…the ‘threshing place’
January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Today is the Sunday traditionally devoted to the baptism of Jesus within our readings. Today’s gospel account in Luke positions this within the context of the ministry of John the Baptist who we find quoting the Prophet Isaiah in stating his own call and purpose. And I realized that this was one of those instances where the words of scripture might be able to speak differently into different situations or understandings…may say one thing to you at a particular moment in your faith life and perhaps something else at another, one clarifying or correcting your understanding, or maybe even both revelations being true and helpful to you, as in two sides of the same coin.
For instance, I once thought of the references to ‘grain and chaff’, and of the chaff being gathered up and ‘thrown into the unquenchable fire’, as a reference to certain individuals…sort of a judgement day scenario by which those whom the Lord considered ‘unredeemable’ were gathered up and cast aside as worthless. However, that frame of reference, heavily informed, or perhaps ‘conformed’ by a deep overlay of later Greek dualistic thought, puts forth an image of God I no longer see as valid. Dualistic Greek patterns of reasoning and logic, of right and wrong-no exceptions are far from the Semitic setting and linguistic understandings within which the scriptures were originally conceived.
These convictions that there is a perfect Theos God and an imperfect and forever unredeemable physical Creation force the image of the divine into a judgmental and wrathful God who only has time, room, or patience for a selected few ‘elect’. And while this may satisfy those who feel the need to conceive of God as a King and conqueror riding in on the clouds on a war horse, I personally find I must reject this understanding in favor of one that makes room for a God of unconditional love and of ‘chesed’, or ‘loving kindness’.
And earlier on in the same chapter of Luke, John the Baptist quotes the portion of Isaiah that was our other reading today. In this passage we find him quoting a reference to mountains being brought low and of valleys being lifted up, which I have referred to previously as representative of the call to social justice through a divinely inspired and human enacted leveling of societal opportunity and resources…a warning of sorts that absent our own ability to bring justice for all God’s children to the fore, there would be a time when God’s will would not only demand it but make it happen as well. And while I do still feel that this is a valid interpretation, this time, when reading through our gospel passage I heard something entirely different.
Within the context of the baptism of Jesus, I heard these prophetic claims of significant adjustment and pending change as possibly happening within the heart and mind of an individual. As action or actions that may be taken upon each one of us in the process of becoming more like our Lord. I saw the references to ‘mountains’ and ‘valleys’, to ‘crooked’ versus ‘straight or smooth pathways’ in a new way. I saw it as perhaps the action of the Holy Spirit working within us as a refining fire, as an energy that works to mold or fashion us from the inside out into a clearer and nearer reflection of the love in which we were first conceived in the heart of our Lord.
As in many places within the scriptures, Luke’s message is set within agricultural imagery. He places the action of the Savior he is speaking of within the ‘threshing place’…that area set aside for farmers to bring their recently harvested stalks of grain that they might begin the process of converting those laden stalks into clean and usable grain.
In our passage, John opens his imagery of the threshing place after the stalks have already been ‘threshed’ and the larger stalks have already been removed and the raw and still in the husk grain is being gathered up and the floor is being swept clean for the next step in the process. The initial ‘threshing’, the work of beginning to loosen up humanity and separating it from patterns of wrong thinking and evil intent has begun. What remains is for the grain which is now loosened within the husk to be further worked by the Lord to separate and remove the remaining traces of husk or chaff from the grain…which is surely our Lord’s desire…
Years ago, when we were fully engaged in the farm project over at Cascade and had expanded our gardens and crop selections, I decided to plant dry beans. For those of you who may not be familiar, dry beans are those beans that are left on the plant until the plant has died back and the beans have thoroughly dried into hard beans such as lentils or black turtle beans that may be stored for long periods of time until used in soups or stews. This type of bean I was to find out, required a lot of ‘after harvest work’, but that first year I was unaware of just how much work it could be.
And so I left the plants in the ground into early November, wanting to be sure that the crop was thoroughly dry and ready to be shelled in order to remove the beans from within the individual pods. And then we had an early and unexpected cold snap followed quickly by a wet snow that threatened to bury and then freeze the crop of beans into an un-harvestable mess. All hands were called on deck as we trudged up to the upper field and, dragging large bins behind us, we pulled all of the cold and snow-covered plants out of the ground and brought them back into the warmth of the barn. And then we waited for them to dry, hoping that the mold forming on the plants would not harm the beans themselves. And eventually we began the process of shelling the individual pods, filling up bins with dusty and chaff-laden beans that still looked good even though they needed to somehow be thoroughly cleaned. Fortunately, we had a large school group staying overnight at the farm the next week and the addition of many hands made the process of ‘threshing’ out our crop less tedious.
And also, quite fortunately, the cold snap did not last forever and the sun shone clear and the air was close to balmy by late fall standards as we began the process of cleaning our crop. We positioned an old box fan by the double doors on the side of the barn and, putting a large bin on the floor, began to toss the beans from a tray up into the air in front of the fan, falling through the fan’s breeze before landing in the bin below. And after several passes of letting the beans fall through the wind created by the fan, they were clean and ready to place in jars for storage. Having hand-threshed our crop, we now used a modern but no more effective winnowing fork of tray and fan to finish the process of cleaning and preparing our crop for use.
So too with the ‘winnowing fork’ referred to in our reading from Isaiah, the Lord stands ready to take the ‘grain’ of our lives that has already been initially prepped by ‘threshing’ so that the grain is loose and perhaps willing within the husk of past miss-steps or misunderstandings to be thrown up into the air such that the wind might separate and clean our inner soul and intentions on its way back down to the threshing floor.
The baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan served as example and witness in preparing him to fulfil the role proclaimed and prophesied in Isaiah, the role of winnower for God’s beloved creation, of winnower for each one of us. Our baptism is a sign that we belong to God, as well as a relational commitment and promise from the fellowship of believers to watch over and continue to guide the one baptized into the fullness of life in God, complete with joy, peace…and purpose.
The ‘winnowing of the soul’ of each one of us is intended to clean the inner soul and being of each one of us, through the careful attention to, and guidance of the Holy Spirit, through all the particulars of our life. And so the Prophet proclaims and John echoes that…Every valley shall be filled…wherever there may be insufficiencies in our life or purpose, in all those areas in which we could be more than we are, when our potential is as yet not fully realized, the Spirit helps us to better express that ability, understanding, or talent.
And John reminds us that…every mountain and hill shall be made low. Wherever we may be in need of moderation or correction in thought word or deed, whenever we may need just a bit of gentle humbling, the Spirit goes to work reminding us that it is not so much who we are or what we have become, but rather how well our hearts are turned to the Lord’s purposes that matters. Reminds us that all that we are, all that we have, and all that we shall become or achieve, is as a result of the abundant blessings the Lord has placed upon us and not as a result of our own efforts or talents alone.
And the Prophet proclaims that…the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. Wrong turns we may have taken, poor decisions we may have made, times in which we have strayed far from the image of love in which we were created, are all forgiven as a result of the salvation given to us by our Lord. All of the times in the past, or today, or even tomorrow in which we miss the mark and prove to be less than we could be, are gently cleaned from us as the Lord lifts the winnowing fork and throws our spirits high into the air whereupon the gentle winds and baptismal-action of the Spirit separates those miss-steps, thoughts, or words from us, leaving us once again clean and forgiven in the sight of our God…once again ready and useful for the working of God’s will within Creation.
And then that ‘chaff’, those things we are so often tempted to pick up once again, refusing to believe we are truly forgiven and renewed, is burned up…this the ‘fire’, referred to as a part of the action of the Spirit in our baptism and conversion into vessels of holy purpose.
And finally, the Prophet and evangelist proclaim that…all flesh shall see the salvation of God. It is important to note these words used in closing out this particular song of grace. For it reminds us that there truly is no one who is not worthy of the salvation of our God. It reminds us that all of Creation, every woman, man and child ever born was created in the image of our God. It reminds us that when the Lord looks at us, it is done so with love, grace, and mercy without end, and without condition. And it reminds us that the goal of our God is that one day all shall dwell together in the Kingdom of Grace, a day of abundant peace, joy, and community…a day, and a community which we each have a part in bringing into being as knowing, forgiving, and baptized children of our God of love.
May we each go willingly to the threshing place of our Lord, for it is there that we shall be made ready to serve…and to love……amen