John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “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. 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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Even in the church, the preparation for Christmas takes on a life of its own. The colors on the altar change to blue. The Advent wreath becomes a part of our morning worship liturgy. We even gather on Wednesday evenings during the week to share a sacred meal and reflect on Jesus’ birth and what it means in our lives.Today, we lit the third candle of our Advent wreath that traditionally signifies joy, even though are hearts are heavy in the wake of the recent tragedy in Connecticut. The idea of proclaiming joy seems inconsistent with our reality. How can we proclaim joy to the world when it seems that evil could have the power to extinguish the flames of light heralding the coming of God’s Kingdom.
Two days ago, the countdown to Christmas progressed as usual. But life has a way changing our direction, and the terrible events in a town much like ours brings us to our knees. Today, we light the third candle in our Advent wreath, praying that somehow the light of Christ will not be extinguished but will continue to shine in a world of pain and suffering. And as we wait for God’s kingdom to be realized, we wonder – Lord, how long will it be?
The people flocking to see John in the wilderness knew the pain of suffering too. They lived in a time of oppression at the hands of the Roman government. Their dream of being the great nation that God had promised them to be was almost forgotten. Still, there was hope because they knew that their current situation was part of an all too familiar pattern. Their history and the beloved stories of their journey with God reveal a cycle that began as a promise from God to make the children Abraham into a great nation. At first, they believed God and enjoyed a measure of prosperity. But at the first sign of trouble, the people rebelled and turned away from God. When they did, God seemed distant and the promise became a seemly unattainable dream. In frustration and fear, they cried out to God who heard their cries. Just when all seemed lost, God would send a chosen one to lead them out of bondage. For awhile, they would live in peace, worshipping God and enjoying God’s blessings – until they rebelled and turned away again.
When John came on the scene, the people of Israel were in a state of bondage – this time to the Romans. Once again, God’s promise seemed to be a distant and unattainable dream and they were crying out for freedom. The religious leaders were trying to turn things around, paying closer attention to the details of the law in order to prove they were worthy of deliverance. Surely, God would hear their cry and their efforts would be enough for God to send them the Messiah who would release them from oppression. So they flocked to John and to his baptism of forgiveness in an attempt to wash away everything that was keeping them from living in God’s promise.
We can imagine their dismay when they heard what John had to say. They were seeking the promise of forgiveness and restoration. Instead, they heard words of judgment, God’s wrath, and frightening images of winnowing forks and fire. It’s hard to hear anything that sounds like good news coming from John the Baptist’s mouth isn’t it? And yet, the scripture says John was proclaiming the good news.
If this is good news, I’d hate to hear the bad news!
But there is good news here – there really is!
John is offering a way to break the cycle of disobedience and rescue that gets us nowhere except in a state of dizziness. He points to the Messiah – Jesus, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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. Hearing this passage through the lens of God’s love and forgiveness allows us to see this frightening image in a new light.
You see, when wheat is harvested, it is moved to a threshing floor where it is pounded down to release the edible grain from the inedible seeds called the chaff. Once the wheat has been threshed, it must be winnowed in order to separate the grain from the chaff. The winnowing fork is used to pick up the threshed wheat and throw it into the air. The process depends on the wind. Since the chaff is light and the grain heavy, the wind carries the chaff away while the grain falls to the ground.
Grain and chaff – they are by-products of the threshing process. And they are also the by-products of life itself. The chaff represents the circumstances in our lives that threaten our faith and make us feel unworthy to be in God’s presence. But Jesus’ winnowing fork removes the chaff with the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit. Through the work of the Spirit in our lives, we no longer have to worry about earning God’s favor.
As a result, we find ourselves in a face to face encounter with God where we discover something amazing! God has not abandoned us. Miraculously, God considers us worthy of love, showers us with forgiveness, and invites us to see the world differently – as valuable and worthy.
John warned the people that repentance is not just words of sorrow for misdeeds. True repentance, he said, brings about a genuine transformation in the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. When we turn toward God – in a face to face encounter, we are invited to view the world through God’s eyes and our selfish desires are transformed into deeds of service that flow from God’s love and forgiveness.
This year, as we spent time thinking about how we might join God in doing what matters, we identified the importance of embracing God’s love and forgiveness as one of the five guiding principles that will help us live out our purpose as a community of faith. In the first two weeks of Advent, we heard about two other guiding principles: being open and flexible to God’s call in a changing world and working to break down the barriers that separate us from one another. All of these flow from repentance - a face to face encounter with God made possible by Jesus’ winnowing fork and the work of the Holy Spirit. Bathed in God’s love and forgiveness, we are given a new vision of the world where God is actively at work, even in the face of suffering and loss.
Today, we come before God with raw emotion. We cry out in anger at the injustice of the senseless loss of life. We feel helpless and unable to protect the innocent from violence in our world. We wonder how long we must wait until all is made right again. At the same time, we feel compassion for the victims and their families and we trust that the light of Christ cannot be extinguished in this world.
Anger, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, patience, hope, love, compassion, and forgiveness. These are the chaff and grain that we offer up to Christ. Although it is difficult, we turn toward God, turning our backs to the power of suffering in order to see God’s presence in the face tragedy. And I believe that we WILL see many glimpses of God’s work in the days and weeks ahead as God’s people embrace God’s love and forgiveness and reach out to others in the midst of suffering. Today, we do not need to be afraid of proclaiming joy because we rest in God’s power to transform the world. Pain and suffering will never have the last word. This is good news indeed!