Heaven Opened

Published: Thursday, 14 January 2016

Aretha Franklin

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on Sunday 10 January 2016.

Scripture Reading: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

After Christmas a video surfaced from the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. The occasion was the celebration of Carole King and other songwriters, actors, filmmakers and singers.

It was a delicious smorgasbord of songs and film clips that showed the very best of these artists. But there was another singer that night that everyone’s been talking about.

Aretha Franklin was introduced and she entered the back of the stage dressed in a full-length fur coat.[1] This 73-year old walked over to the grand piano and put down her purse as if she’d arrived at church.

She began to tinkle the ivories herself as if her accompaniment hadn’t showed up. But this Queen of Soul didn’t need any support musicians. No superfluous staging as she began belting out the words: ‘You make me feel like a Natural Woman’.

The song flowed with ease. It was a celebration of singer, songwriter, women and all those yearning to express who they’ve been born naturally to be.[2]

Then Aretha left the piano and moved to centre stage to finish the song. As she stood there her fur coat slid to the floor. She wanted to free her arms but to those cheering it seemed like the diva was breaking free from every shackle.

The audience was touched to the core. President Obama was not the only one wiping tears from his eyes. Regardless of age, race, gender or orientation, this musical experience united people and gave a glimpse of what we can become.

What is it that touches hearts and moves minds not just for a few rare moments?

What is it that effects long-term change and real transformation and doesn’t just give us a temporary glow?

Luke begins today’s scripture story with the words:

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation,

Something was happening in their midst. It wasn’t business as usual. Change was in the air. They started to think that things might be different.

I wonder how you’ve started the year.

How filled are you with expectation?

Maybe your gauge is pointing LOW. You’ve tried so many programs in the past. You’ve tried alone. You’ve tried as a group. Yet despite all your disciplined efforts there’s precious little change to show for it.

The Gospel of Jesus is good news chiefly because it’s about change.

The Gospel, as reported by Luke, tells us that no one need stay the way they are.[3]

The Gospel Scripture today gives us clues as to how change is possible for us.

Aren’t our expectations lifted in different ways? We may be moved by music. We may be stirred by art and the visual.

Remember that image of the two-year old Syrian boy lying on a Turkish beach? That picture changed the world.[4] It softened the hearts of politicians. It was one of the catalysts for many governments declaring their welcome of Syrian refugees.

Sometimes we’re moved by a person who does their craft well.

When the people saw John the Baptist at work, many responded.

Luke says:

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…

One of the most important challenges for leaders is managing expectations.

If we propose a way forward and we promise the earth but only deliver a few hectares, we let people down! They were expecting much more.

If instead we forecast some of the hopes but are realistic about the difficulties, then people will be prepared for the challenges and heartened when the goals are kicked and the flags are raised.

When the people came to John with great expectations and messianic hopes it must have been tempting to bask in the glory. To oversell your claims. To overrate your capabilities.

Haven’t we had recently such a list of politicians, actors and comedians, people who were family favourites who have now been exposed as fakes and frauds.[5]

Power and popularity can erode that balanced estimation of ourselves. Fame and success can cause blindness.

Part of the greatness of John was the humble estimation he had of himself. When he perceived the murmurings and questioning of people he said:

3:16 "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.”

John doesn’t put himself down. He knows who he is and who he is not. He knows what he can do and what he can’t.

He’s attentive to timing. Every leader needs to know they have a ‘Use By’ date and this heightens our urgency.

John knew that his ministry was not a five-day cricket match where you block the ball and occupy the crease. No, ministry for him was a limited overs game. It’s more like a big bash. He wants to get runs on the board. He’s batting courageously even if it means losing his wicket or losing his head.

With striking humility John harnesses their expectations and redirects them towards the One who is coming. There’s good lessons here for our next job interview. Read John’s response before your next performance review.

I baptize you with water (v16)

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Already this New Year, parts of Queensland[6] and New South Wales[7] have been thoroughly flooded. The communities of Wye River[8] in Victoria and Yarloop[9] in WA have been baptised this week with blazing fires.

What contrasting images—water and fire. What is this baptising God wanting to do in our lives this year? In our church? Our community? Our world?

John takes us now from the wheat field to the threshing floor and the barn. What a sketch John gives of his successor, v17:

3:17 His 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.

See the One with a winnowing fork in his hand?

The One who burns the chaff with unquenchable fire.

These people had been looking forward to meeting him. But now he’s starting to look threatening!

Ivan Illich contended that a good education should give to children and young people the essential skill of crap detection.[10] Fifty years on, when children in a couple of weeks are going to school with iPads linked to the Internet and coming home to televisions connected to media streamed on-demand, isn’t it more important than ever that our children and grandchildren grow in the art of crap detection? That they develop these winnowing skills to know how to thresh the chaff from the wheat.

Someone once said that an editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff. It’s one thing to learn to separate. It’s another to store and share the grain.

Don’t we all yearn for this discernment to know what it is that we need to give our time and energies to this year? How we need this in the church.

When Alan Marr was a Youth Pastor, he invited to speak at the Blackburn Church, Mike Yaconelli,[11] a Youth guru and editor of the satirical magazine, The Wittenberg Door.

That Sunday night at Blackburn Baptist there was lots of froth and bubble and people were getting up and sharing about the spiritual gifts they’d received of tongues and words of knowledge.

When Mike Yaconelli was introduced he started off by saying, “I’ve been given the gift of crap detection” and then he said, “There’s a lot of it around here.” The Youth Pastor was last seen sliding underneath the pew!

What would happen if we really got serious with this baptizer with fire and we asked this one to shake His winnowing fork over the work we do as a church?

What would stay and be judged as useful when Christ has done his threshing over our lives? What might be deemed to be chaff when this One applies His blowtorch to our programs?

One of the biggest selling books in recent months has the intriguing title: ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’.[12] This blockbuster that's sold over 3 million copies is by the Japanese author, Marie Kondo.

It’s more than a book. It’s become a global phenomenon. She writes about how to declutter our house and our office. How to purge our overstuffed wardrobe. How to choose which clothes to get rid of and which to keep.

A primary criterion, as this guru holds up a shirt or a pair of shoes is, “Does this spark joy?” If not, throw it away. It might spark joy for someone else at the Op Shop!

She’s booked up for months as a Tidy Up consultant.

I’d love Marie Kondo to come and fold my clothes correctly.

I’d love Marie to declutter the cupboards in my study.

If she was able to tame our garage, I’d be singing:

‘The most beautiful sound I ever heard, Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria.’[13]

I’d like to experience the sparks of joy that come with a reordered sock drawer. But I’d like Christ to help me let go of the scraps and the junk in my life.

I’d like Christ to give me the wisdom to know what clutter to cut.

I’d like Christ to give me the courage to chuck out.

I’d like Christ to give me the joy that comes from a stronger purpose in my daily life.

We’re considering this magical work of the winnowing One, who can help us to sort, to separate, to sift the grain from the husks. To distinguish the fruitful from the useless. Not just to burn the chaff but to compost it or to creatively use it for significant other purposes.

Look at how we cooperate with this One on the threshing floor? V21

3:21 Now when all the people were baptized

Baptism is where they started. When they declared to others that they meant business with God.

In baptism we ask the One with the threshing fork to do his business in our lives. To pitch out our sin. To reorder our lives according to God’s purposes. To harvest the grain.

Have you reached this point yet where you want your secret, inner YES to God to be amplified and your allegiance to God to become public and open? Let me know if this is your next step. I’m happy to turn on the taps and organise your baptism? This is where we start.

It’s not only the important one off act of baptism, it’s a daily immersion in the ministry of Jesus.

We’re not just talking about a sprinkling, a trickling, a piddling, to make us cool and comfortable. We’re talking about a deepening relationship, a dunking and a drenching in the ministry of God.

Baptism by the time of the early church was filled with a much richer meaning than when John was baptizing. This means that we’re all called to live out our baptism—“to keep giving as much of ourselves as we know to as much of this God as we keep on knowing.”[14]

Luke says:

And when Jesus also had been baptized (v21)

We remarked on the humility of John but look at the humility of Jesus in his submission to the public step of baptism. It takes humility to be baptized and here Christ shows humility par excellence.

After his baptism note the way Luke inserts something that the other Gospel writers omit. They’ve missed it and we shouldn’t miss it. v21:

And when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,

Here at Ashburton Baptist we’ve started the year with a desperate call to prayer. A member of our church has been on life support in the Intensive Care Unit teetering between life and death.

People joined the family to pray for life and that she’d be saved from brain damage. So many of you also joined in a 24-hour vigil of focused prayer.

God has wonderfully answered these prayers. Some people said that apart from this remarkable recovery, their engagement in prayer has renewed their faith. One woman talked of the privilege of being part of this work of concerted prayer. A man remarked on new insights about God and prayer.

The family is asking now for us to keep on praying not only for life but life in all its fullness.

And when Jesus was praying, the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended and the voice came from heaven.

Thanks be to God. Amen!


And when Jesus … was praying, the heaven was opened

Eternal God we dare to follow Jesus in prayer

Confident that you care for each of us as if you had no one else to care for.

Our thoughts are tainted, our requests are skewed, our faith is feeble yet

We come with grateful and expectant hearts because while we by searching can’t find you, yet You by searching for us can open the heavens and find us.

Open the heavens to discover us today.

Cut through all the trash and tangles that have kept us from you.

Do your sifting and separating work that good grain might be kept and chaff blown away.

Burn away our evasions and deceit, our complacency and excuses.

Open the heavens in an experience of forgiveness.

You see the sins that have never been put right.

The barbed words that have hurt another.

Wrongs that have never been atoned, no pardon sought, no restitution made.

Wash us with the waters of pardon and mercy.

May some friendship that’s gone pear-shaped be put straight today.

May broken relationships be restored.

May anxious hearts find your peace.

Open the heavens as we come in the spirit of dedication.

We’re never great until we connect ourselves with something, Someone higher than ourselves.

We’re never happy while we’re self-centred so we seek the purpose worth living for, someone we can help, some cause we can serve.

Let some ministry of justice and vision of beauty capture us today.

Open the heavens as we come in the spirit of humility.

We ask not for easy lives but the power of your Spirit to make us sturdy.

In all the ordinary and extraordinary places that we find ourselves this week, we ask for your blessing, the spirit of peace, the ears to hear and receive deeply your voice saying, “This is my beloved daughter or son in whom I am well pleased.”

Enable us to leave this place to bring about lasting change, to lift people up and to make this world into a better place in which your Spirit might work.

Through Jesus Christ we pray, AMEN.[15]


[1] Aretha Franklin (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman- Kennedy Center Honors 2015.

[2] Kristi York Wooten, Why We’re Still Watching That Video of Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center’, Huffington Post, 5 January 2016. The article and the comments are informative.

[3] This is an adaption of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon title, ‘No Man Need Stay the Way He Is’, New York, 1934. A sermon preached at the Riverside Church, New York, 25 November 1934.

[4] Patrick Kingsley and Safak Timur, ‘Stories of 2015: How Alan Kurdi’s Death Changed the World’, The Guardian, 31 December 2015.

[5] Rita Panahi, Bill Cosby Shows Fame Can cause a Terrible Blindness, Herald Sun, 4 January 2016.

[6] Robin McConchie, Disaster Assistance for Flood-Affected Communities in Queensland, ABC, 1 January 2016.

[7] NSW Floods: Record Rain Brings Chaos to Hunter Amid Search for Missing Sailor, ABC, 7 January 2016.

[8] Victoria Bushfires: Wye River North, Separation Creek Residents Allowed Limited Access to Homes, ABC, 5 January 2016.

[9] Live: WA Bushfire Tears Through Yarloop; Homes Destroyed and Three People Missing, ABC, 8 January 2016.

[10] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Marion Boyars Publishers, 2000.

[11] Mike Yaconelli, Wikipedia.

[12] Marie Kondo, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, goodreads; Caroline Tell, ‘The Marie Kondo Effect: A Closet’s Loss, a Consignor’s Gain’, New York Times, 4 August 2015; Heidi Julavits, ‘Turning Clutter into Joy’, New York Times, 4 April 2015; Interview with Marie Kondo, goodreads, January 2016.

[13] Maria, West Side Story.

[14] This is an adaptation of a quote from a book or a talk by Eddie Askew.

[15] Some of the thoughts in this prayer are inspired by the prayer by Harry Emerson Fosdick, ‘A Book of Public Prayers’, (Collins: St James’s Place, London, 1960), 12-13.