Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God
our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Slogans come and slogans go, but no doubt some of you remember
those old commercials for Coca-Cola. “It’s the real thing!” they said. The
advertisers were saying that Coke was the real cola, and all the others were
imposters. Organic foods, too, claim to be the ‘real thing’—food without
preservatives, chemicals, hormones, and steroids. Such food is becoming very
popular in grocery stores these days. Increasing numbers of people are becoming
convinced that natural, unenhanced, untreated products are the way to go.
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, caffeine-laced drink. The real thing St. Luke writes 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. “Is he the Christ?” they asked themselves ‘in their hearts’. It’s not
really that strange of a question. John’s ministry was, after all, having a
genuine effect on people. There were large crowds gathering. Tax collectors,
soldiers, and religious leaders were all 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 that will help them get out from under the thumb
of the Romans.
At that time, the children of Israel were not a free people. They
lived in an occupied land. Foreign soldiers patrolled the streets, and often
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 fearless, strong-talking person, like John.
Everything John said only heightened their expectations. “Who
warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” he shouted. He let people
know that things were going to change significantly. And many were expecting
and hoping for a Messiah. All over the Old Testament 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 for the ‘real thing’ to come. He shouted at the people,
reminding them that they were all sinful. “You brood of vipers!” he said. “You
need forgiveness that you can only receive from God.”
Many 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 word of Law,
demanding repentance, and to God’s Gospel, offering forgiveness. The greater
one, ‘the Real Thing’ that John was preparing them to meet, would have a
different kind of baptism for the people, though—a baptism “with the Holy
Spirit and with fire.”
John’s message gathered large 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 to separate
the chaff from the grain. Some of you probably know much more about this the
old way of processing the grain harvest than I do, but many of you may not
realize what a winnowing fork actually does.
In earlier times, before modern farm equipment, the stalks of
grain were brought to the ‘threshing floor’ from the field. The stalks were
beat with stones or boards to separate the grain from the stems. Then the
winnowing fork—sort of like a pitchfork—was used to throw it up in to the air
so that the wind would blow away the lightweight chaff. The more substantial,
weightier grain fell back to the floor where it could be gathered.
Notice how John says that the Messiah will ‘clear’ the threshing
floor. He will thoroughly clean it. All of the chaff will be burnt in the fire.
Every piece of grain will be taken care of and brought into the Master’s barn.
It’s a real harvest, to be done by the real messiah.
And now 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; after all of
his telling the crowds that the Messiah would do things differently, Jesus
is baptized. It is rather funny, in a way, that as St. Luke writes it, Jesus
almost seems like an anonymous person in the crowd. Among all those people
coming to John, Jesus was also baptized. It’s almost as if Jesus was trying to
avoid attracting too much attention, as He often did later on.
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 now. John is the one who baptizes Jesus, but Jesus is now the
focus. John is the lesser. Jesus is the more important. John fades into the
background, and Jesus stands alone. Luke wants us to know that. And John would
agree. In another place, John 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 that only
John and Jesus saw, but ‘bodily’ in the form of a dove. And God the Father
makes His appearance, too. He speaks from heaven. “You are my beloved
Son; with you I am well pleased.”
In other words, “You are the real thing. You are my promise of
forgiveness of sins fulfilled.” The work of the ‘real thing’ is the work of the
Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What, then, is the work of the Real Thing? Well, it’s all
spelled out for us in John’s earlier 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.
According to Jesus’ promise, just as the Holy Spirit came to him, the Holy
Spirit came to each of you in your baptism. Each new brother and sister in
Christ begins a new life of faith with baptism… a life lived in the shadow of
the life Jesus lived.
And John says that with the Spirit comes fire. Some people take
this to mean the tongues of fire that appeared above the apostles’ heads on the
day of Pentecost.
But Pentecost was a unique event, and not all of us who have been
baptized of water and the Spirit have received such visible signs of fire.
I’ve never seen that happen, and I expect neither have you. Yet we trust that
our baptisms are indeed one of God’s true means of rescue from sin and
death—not because of visible signs, but because of His promise.
No, the fire John was really talking about is God’s anger, His
wrath over sin, a calling of all who have been baptized to a life of continual
repentance. That’s what the fire is. In the Old Testament, when it talks about
God’s reaction to sin, it often talks about His anger burning.
Jesus, though, was perfect and without sin. He didn’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.
There on the cross, the full force of His disapproval over human
sin is poured out on His only Son instead of on 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 sin’s final wages: death. That, too is the
baptism of fire, the baptism John was talking about. The Spirit who descends on
Jesus brings not only God’s favor but also connects Jesus to God’s judgment.
For you and me, and for the next person we will baptize here, that
punishment passes over 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 and resurrection, yes—but also
into his death. That’s a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of 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 placed in the tomb, he
rose again from that death. The punishment—the fire of God—was taken to the
grave, but Jesus Christ returned to life. That’s something only the Real Thing
can do. It proves Jesus is no imitation Messiah, no imposter like so many who
have come before and after. It proves that the punishment he bore for us 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
Now, what about you? You are the Baptized children of God. You
have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, too. Whether it happened
here, or in a hospital, at home, or even in an entirely different church
altogether, if it was done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of
the scriptures, it was the real thing, too.
This 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 selfishly when you should be helping
someone else; you have a place to go. You don’t have to fear God’s burning
anger over your failure. When water was splashed over your head and the Word of
God was spoken, your sin was washed away to Jesus. And God’s fire, his anger
over your sin, was extinguished on the cross. That’s why we confess our sins
each and every week here, and why we should do it regularly, daily,
continually. We are reliving our Baptism, recognizing and admitting our sin,
and redirecting God’s anger onto Jesus on that cross.
No longer living in fear, 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, moving you to live a life more like his.
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 more 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.