There is ice careening from the sky at this dark, early hour. I don’t know what that portends for the worship of God in his church (building) this morning. It may be that the Lord will have to have everyone’s attention on zoom or something ghastly like that. To keep my mind off the weather, Twitter offered me a most glorious vision of the life to come. Seriously, you have to watch the clip:
John Wayne, you see, in some sort of epic troll of American progressivism I guess, is in heaven this moment (according to the woman with the purple hair) making movies. Because, as you know, whatever you like down here is going to be what you like “up there.” So, if you loved making John Wayne Western Movies (I confess I haven’t seen one and I don’t know the correct terminology), and you are John Wayne, well there you are. You get to be in your favorite part of that heavenly realm, which turns out to be exactly like a movie set, minus the scorpions, mercifully. Those won’t be there.
So, you might be trying to make your way to church this morning, wondering if God cares at all about your troubles. Are you really going to have to go to heaven and face John Wayne, of all people? Or the Twitterati? And does anything even matter anymore?
Thus, says Luke in this morning’s gospel, “all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ,” the person who would solve their problems, who would make them comfortable and rich and ensure that they had all they wanted to eat and nice places to live and wouldn’t be hassled by overbearing and tyrannical and tone-deaf governments. John, who heard what people were saying as they stood around, waiting for their turns to climb down into the turgid waters of the Jordan River to be baptized, called them to order and answered the thoughts of their hearts. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “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 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.”
The gathered congregation knew all about wheat and chaff—how you would cut all your grain and heap it up and then pound it so that the grain would fall out of the head, lying there exposed and helpless on the hard threshing floor. Then the whole lot had to be sifted so that the chaff would blow off and the grain would be left, ready to be pounded and made into bread. All the other stuff had to be burned. It couldn’t be left there else the whole world would be filled up with empty stocks of wheat and piles of chaff. The precious grain is relatively small, in volume, compared to all the unneeded debris. The farmer carefully collects it and puts it in his barn.
“So,” continues Luke, “with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” Twitter, of course, and Herod, have a hard time seeing the “good” bit of the news. What could be good about God coming not to wash you clean in a nice, slow-moving river, patting you gently on the back, and congratulating you for being lovely, but instead burning “you” with fire, a fire that can’t be put out, no matter how hard you try.
Herod, just to be safe, locks John up in prison so that no one—especially not his wife—will have to be troubled by anything more he might say. But that was only after Jesus, whom Herod did not account for, had made his way down into the water himself, standing there with John, that voice who had cried out so persistently for everyone to prepare themselves for just this moment. Jesus went down into the water and as he came up, the heavens themselves opened, and a voice from heaven cleared its throat and went on to affirm literally everything that any of us have ever thought about ourselves and God. What would you like heaven to be? The voice asked.
Or rather, that’s not what happened, the Voice from heaven did not tell the crowd what they wanted to hear. He didn’t affirm the thoughts of their hearts. He didn’t tell them they were his beloved sons in whom he is well pleased. He didn’t ask them what they wanted. For the one who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it knew what all the people—in the crowd and in the pew, wandering around the markets trying to buy something for dinner, and languishing in dark office buildings, sitting at home in front of the tv—needed. Not more movies. Not their favorite things. But someone who would come and make them righteous, who would take them by the hand and keep them safe, who would be able to open their blind eyes and unstop their deaf ears.
The well-beloved Son of God, with the Holy Spirit and the Father—all three together had to affect a salvation of a lost and rebellious world. And what better way, though no one desired it in all the expectations and longings of their hearts, than to send the Son to take on flesh, to suddenly appear to wade into that river, to drench himself in the filthy water of all those people trying to make themselves clean. From that moment, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem to stand under the fire of his own wrath against sin.
“For who,” cries the Psalmist, “in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?” Not John Wayne, for sure. Nor anyone else who catches the attention and soothes and quiets the conscience. Only God himself in Jesus Christ has the power to make you safe from the evil intentions of your own heart. Only he can make you into someone beloved.
So I won’t be seeing you in church this morning unless the ice suddenly melts and I can get there without dying. But someday we will all gather together in our favorite place, around the throne, looking with our own eyes on our soul’s consolation. Have a nice day!