Sermon title: Weathering Stones and Winnowing Chaff
Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12
Matthew 3:1-12 New International Version (NIV)
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[a]
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
WEATHERING AND WINNOWING
In 1975, Gary Dahl, an out of work freelance copywriter, came up with the that year’s hot gift for the Christmas season, the pet rock. To quote a bcbusiness article , “ My Pet Rock sold for $3.95, and creator Gary Dahl unloaded more than five million of the igneous invertebrates in six months. He walked away with a cool $15 million.” The Pet rock included a 32 page training manual with instructions on how to train your new pet rock to sit, stay, and attack.
In case you think the 70’s were a particularly indulgent time in 2016 the high end department store Nordstrom began to sell rocks in l little leather pouches for $85. To quote the description of the rock in a leather pouch, “A paperweight? A conversation piece? A work of art? It’s up to you, but this smooth Los Angeles-area stone—wrapped in rich, vegetable-tanned American leather secured by sturdy contrast whipstitching—is sure to draw attention wherever it rests. A traditional hardening process gives the leather a beautiful ombré effect. Like all Made Solid leather pieces, this one is cut, shaped, sewn and finished by hand in artist Peter Maxwell’s Los Angeles studio. Using vintage leatherworking tools and traditional saddle-stitching techniques, Maxwell aims to create beautiful designs that embody both simplicity and functionality, and that develop rich character and patina over time.”
Maxwell Strachan, who reported on the leather pouch rock for the Huffington Post closes his article by saying this, “ When historians look back on the year 2016, the year when the first real cracks in democratic capitalism began to show, will they mention the rock? Will they see it as a sign of a people searching for meaning in all the wrong places? Of a society that spread its collective wealth incorrectly? Or will they simply look the other way, face to the wind, as they shout into the ethers, “WHAT HAPPENED? HOW COULD THE GREATEST NATION IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD SO QUICKLY CRUMBLE TO ITS KNEES?”
We don’t know yet. But for now, at least the shipping on this rock is free. And that’s pretty sick.”
We recognize the absurdity of pet rocks and $85 rocks in leather pouches because we know that in life rocks have a limited amount of usefulness. Sure we pave our roads with rock and we build our building with rocks but rocks can’t provide happiness or companionship. Rocks are lifeless and thus cannot provide anything that makes life worth living. Being compared to a rock, unless you are the famous actor Dwayne Johnson, is not a compliment. No one ever says I am smart as a rock. No one ever says my carrier is taking off like a rock. No one ever says I love my spouse so much that it feels like my heart is full of rocks. We build our houses on and with rocks but rocks cannot turn a house into a home. You can’t plant a garden on pavement. You need soft soil to bear much fruit not solid rocks with no space for life.
And yet, John the Baptist tells us today that God has a fondness for rocks because he can break them into good soil. John the Baptist makes clear in this passage that God is not much for outward displays of religion that lack power. To the Sadduccees and Pharisees, the religious elite of his day he says, “ You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”
John is saying that God isn’t much interested in your family tree. Our heritage gives us no right to partake in God’s Holiness. While he can fill our liturgy, music, and rituals with His Spirit, John the Baptist tells us we can go through all the motions without bearing fruit that signals true repentance. God isn’t much interested in dressing up rocks and pretending that they are alive. He is interested in breaking down rock so that it may become good soil. He is interested in forming ordinary dirt into his glorious image. God is interested in repentance which I am comparing to spiritual weathering. And in spiritual weathering I see good news.
The Good News: When we are weathered and winnowed we shall produce new children of God. God produces new children in two ways.
First, God makes new children of God through spiritual weathering. The idea of creating children of God out of lifeless rock reminded me of the physical process of how nature turns hard rock into good soil in which life can grow. In science this is called the process of physical weathering. Key to spiritual weathering is the baptism by fire.
Fire in the scripture symbolizes the power of God, the power of the Holy Spirit. Fire can be both destructive and creative in the scriptures as it can be in life. Thus fire symbolizes a powerful experience that strips away the outer layers of our lives to expose our hard and rocky hearts to God. Fire is something exterior to us that can effect us in positive and negative ways.
On the positive side some Christians have powerful supernatural experiences in prayer like dreams, visions, speaking in tongues, prophesizing, or being slain in the spirit. Other Christians may have a profound experience of God in nature, like beholding a sunset at the top of the mountain, or meeting God in the stillness of the forest. Others may encounter the fire of love in worship melting away their hurt and softening their heart. Fire doesn’t always have to be painful. Like a fireplace on a cold winter’s night
Yet, sometimes fire can be destructive. Yet even this destruction can produce life. A forest fire can burn away excess brush so the wind and the rain can wear away rock to form new soil, giving space for seeds to take root. A volcanic eruption can cause a lot of destruction in the moment but the lava flow can form new islands of refugee in the sea. When we talk about a baptism by fire in life what we are talking about is when the Holy Spirit leads us into a wilderness place to test us. As the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tried by the Devil, sometimes the Spirit leads us into the wilderness to strip away our surface level notions of what it means to follow God. The Devil and God have different motivations in our times of trial. The Devil tempts us so that he may keep us in chains and limit our witness. God tests us so that we may look beyond exterior pleasures to see the invisible chains of the Devil that bind us. As John Calvin once said, :Nearly all wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern”.
Next Jesus refers to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is a lot of debate in Christianity about what exactly Jesus meant by Baptism in the Holy Spirit. And I don’t think it is helpful to get into that here. However, we may define the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I think it better to talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. We can say that the baptism by fire in Biblical thought and in our common thought relates to how God works in his providence through events outside of us, stripping away everything that doesn’t matter until we see what truly matters, which is knowledge of God and ourselves. This allows us to believe in Jesus Christ and for the Holy Spirit to make our hearts into his Temple. This is how we are saved. And this is how we begin the work of sanctification. In sanctification Jesus helps us follow him more faithfully. We do not become perfect. But the fruit of the Spirit we bear, the fruit of but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control will grow more fully in us.
John tells us that another function that Jesus plays is winnowing. This is a farming technique where the farmer would use a pitch fork to sift through the wheat and the excess chaff which he would throw into the fire. This is talking about those who are saved and those who are not saved. It is talking about Jesus purifying his church. Because Jesus just wants to bring in a good harvest for his heavenly Father.
As Christians in life there is a winnowing that we have to do as well. We have to figure out what God wants us to do with the time we have been given. We don’t have an infinite amount of time or resources in this life. That means we have to set priorities. That means saying yes to some things. It also means saying no to more things so we can say yes to the things God has called us to.
Generally, God directs our path in two ways. The first way is through providence. The Baptism by Fire. Positive and negative experiences. Romans 8:28 where he says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those called according to his purposes.” If we truly believe this we must ask ourselves whatever horrible thing happens to us we must ask what is the good lesson we can gain from it? We must trust that our God is the God who can make beauty from ashes.
First, God winnows down our choices in life through providence. Second, God guides us through the process of discernment. Christian discernment requires three basic things.
- Decision making.
Key to God throwing out the things we don’t need so we can live life more abundantly is the willingness to allow God to sift through our hearts. The Prayer of Jesus in the Garden before his crucifixion is a prayer every Christian has to work through, “Father I know all things are possible for you so if it be your will remove this cup from me but not my will but thy will be done.” God does care about our desires. He tells us to pray that we not be led into the time of trial, that we won’t have to be baptized by fire in a negative sense. But still our ultimate prayer is that God’s Will may take precedence over our will. M. Blaine Smith in the book Knowing God’s Will argues that the main problem for Christians in decision making isn’t a lack of knowledge but a lack of willingness. To quote Smith we must be willing to do God’s Will. Smith argues that often deep inside we know what God wants us to do we just are not willing to do it.
Jesus shows us that key to making us willing is a regular discipline of prayer. Prayer where we don’t have any particular agenda but to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Prayer softens our hearts so instead of being hard like stone they can be shaped like clay in the hands of the potter. Sometimes in prayer we may get what I like to call holy nudges. God may call us to minister to a particular person in a particular way or say a particular word to encourage another person. We may find when we obey the Lord in these nudges hearts are healed, relationships are restored, and broken bodies are mended through the power of the Holy Spirit. In my own life I rarely ever get a holy nudge to make a decision in regards to my own life, like what job I am to take or who I am to marry. But a discipline of prayer over time blesses us with a willing heart. It clears away the garbage on the inside that we may walk in God’s peace knowing that whatever decision we make, even if be the wrong one, God can work it out to the good, for Jesus is our good shepherd, he leadeth through the valley of the shadow of death to lie down in green pastures, he leads us besides still waters.
Finally, Christian discernment requires decision making. Knowing the will of God requires the renewal of our minds. As Paul says in Romans 12, “ I appeal to you therefore, brothers by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” As I always say the problem with a living sacrifice is you can crawl off the altar. Again, we must offer our bodies as tools for God’s Will in this world. The only way we can do this is to change the way we think. We must change our ideas of how we think the world should work.
I think a common idea our culture promotes in decision making is with enough knowledge, with enough expertise, with enough power, we can control the outcome. Life becomes a math problem. Do X and Y and you will get Z as a result. While there are general principles in life that can help us have better outcomes, like keeping a budget or exercising regularly, the idea that with our work we can guarantee our own happiness and success is against the idea that God is in control and we are not. The Bible calls talking about the future with that sort of certainty to be boasting and sin. This is what the book of James says, “ Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a twon and spend a year there and trade and make profit”- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” AS it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” I think James makes an interesting connection here about boasting and how it prevents us from doing the right thing in the moment. Sometimes we can get so obsessed about guaranteeing success in the future or avoiding failure in the future that we can take our eyes off what the Lord actually wants us to focus on, the next step we need to take, doing the right thing here and now. When we come to a place where we approach a major decision without fear, where we are okay if things go either way, then we are walking in the Love of God and it is God’s Will for us to abide in his love. As 1 John 4:18 says, “ There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18). There is no reason to fear if we truly believe that all things work together for good for those who love God and are ordained unto his purposes.
The rest of this sermon change significantly since writing it. The changes are reflected in the recording and the power point notes.