. The symbol of the owl came from his cousin’s last name. He remembers Earl saying, “If customers are as wise as owls, they will buy my chips.” Since most details about us are only perceptions made by others, the truth about us is completely lost.
Along the banks of the Jordan, John the Baptist declared, “Jesus will place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he will put out with the trash to be burned. The physical world becomes the threshing floor where our choices begin the process of helping us recognize how to separate the wheat from its husk.
After Jesus’ spirit awakened at his baptism and he began his ministry, he used every metaphor, every parable and every illustration to focus the attention of his listeners on their potential to be angels in the flesh, to live in the Kingdom of God. The Christian Church has done everything in its power to put the focus of believers on Jesus -- the very last place that Jesus wanted that focus to be.
In a Gnostic Text called The Gospel of Thomas, written around 200 C.E., we have an exchange between Jesus and his disciples, an exchange that is very similar to the one featured in Matthew and Luke:
His disciples said to him, “Master, when will the Kingdom come?” Jesus answered, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, “Here it is” or “There it is.” Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is already spread out upon the earth, and humankind cannot see it.”
The Kingdom remains invisible because many people cannot cross the bridge or connect-the-dots that would lead them to understand that their true identity is their unseen spirit.
Because we are physical beings, most of us identify more with our husks, our bodies -- the part of us that is constantly changing, the part of us that worries and frets about our relationships, job security, living forever, having enough retirement income, etc. All these things, while important for awhile, we will leave behind. This is a truth countless religious-minded people find so difficult to grasp even though this was the core of Jesus’ teaching ministry.
Many years ago, I ended an Easter sermon with a story that reinforces what John the Baptist was preaching concerning the one who was coming after him.
There once lived a colony of water bugs that thrived at in the bottom of a pond. They were well organized and lived very productive lives in the murky waters. Something strange happened to a number of their kind. Every now and again a small group of them would become extremely listless, seemingly out of touch with what was happening around them. They would wander off to be alone. Eventually, they would climb the stem of various water lilies and disappear. The strange thing was that no one ever heard from them again.
A group of them got together and made a pact. They agreed that if such a condition ever occurred within any of them, they must make the effort to come back and tell the rest what happened to their friends and relatives that had disappeared.
This strange illness of detachment did overtake a number of their group. The others watched as three of their friends made their way to the stalks that rose from the bottom of the pond. “Remember your promise!” they said. But those who were crawling toward the stems acted as though nothing mattered as they were leaving their familiar world behind. They climbed to the surface of the pond never to be seen or heard from again.
The next day, the three awakened on the flat surface of a lily pad and were terrified as they looked at each other and remained stunned by their new environment. Each of them had two sets of wings and strange bodies. In no time the three of them took flight. No more crawling over mud. They had become new creatures who could fly.
They remembered their pact with the others and tried desperately to return. They slapped against the surface of the pond with all the speed they could muster. Alas, they realized that they could not return. Then it dawned on them that even if they could, their new bodies would frighten their loved ones into hiding. They reasoned that in time all of their family and friends would make the climb and join them.
The next time you think about the truth of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed as being present, think of the butterfly leaving its cocoon. Think of the water bugs that become dragonflies. Think of the wheat being taken into the barn while the husks are thrown away to be burned.
We need to learn that we have the power to make the Kingdom of God visible when more of us allow the angel within us to show up in every relationship and circumstance. Jesus gave his life that we might understand the truth concerning the wheat and the chaff. We are spirit beings enjoying a temporary physical existence. The spiritually rich lessons of how we create with our loving energy patterns are what we take with us. All the rest stays in the physical world, a world of swirling, cyclical themes that is like a fire that never goes out.
Loving God, as we continue our entrance into a new decade, we know that change will only accelerate. You created us to live with simplicity and we often appear driven toward what makes life complex. You created us with a remarkable capacity for learning new ways to order our lives, while we cling to old patterns of thinking. You created us to find fulfillment by reaching new levels of understanding, while we often choose to move toward goals that preserve our comfort, security and well-being. Guide us to accept risk-taking as a part of living creatively. Inspire us to grow in trust that wherever our seed blooms, it will brighten the entire garden. As new adventures await us, spare us from finding contentment in remaining where we are. Amen.
We thank you, God, for a new Sabbath morning to be in church. There are so many inviting reasons for us to take a break from being with our church family, yet life has taught us that opportunities to focus our attention on you are not as many as we imagine. In the New Year, some of us had planned to begin each day with a quiet time of prayer and meditation, but our habitual morning rituals often take us in the same directions they have for decades. We think to ourselves, "Well, maybe tomorrow."
Our thoughts this morning will focus on John the Baptist’s prediction of who was entering the world’s stage to change history. When Jesus began his ministry, there were no thoughts that said, "Well, maybe tomorrow," because his life-changing adventure started immediately. He left us with a wonderful, warm, heart-felt invitation to follow him. We pray that each of us will take our life experiences and our calling as seriously as he did.
We confess that we never know where life is taking us. So many variables in our experiences lie beyond our control, yet we trust your guidance to take us to places where we can be of use to mend injured hearts and to be an agent of healing for someone’s broken dreams. Inspire us not to question “why” or to pray for deliverance from the very places we need to be to become useful servants. We pray these thoughts in the same spirit as Jesus experienced when he taught us to say when we pray . . .