(from an outline by Mark Wangerin)
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-22, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I don’t know if you remember those old commercials for Coca-Cola. “It’s the real thing!” they said. They were saying that Coke was the real cola, and all the others were imposters. Organic beef packing plants claim to have the ‘real thing’. Beef without preservatives, chemicals, hormones, and steroids. ‘Organic’ food is very popular in grocery stores these days. Increasingly people want only natural, real products. Only the ‘real thing’, no substitutes will do. The gospel lesson for today is also about ‘the real thing.’ But this real thing is much more important than a pound of organic beef or a sugary drink. The real thing St. Luke is talking about here is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Right away, as you read this lesson, you see people asking the ‘real thing’ question. They want to know if John the Baptist is the expected Messiah. “Are you the Christ?” They asked themselves ‘in their hearts’. It’s not really a strange question. John’s ministry was having an effect on people. There were large crowds, tax collectors, soldiers, religious leaders, coming to see who John was and what he was saying. It’s a very natural question for a group of people who are expecting something to happen to help them out from under the thumb of the Romans. At that time, they were not a free people. They lived in an occupied land. Foreign soldiers patrolled the streets, and harassed them. Corrupt government officials over taxed them. It would have been easy for them to look back, remember how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and expect that God would do something great again. In their minds if they were looking for someone to take on the Romans, he was going to have to be a strong talking person. And the entire thing that John said only heightened their expectations. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” he shouted to people. He let them know that things were going to change. And they were expecting a Messiah. All over in the Old Testament, their Bible, were prophecies that told them to be ready. John seemed to fit the bill. They wanted to know if he was the “real thing.”
But, John made it very clear. “No, I am not! No matter what you may think you are seeing, when the ‘real thing’ comes, he’s going to do greater things than I do. In fact, I’m so far beneath him, that I’m not even worthy to tie his shoes.” John was saying that compared to the real Messiah, he was only a slave. Slaves were the ones who had the job of tying and untying their master’s shoes. John says that the coming one, the real thing, would do much greater things than he was doing.
Even the thing that John was most known for was less than ‘the real thing.’ John says that the baptism he was doing was only with water, but the ‘real thing’ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s baptism was only in preparation of the ‘real thing’ to come. He shouted at the people reminding them that they were all sinful. “You brood of vipers! You need forgiveness that you can only receive from God.” The people responded to John’s message and were baptized in the water of the Jordan River. It was a baptism in response to God’s words of forgiveness. ‘The greater one’, ‘the Real Thing’ that John was preparing them to meet would have a different kind of baptism for the people, “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
John’s message gathered crowds of people, but the ‘real harvest’ was in the hands of the ‘real thing’ to come. Just look at the words he uses to describe what the Messiah would do! The winnowing fork was used to separate the chaff from the grain. You probably know all about this the old way of doing the harvest better than I do. The stalks of grain were brought to the ‘threshing floor’ from the field. It was beat with boards to separate the grain and then the winnowing fork was used to throw it up in to the air so that the wind would blow away the chaff. The grain falls back to the floor. Notice how John says that the Messiah will ‘clear’ the threshing floor. He will thoroughly clean it; every piece of grain will be taken care of. All of the chaff will be burnt in the fire. It’s a real harvest to be done by the real messiah.
And the real Messiah comes.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21-22 (ESV)
Jesus is baptized. After all of John’s preparation, Jesus is baptized. It is rather funny, that the way St. Luke writes it Jesus almost seems anonymous in the crowd. With all those people, Jesus was also baptized. And yet, Jesus baptism is a very important part of His ministry. It is the public proclamation of what He has come to do and that what He has come to do begins right now. And John the Baptizer isn’t even mentioned. Of course John is the one who baptized Jesus, but Jesus is the focus. John is the lesser. Jesus is the most important. John disappears and Jesus stands alone. The writer wants us to know that. And John would agree. In another place he says, “I must decrease so he can increase.”
Jesus is the ‘real thing.’ And just in case people weren’t sure, the Holy Spirit makes an appearance, ‘in bodily form.’ St. Luke gives us this important detail. The Spirit’s appearance here isn’t a secret thing only John and Jesus saw, but ‘bodily’ in the form of a dove (pigeon). And also God the Father makes His appearance too. He speaks from heaven. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. You are the real thing. You are my promise of forgiveness of sins fulfilled.” We heard something similar to those words in the reading from Isaiah. Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Isaiah 42:1 (ESV) The work of the ‘real thing’ is the work of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What is the work of the Real Thing? Well, it’s all spelled out for us in John’s simple statement that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Just as the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus, so also he will pour out the Spirit on all those who are baptized in His name. In a few days we’ll be doing it again here… we will gather a family and newborn infant around this font and pour water on her head. And according to Jesus promise, in the same way that he was baptized, in the same way that the Holy Spirit came to him, the Holy Spirit will come to that child here. Our newest sister in Christ will begin their life of faith with baptism… a life lived in the shadow of the life Jesus lived for her.
And Jesus says that with the Spirit comes fire. John was really talking about God’s anger, His wrath over sin. That’s what the fire is. In the Old Testament, when it talks about God’s reaction to sin it talks about His anger burning. But Jesus was perfect without sin, he doesn’t deserve God’s anger and punishment, and yet it is placed on him. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We fully see God’s anger, his disapproval of sin, the punishment that sin deserves, when we see that Lamb sacrificed on the cross. God’s anger burns against Jesus. The full force of His disapproval over human sin is poured out on His only son instead of you and me. He actually turns away from Jesus and allows him to suffer the whole punishment of sin, the eternal punishment of sin, and sins wages death. That’s the baptism of fire, the Baptize was talking about. The Spirit who descends on Jesus brings not only God’s favor but also God’s judgment. For you and me, for the person we will next baptize here, that punishment is also brought to us in the Baptism that is given in Jesus name. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan river, when Jesus hangs on the cross suffering and dying, He stands in our place to receive the fire, the wrath, the anger of God over our sin. We are baptized into his life, his death and his resurrection. That’s a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
Jesus is the Real Thing. After he suffered the fire of God’s anger, after he bled and died on the cross, after he was place in a cave for burial, he rose again from death. The punishment, the fire of God was taken to the grave, but Jesus Christ rose again to life. That’s something only the Real Thing can do. It proves he’s no imitation Savior. It proves that the punishment he bore was paid in full. It’s proof to you and me, who are connected to him by the Baptism of the Spirit and fire, that the work that he did was finished, and pleasing to God.
Now what about you? Well, you are the Baptized children of God. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. Weather it happened here, or over in the parsonage, at home, or even and entirely different Christian church altogether. That baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit means that when you sin, when you fall short of God’s plans and desires for your life; when you hurt your neighbor; when you yell at your children for no good reason; when you act selfish when you know you should be helping someone else; you have a place to go. You don’t have to worry about God’s anger over your failure. When water was splashed over your head, your sin was washed away to Jesus. And God’s fire, his over your sin extinguished on the cross. That’s exactly why we confess our sins here. We are reliving our Baptism, seeing our sin, and seeing our Savior.
So, you can live differently. When you yell at your children, you can ask for forgiveness and move on to a better way of handling them. When you are selfish, you can set that aside and be helpful instead. You can serve by doing whatever God has called you to do in your everyday work. When you are hurtful you can do what is necessary to set things right again. That’s the Holy Spirit working in you through God’s Word. That’s Jesus the Real Thing motivating you to live a life more like his.
All in all, nothing else really matters, except Jesus Christ, the Real Thing. He, who was baptized in the Jordan, lived, suffered, died and rose again. John pointed to him as the most important. We recognize him as the most important thing in our lives. He is the beloved Son of the Father. Jesus Christ is the Real Thing. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.