Sermon for Sunday, January 9th, the First Sunday after Epiphany
The Lessons: Psalm 89:20-29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Luke 3:15-22
The Text: Luke 3:15-22
The Topic: The Epiphany of Jesus Christ as Baptizer with the Holy Spirit and with fire
The capture, taming, and keeping of hunting eagles in Asia is highly ritualized. Most of the birds, which have a life span of about forty years, are caught when very young – either snatched from a nest or trapped in a baited net. Once captured, the eagle is hooded and placed in a cage with a perch that sways constantly so it cannot rest or sleep.
For two or three days the eaglet is also deprived of food. During this time, the berkutchi, or eagle hunter, talks, sings, and chants to the bird for hours on end. Finally, the man begins to feed and stroke the bird. Slowly the weakened creature comes to rely on its master. When the berkutchi decides that their relationship has become strong enough, the training begins.
Not all eagles will become hunters, but those who take to life with a master display intense loyalty.
The training and breaking of the eagle may seem harsh, but it is a picture of how over time God breaks our independent spirit to draw us close to him.
– Stephen Kinzer, “A Hunter Whose Weapon Is Also His Friend,” The New York Times (November 4, 1999).
When all the people were wondering if John the Baptist was the Messiah, or Christ, John himself answered their inner questions by declaring that though he was baptizing them in water, he was not worthy to unfasten the sandals of the One who was mightier than he, who “shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” (John 3:16c, KJV). John the Baptist was drawing an immense contrast between himself and the Lord Jesus Christ. The crowds of people that he was baptizing for repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins thought that he might be the Christ because he was baptizing them. John wanted them to be sure that this was not a simple religious rite, by which everything was made right in their lives, but rather a preparation for being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire by the Christ.
Immediately after these words, he clarifies the ministry of Christ, as a harvester of wheat who separates the wheat from the chaff, gathers the wheat into the granary, and burns the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17). The people would have understood well this agricultural image of winnowing, separating the grain from the chaff. In this image is wrapped a terrible warning: “Do not be like the chaff that gets burnt up but be like the grain that is gathered into the granary!” What the people were hoping for was deliverance from Roman oppression, but instead, John the Baptist was warning them that the Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and this fire is a means of purification and judgment. Centuries previously, the prophet Malachi had prophesied this purifying process:
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:1-3, KJV)
Purification involves the separation of good from evil both within all the faithful, and the persistently sinful from the righteous at the end of the age. It is as if John the Baptist was saying, “Prepare to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and to be purified by Him, for if you refuse, you will be consumed by the fires of judgment.”
The answer that John gave to the people showing the great contrast between himself and the Christ must have led to another question in the people’s minds: who, then, is the Christ? St. Luke relates the Lord’s own baptism in answer to this question. While Jesus was praying, after coming up out of the waters of baptism, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the bodily form of a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). This is the Epiphany of who Jesus Christ is, the Son of God, both the Father and the Holy Spirit bearing witness. If we wonder what God wants us to do in response to this revelation of Jesus as Son of God, we can learn from God’s words from the cloud to Peter, James and John at the Transfiguration of Jesus: “This is my beloved Son: hear him” (Luke 9:35b, KJV). To hear Jesus, we must be silent before him, and obey what he tells us to do. We must turn our lives over to him completely, so that we do what he commands, and go wherever he leads us. For many who like being in control of their own lives, this is not easy, but then the goal of our original baptism was that we follow Jesus Christ as Lord and let him baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This means that we let the Holy Spirit purify us daily, and therefore that we examine our lives daily with the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit. The more aware we become of who the Lord Jesus Christ is, Son of God and Savior of mankind, and yet designated by God as Judge of the world, the more aware also we become of our own sinfulness, our falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and of our need for the salvation that we have received from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is a prayer of Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) that helps us submit ourselves more to God:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
(p.668, Book of Common Prayer, ACNA, 2019)
God will use all his people in diverse ways to his glory and for his purposes of bringing salvation and healing to many, but the more we yield ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ as he works through the Holy Spirit to purify our lives, the more useful we will be to the Lord. In this connection, St. Paul wrote to Timothy:
But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.
(2 Timothy 2:20-21, KJV)
Are you submitting yourself willingly to the Holy Spirit’s work of fire, as he purifies your life?
 Quoted on p.411, Craig Brian Larson & Phyllis Ten Elshof (General Editors): 1001 Illustrations that Connect. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, Christianity Today International, 2008.