This is the third time in a month that we find ourselves back in the wilderness, standing by the banks of the river Jordan with John the Baptist. You might remember we actually read parts of this exact same gospel text a few weeks ago on the third Sunday of Advent: I joked about how you don’t really come to church on the “Sunday of Joy” expecting to hear about unquenchable fire! It’s still kind of unsettling to read today; we came to worship today to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Yet here we find John the Baptist again, preaching about a Messiah coming to literally thresh humanity and burn up the chaff!
The whole idea of separating the wheat from the chaff is pretty familiar – it’s become a common saying, even apart from scripture. And I think it’s fair to say that when we think about “separating the wheat from the chaff” the common understanding is that this saying is about God separating the good, holy people from bad, sinful people. But of course, as Lutherans, we know that this isn’t how God works, and it isn’t how people work; no one is all good or all bad – we are all both sinner and saint. Incidentally, that’s not how wheat works either! Wheat is also both wheat and chaff. Heh, or being a good Nebraskan, I suppose you could say that it’s similar to how corn is both corn and husk. The process of threshing and winnowing doesn’t separate good wheat from bad wheat, or good corn from bad corn. It separates the different parts of the same plant: it knocks the grain loose from the rest of the plant so that it can be gathered up and used.
I kept finding myself coming back to this image of wheat and chaff this week – I was even reading Wikipedia articles about how wheat is grown and harvested, haha. And one of the things that struck me in what I read was the fact that what we call “chaff” is actually the protective casing around the seed or grain. When the wheat plant is young and growing, the chaff is what grows up around the grain and keeps it safe. Without chaff, we wouldn’t have wheat! It’s only later on in the life of the wheat that the chaff eventually becomes an impediment. The chaff becomes a barrier that keeps the best part of the wheat from serving its purpose if it isn’t removed.
It just got me thinking about baptism in a new way. In baptism, we talk about being washed clean of sin. God comes with love to meet us where we are, claims us as God’s own, makes us new and whole again, and daily raises us to new life. But in order to rise to new life, part of us must die. Baptism is a kind of ritualized drowning. In baptism, we are called to give up the old, broken, sinful, hurting parts of us – to let go of the broken pieces of us that get in the way of our relationship with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves.
Reflecting on chaff this week has made me think about how the sinful things in us that we need to let go of don’t always start off that way. Sometimes the things that we need to let go of are like chaff – it’s something that started off positive, as a way of protecting ourselves when we needed it; but over time, it started getting in the way of us sharing the best parts of ourselves, keeping us from using our gifts for God’s work.
If you’ve ever been in therapy or counseling, this probably sounds familiar to you. One of the main goals of traditional therapy is to identify patterns of behavior and thought that don’t really serve us well anymore and to work on changing them. These thoughts and behaviors are almost always things that we developed when we were younger as a means of protecting ourselves (like the chaff!). They served their purpose, but eventually they actually start holding us back from being the people we want to be and living the way we want to live. To give you an example, one of the things I’ve worked on a lot in therapy over the years is trust issues that stem from being bullied growing up. When I was younger, it was wise to be wary of people who claimed that they wanted to be my friend – but as an adult, that distrustfulness has actually sometimes kept me from getting close to people I wish I had a stronger relationship with.
And it’s not just individual people that have to wrestle with this. I also think about the ways that this has happened in the church – as a congregation and as a whole. Sometimes the chaff we need to let go of is old ways of doing things or of thinking about things – old habits that we may once have developed as a means of protecting ourselves that may now be holding us back.
Like here at St. John’s: I’ve heard on several occasions about how when y’all first built this nice new building, there was a lot of concern about keeping it in good shape – which is very understandable! One of the ways that that this concern showed up was a strong sense of hesitation to let people outside the congregation use our facilities – even setting the building use fees high in order to kind of deter people. But in recent years, we’ve been coming to realize that some of that concern for protecting the building has made it harder to build relationships with others in our community. And I think we’ve made a lot of efforts in the last few years to let go of some of that caution in order to open ourselves more to the rest of the community – so that we can grow into being the church that we want to be, the church we are called to be.
That’s not an easy process. It takes faith and trust and courage to lay down some of our old ways of doing and thinking, even when these things are hurting us. It’s not easy to be threshed and winnowed of our chaff – especially when that chaff within us includes things we have depended on for years, ways of coping we can’t imagine our lives without. And sometimes it’s hard to even recognize the chaff in our lives, hard to know sometimes which things we need to let go.
But these are all things that we can take to God in prayer. God doesn’t leave us to our own devices, trying to sort ourselves out on our own. Like John the Baptist preaches, Christ himself comes to help us sort out our wheat from our chaff. The whole “unquenchable fire” bit may sound really intimidating, but it’s actually good news for us. Christ helps us to let go of our chaff, to let these things drown in the waters of baptism – so that we can be raised to new life, and begin to live into being the people we were created and called to be.
In baptism, our old self dies, and we rise again to new life in Christ. And each day, each time we remember our baptism, we are given that same opportunity to let go of all that separates us from God and be made new once again. God daily claims us, redeems us, and renews us. The words of Isaiah in our first reading beautifully echo these baptismal promises. Isaiah writes:
But now thus says the Lord, who created you… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.Isaiah 43:1-5 (selected verses)
This week, I invite you to take some time and reflect on the gift of baptism. Talk with God in prayer about where there might be chaff in your life and ask God to show you how you can let your wheat shine. And remember that you are named and claimed by the God of all creation – by God who calls you precious and loves you forever – chaff and all.