Changing the World

A sermon, based on Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 and Isaiah 43.1-7, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, January 13, 2019


Jesus is baptized. The heavens open, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and the deus vox, the voice of God utters a word of endearment, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”(1)
the baptism of jesus, bartolomé esteban murillo (1618-1682)

Here is a depiction of the paradigm of the divine community, the model of the divine economy, that is, pertaining to the organization and management of the household of God, the being of God: indwelling Spirit and loving Parent bestowing blessing upon the Child. A familial portrait that mirrors the God of Isaiah whose addresses the people employing the most personal pronouns, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine…I will be with youyou are precious in my sight…I love you,” and who speaks of the people in the tenderest terms, “my sons…my daughters.”

For the love of God, would that all families, all peoples, all nations adopt this pattern, this practice, this way of being and behaving and not only in relation to their own, but for all their own, for all are human. For this kind of living, this kind of loving could, would change the world.

For it was the love of God through which Jesus was born into this world and heralded in one of our Christmas carols as “the Prince” not of conquest, but “of peace.”(2)

A birth, after thirty years or so, that led to his baptism.

A baptism that inaugurated a public ministry of self-sacrificial service.

A ministry, for the sake of which he died that we, all for the sake of love, might be reconciled to, no longer at war and brought back into peace with God.

Would that all families, peoples, and nations adopt this way of being toward all families, peoples, and nations. It would change the world.

But, let’s be honest. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a hard message to hear. Even harder to heed and to do. Even John the baptizer had trouble. He fully expected the Messiah to come with “winnowing fork in hand to clear the threshing floor, to gather the wheat and burn the chaff,” to come in the eschatological, the final judgment of history to sort out, to separate humanity, rewarding the good and condemning the bad.

winnowing forkBy the way, it occurs to me to ask, do y’all know what a winnowing fork is? Back in ancient days, it was a long-handled device, usually of wood, that, like a fork, had tines on the end. The grains of wheat had to be separated from the inedible husks, the chaff. The winnower, standing on the threshing floor, usually high up on a hill where the wind blew, would sweep through the wheat and the enclosing husks, tossing them into the air and separating them; the heavier grain falling back to the threshing floor and the lighter chaff, carried away by the wind.

John the baptizer employed this image to describe the ministry of the Messiah whose coming he proclaimed. With this kind of divine intervention, this kind of divine “justice” in mind, no wonder when John’s disciples reported to him all that Jesus was saying and doing, he sent word, asking, “Are you the one who is to come (the Messiah) or shall we look for another?”(3) And Jesus answered, “Go tell John…the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news preached to them”(4) – all these, evidences of the love of God, signs of God’s justice, that is, God’s love in action.

My dear sisters and brothers of Epiphany Church, we, as followers of Jesus, baptized in his name, are a part of God’s divine community, God’s divine economy. Thus, in our common life, it is our lot, our right, our privilege to continue to discern and to determine how we give sight to the blind, lift up the lame, cleanse the leper, declare “ephphatha,” “be opened” to the deaf,(5) bring life to the dead, proclaim glad tidings to the poor both in here and out there.

It is our lot, our right, our privilege to decide to do nothing less than change the world.


(1) A note of interest: Of the biblical gospel accounts, only Matthew (3.13-16) and Mark (1.9) specifically attest that John the baptizer baptized Jesus. Luke (3.19-20) has John the baptizer already imprisoned by King Herod when Jesus is baptized. (By whom? ‘Tis a mystery!) John (1.29-34) has John the baptizer only referencing his baptism of Jesus.
(2) Hark! the herald angels sing, 3rd verse.
(3) Luke 7.20
(4) Luke 7.22
(5) The reference is to the story in Mark 7.31-37.

Illustration: The Baptism of Jesus, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682). Note: Murillo depicts John the baptizer, as is traditional of 17th century paintings, wearing a brown camel hair garment (Matthew 3.4, Mark 1.6), draped in a cloak of read (symbolizing the blood of his coming death by beheading: Matthew 14.10, Mark 6.16, Luke 9.9), and bearing a staff with a scroll reading, Ecce Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” being John’s testimonial witness to Jesus (John 1.29, 36). Above, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends (Matthew 3.16, Mark 1.10, Luke 3.22, John 1.32), accompanied by the phrase, representing the voice of God, Filius Meus Dilectus, “My Beloved Son” (Matthew 3.17, Mark 1.11, Luke 3.22).

4 thoughts on “Changing the World

  1. I want to save the world Paul Roberts Abernathy!! So I’m grateful for these words!! I didn’t know what a winnowing fork was, so I as always appreciate the education! I’ll keep discerning and determining HOW to help ALL of those who need it. It’s a great time to ponder this question, because so much seems lost in our world. I read your post the other day when you queried your friends about their feelings on “the wall”… AND I read all of the comments that followed and your followup response apologzing if anyone was upset by the question and subsequent dialogue. Why can’t we answer questions without tearing each other down, or as you put it, to listen to the “other” without judgment. Wouldn’t it be great to have a winnowing fork today? One that would weed out the hate, and allow us all to Listen, to hear, to share, to find common ground… I’d vote for that!! We certainly need some divine intervention to work some magic!! I have to have hope that something will work…. it’s scary and I don’t want to lose hope. The winnowing fork feels to me like something to galvanize us all to save this world before it’s too late.

    Much love!


  2. Loretta, I don’t know if we can save the world (but I appreciate your enthusiasm and your care), but I do believe we can change the world through our faithful efforts to fulfill our baptismal ministry (as expressed in the Baptismal Covenant (The Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-305, which we used today in the place of The Nicene Creed).

    Now, on immediate second thought (I always have them!), your idea and interest in saving the world (though I pray Jesus already has done that!) is another way of saying “change the world.” For, as I contemplate it, the desire to change the world is rooted in the perception that all is not right and good in this world as it is. Hence, “change” and “save” can be synonyms. Thanks for that concept!

    As for my FB post about the wall and the subsequent comments, some of which, for me, in their dismissive, even denigrating tone toward others and their points of view, I found…I felt were painful. Aye, would that we might employ a winnowing fork to separate, indeed, to weed out the hatred! Perhaps we become winnowing forks when we, despite the expressions of anger and hatred toward others with differing points of view, separate the anger and hatred in our own hearts, so that we respond with love and understanding.



  3. Thank you, Paul. May we all take up the challenge of Jesus, very timely passed on by you today, to pick up whatever winnowing fork fits our hands and get about the business of changing this world. May the chaff of our lives and our time blow away in the wind, as we figure out how to move the good seeds from the threshing floor to plant fields of good will, love, peace, and hope in our world. The harvest of such a crop can’t come a moment too soon.

    With love,



  4. Karen, your summation and application of what I sought to say/share in this sermon literally rings as musical poetry through the ears of my eyes and down to my soul. Thank you with love, Paul


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