Faith: The puzzle of Christian life

Rev. Deana Amrstrong

My sister loves jigsaw puzzles. For her birthday this year, mostly as a gag gift, I got her one made of plastic pieces that were entirely clear. They had no color, no clues on how to put them together other than shapes of the pieces themselves. It also didn’t have sharply defined edge pieces.

Puzzles teach us something about the Christian life. We put them together like we put our lives together in the Christian community. We fit together to make a whole. Our baptisms are the start of that jigsaw fitting together.

Last Sunday was Baptism of Christ. In the Gospel in Luke 3, we overhear that Baptism 2000 years old. It begins with the people who have gathered by the river. They are there looking for a Messiah and think that they have found one in John the Baptist.

He looks and acts like all the prophets who have gone before. He rebukes them, yells at them really, for their failures to live up to God’s commands. He does this prophetic act. As far as they knew, everything looked right. But they weren’t looking far enough ahead or looking for the right things. They expected continuation. They wanted to sing the same hymns they had always sung. They wanted to tell the same stories that they had always told. They insisted on doing it the same way they had always done it before. John is having none of that, however.

He was a signpost on the way to God, he wasn’t the ultimate destination. And they would not get there by following the same tried and true routes. So, he does what prophets have always done, he yelled at them again:

“I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” (Luke 3:16-17, Common English Bible)

John’s message is a continuation of the themes of judgment and damnation that he had been preaching. He, like so many of us, had a tendency to cycle through the same ideas. We see the message as one of judgment. We tend to hear passages like this: Who’s in? Who’s out? The problem is we misunderstand the metaphor. And we’ve been misunderstanding it for at least 2000 years. We know better if we stop and think about it.

Winnowing grain, threshing grain, isn’t about weeding the garden. It is about taking apart the grain and keeping the good part while getting rid of the part not fit for human consumption. When the biblical prophets talk about the threshing floor, they are not saying we get to judge which of our neighbors are fit for the realm of God.

The stalk, the silk, the husk all had useful purposes during the growth cycle of the grain, but they are no longer useful now that the grain is full grown. The stalk provided connection to the roots and the nutrients in the soil and water it needed to grow. The silk and husk had kept the grain safe from pests, but they now have to be pulled away so the edible bits can be got at.

The useful part has to be separated from the now useless bits. This is what God is doing when we enter into the Last Day. All the bits that are no longer useful need to get cut off, baled into straw, recycled into mulch, or converted into plastic bags. What God intends to keep is the grain itself. We are each one of us, one of the plants that have been gathered to the threshing floor. We all have good parts, and not so good parts. The threshing is the process by which the inedible parts are removed, and the good-for-food parts retained.

After his baptism, Jesus moves aside and begins to pray.

And a voice came from heaven, “”You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness. (Luke 3:21, CEB)”

We overhear the message. It was not a message for the crowds. It was for Jesus alone. It is a message of love. God conveys to Jesus the message that will sustain him through the next difficult three years. God conveys to Jesus all the love God can give.

For many of us, if we were baptized as infants, remembering our baptism may seem impossible. At most we can be asked to remember the stories our parents and other relatives may have told us about it. But we are called to “re-member” our baptism,

This is a call like the one in Ezekiel, where the prophet calls leg bone to thigh bone, to back bone, and so on. It is a call to reattach yourself to the core of your being, to re-member your life. Peter tells us that whoever is baptized into Christ’s death is also baptized into Christ’s life (1 Pet 3:21). Paul tells us that there is one faith, one baptism, one body, one Lord and one God and Father of us all (Ephesians 4:6).

We are asked to put skin on our promises, the promises that were made at our baptisms, whether we spoke them, or someone else promised on our behalf, and we then confirmed at a later date. We are invited to make our baptisms so real that each and every day becomes a chance to start our life over again.

This is hard. Sometimes this means putting ourselves out there in new and hard ways. Sometimes that means doing things we don’t want to do. It may mean taking a risk or doing a hard task. It may mean imagining new ways to do old tasks or finding ways to do things without money.

It is like trying to put that clear puzzle together without any clues on how it goes together. We don’t have a roadmap or even the picture on the front of the box this time. We simply have the life of Jesus, from two thousand years ago. Things have changed. He didn’t have cellphones, the internet, or cars to worry about. He wasn’t a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth, instead he was its victim. Everything about our situation is different. So while Jesus stands as guide, we can’t map his life onto ours in a one-for-one way. Painting the picture of our lives on the clear jigsaw puzzle pieces he has left us takes work and prayer and a willingness to bend our hearts and heads in a resistance of oppression and an embrace of God’s ways that never stops.

We are invited into the very heart of God and are invited to join God on the threshing floor, to winnow out the evil that exists in our own hearts, to fertilize the soil with good and godly friends, and to stretch ever sunward as we reach toward the life of Christ as both example and challenge. In the very moments when we fail, when doubts overwhelm us, and when we don’t think we can hold on one more minute, we are invited to re-member our baptisms in another way. In that moment, hear God whispering the same message given to Jesus beside the Jordan:

“You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

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