As I told someone yesterday, John the Baptist has sort of become my Advent buzz kill. I don’t think any of us feel like being chastised by John the Baptist this morning. It is hard to hear John’s chilling call to repentance when our heads are full of Christmas preparations and our hearts are full of the image of baby Jesus in a manger. But this is life in the lectionary, so we must hear what John the Baptist is saying to us this morning.
John the Baptist is preaching to a crowd who thinks they know the answers because they are descendants of Abraham. But he tells them that it doesn’t matter who they come from, that even stones could be descended from Abraham. John assures them that the axe of judgment is waiting for everyone. His listeners are fearful of the impending judgment and ask John "What then should we do?" And John’s answers are surprisingly clear, rarely in the Bible do you get such a clear response. He tells everyone to share from their abundance, if you have two coats give away one. John tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the designated amount and he tells soldiers not to abuse their position of authority. And these instructions are all clear enough, but they aren’t quite the good news.
As the crowd ponders John’s advice to them, they begin to wonder if he could be the Messiah. Could he be the long expected savior of mankind? But he says no he is not the Messiah, but John assures that the Messiah is coming. And this Messiah can bring much more than a baptism of repentance, he will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. And this is our good news; that a Messiah is coming who brings the Holy Spirit and fire with him. And this sounds pretty good. Then John tells us that this Messiah has a “winnowing fork” in his hand that he will use to clear the threshing flow. And that He will separate the wheat from chaff, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Now I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound too good. Nothing with unquenchable fire makes me feel much like rejoicing as our reading from Philippians suggests.
But after some research into these terms, I see it a bit differently. The chaff is the dry, scaly protective casings of the seeds of grain. The grain cannot be used with the chaff on it. The winnowing fork is part of the agricultural method of winnowing, where farmers toss the wheat into the air with a fork or shovel so that the chaff would be blown away, leaving the grain clean. The chaff exploded in the air. The important thing to know about this process is that the goal is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff. So this is our good news, the Messiah wants to save us, the wheat, but in order to do so the chaff must be burned away. The Holy Spirit can create new life in us, but only if we let the spirit burn away the chaff.
What is the chaff in your life? What do you need to get rid of to be useful to God, to have new life? You may already have a list. Does jealousy of a friend or colleague keep you from thinking clearly? Is there a relationship blocking your path? Perhaps your desire for perfection keeps you apart from others. Or maybe your list of holiday to-do’s is keeping you from experiencing God. Do you feel too busy to pray? Or perhaps the chaff of your life is something else. John the Baptist is calling us to name the chaff in our life so that the Holy Spirit can remove it and create new life in us.
Because the truth is that when repentance and forgiveness is possible, judgment is good news. The once menacing winnowing fork can bring us to new life. This judgment that John preaches to us about, while scary, is the only path to new life in the Holy Spirit. And as Kathy Grieb, the preacher at my ordination yesterday, said, the Holy Spirit is always working the crowd. You never know how the Holy Spirit is going to change your life. It has certainly changed my life and I am grateful for the new life of a priest that the Holy Spirit has given me. And I pray that we may all find new life in the Spirit.
Because we can all be reborn through the waters of Holy Baptism. This Baptism of the Spirit that John tells us about calls all the baptized to new life. So in this season of Advent as we wait for the Messiah, let the Holy Spirit move through you and create new life within you. Think about the chaff in your life, whatever is blocking you from God. Pray for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, so that the wheat might remain and grow. Come Holy Spirit Come!