Sermon Text: Luke 3: 7-18
They came to John seeking good news. Seeking baptism. Salvation. John the Baptist. In the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.
A people who lived in dark times ? surely we can identify with them. And we come to John as they came to John ? seeking the good news. John speaks of the wrath to come, but we come today wondering how to flee from the wrath at hand.
John greets them with an insult ? calling them a brood of vipers. He warns them that they are being watched to see if their trees produce fruit. He gives them the impression that they are bad people ? people who have done many bad things.
So these crowds ? the crowds who have come to see John prepare the way of the Lord ? ask the next logical question, ?What then should we do??
What should we do if what you?re saying is true? If we are bad people and the children of bad people, what should we do?
Now, I have to take issue with some of what John is saying here. First of all, it?s not my personal pastoral style to call people names. Even though John has effectively scared these people into listening to what he has to say and even though what he has to say is, ultimately, good news ? I?m not a fan of motivating people with fear. Fear begets fear.
In spite of John?s name-calling, I don?t believe God creates bad people. In spite of Friday?s events in Connecticut, I don?t believe God creates bad people. God creates people who make choices ? many good, many bad, and some incomprehensibly evil. In spite of the choices we make, and for reasons I don?t fully undrstand, God loves us.
And although John seems to believe God is watching closely to see if the trees of humanity bear fruit, I don?t think God is sitting up in heaven somewhere with a sticker chart. God?s love is unconditional. God has dreams for what our world can be, but even when we fall way short of the mark, God?s love continues. God does not cut down trees that fail to produce fruit. God continues to water trees, send fresh sunlight to those trees, and send kind people to prune the trees. God never loses hope that all trees can produce delicious fruit, given the right conditions.
So, John and I are not exactly on the same page here in terms of what we believe to be true about God. You may or may not be in agreement with him either ? and that?s okay. We can still engage with the text and find good news in it.
What John does next is simple and brilliant. He talks to the different people who have gathered to be baptized ? average Joes and Janes, tax collectors, soldiers ? and gives them concrete advice on how to live as children of the light in the midst of some very dark times. He tells those who have two coats that they must share with those who have none. He tells tax collectors to be honest and fair in their dealings with money. And he advises the soldiers to use their authority for good, not for evil.
These answers must have satisfied the crowds because they were immediately abuzz. People started to wonder aloud if John might be the Messiah, not just the one who points the way to the Messiah. But John quickly set them straight, reminding them that he was here to baptize with water but there was another coming who was greater than he. John goes back to the agrarian imagery again, stating that the Messiah would be the one who would go to the threshing floor to separate the good grain from the unusable grain and that he would burn off the chaff in an unquenchable fire.
Wait ? what? Unquenchable fire? That makes me nervous. I always tend to automatically assume any talk about unquenchable fire is somehow directly linked to hellfire and brimstone. So let?s take a second and look at this image of Jesus winnowing the wheat.
John?s metaphor here is that Jesus is a laborer, preparing the wheat for use. Back before farmers used machinery to prepare wheat, they did it manually, with the help of animals. They would gather the wheat on the threshing floor ? a large outdoor paved area located near a barn. They would use livestock to walk on the grain and separate the grain from the stalks and to begin to loosen the chaff from the wheat berries. After the grain was separated, the farmer would winnow it to remove the chaff from the berry entirely. This was why the threshing floors were outside. The typical method was to use the breeze to help blow the lightweight chaff away from the useable grain. Sometimes this was as simple as throwing the grain and chaff into the air by using a winnowing fork or fan to lift the wheat off the ground. The chaff would blow away and the wheat berries would land back on the floor. ? If you had a big bulk of chaff left around, you would probably burn it just to get rid of it.
Many of us are familiar with this separating the wheat from the chaff imagery, right? And I think the typical assumption is that there are good people and bad people and God is going to somehow separate them from each other and burn off the bad folks.
But that?s not how wheat works. Wheat is all one thing. Every grain of wheat has a berry that is useful for humans and animals. And every grain of wheat has an outer skin ? a chaff that has to come off before the grain can be used.
Sounds a little bit like a lot of people I know. We are all a great mix of bad and good. And we all need help to allow the best parts of ourselves to shine through.
I?m not saying it?s fun to be thrashed about ? and please notice something in the words of John ? Jesus is not even the one doing the threshing. Instead, Jesus comes along after the threshing to pick the grain up off the floor and winnow it. Jesus lovingly sets aside the good parts of the wheat to be used and what happens to the bad stuff? It disappears ? burned up in a fire that is unquenchable, always available ? never to be spoken of again.
?So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.?
That?s the end of this passage. Most commentators I read this week were shocked by this ending to the passage. Good news? This is good news? Hellfire and brimstone and Jesus coming to separate the goats from the sheep? Well, no. Not exactly. That?s not really what this passage is about.
What this passage is about is John empowering everyone present ? even those who were not typically thought of as ?religious types? ? to thresh themselves out and make themselves useful. And if that ain?t good news, friends, I don?t know what is.
To be told that we are all of us able to slough off our flaky parts and find meaning in our lives and work? To be told that we, everyday Janes and Joes, can bring about the reign of God by sharing? To be told that we, despised wealthy ones, can live into the Way of Christ by dealing fairly and honestly with our money? To be told that we, strong and powerful ones with authority, can show God?s love to the world by using our authority for good and not for wrong?
And, after a week like this one, in the face of senseless violence when we feel so helpless, to be led into the possibility of collectively redeeming the world by simply allowing our rough parts to be blown away on the wind of the Spirit?
That?ll preach, John. That. Will. Preach.
If this was the only thing we could take away from this passage it would be enough. To know that in the mist of heavy times, we are empowered to do good and that the gentle arms of Christ will lead us? That?s enough. But there is more.
Because John is not only inviting us to see the ways we can bring out the good in ourselves, John is also inviting us to baptism. In many cultures, baptism or a ritual washing, is a final step in a long process of becoming a part of a group. To be baptized is to join a family and to say, ?These are my people. I belong to this family.?
Traditionally, Christians think of themselves as joining the family of all Christians when they are baptized, and this is true. But I also think baptism calls us back to remember that we are, first and foremost, a part of the human family. All of it ? not just the Christians parts of it.
We are all a part of the human family, but sometimes we forget to live that way. God knows, we in this nation are guilty of this. We rush about from place to place, our heads stuck in our screens, sometimes scarcely noticing the humanity around us ? let alone actually making the effort to enhance our connection to others. And then we wonder why we have an epidemic of gun violence. We live in a place and time where it is countercultural to remember our connections to each other.
We forget that we are all related. We divide ourselves off into nuclear families. We cling so tightly to our socioeconomic status, our race, our gender, our political views, our hobbies, our religion, our whatever that we forget we are really all related. But Dr. King said it best when he said ?we are all caught in an inescapable network or mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.?
And that?s part of what John is inviting us to remember. When he talks to the people he tells them to treat those they encounter as if they were a part of the same family. He says to them, ?Just give them your coat. Don?t expect it back. You wouldn?t expect your sister to return your coat to you, right?? I think John would have been standing up and cheering to see the IU students who gathered outside our church at 5:30am during finals week this past Tuesday to distribute coats and gloves and scarves to our guests at the interfaith winter shelter.
John tells us to remember that we?re all a part of the human family. Those of us who have authority are supposed to use it for good, not evil. In the midst of all the bad news in the media, did you hear about Officer Lawrence DePrimo of the NYPD? A few weeks ago, he was out walking his beat and used $75 of his own money to buy a pair of sturdy boots for a man experiencing homelessness. DePrimo didn?t know he was going to be photographed and that the picture of him bending down to put the boots on the man?s cold feet would go viral on the internet. He wasn?t doing it to get credit. He did it because he remembered that we?re all a part of the human family. He did it because he knew that, to care for another person is to slough off a bit of your own chaff. He did it because he knew that it feels good to be useful. It feels good to remember your connection to another human being.
And in the midst of these dark days, on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle. The candle of Joy. It seems almost laughable to speak of joy right now, but as my dear friend and colleague the Rev. Jennifer Mills-Knutsen is saying from her church?s pulpit this morning, ?How dare any preacher or prophet let us think for one moment that God?s promised joy risks being snuffed out by any evil this world could ever display.?
The people came to John seeking a word of salvation just as we come to this place seeking a healing balm. We are all of us wilderness wanderers and we come to John for the good news.
He does not disappoint. John?s good news for us this day is this: In the face of the great evil, there is not a one of us who is useless. When the news of the day makes us notice our own chaff – when we feel consumed by feelings of fear, anger, grief. When we wonder how we can ever make ourselves useful in this broken, broken world, Jesus the Good Farmer comes to us with his winnowing fork.
After we have been threshed about by the violence of this world, the Christ lifts us off the cold, hard ground and winnows us gently. Let the winds of God?s healing breath blow on all of us and let us be useful in the world.
With thanks to http://doyle-scienceteach.blogspot.com/2009/03/separating-wheat-from-chaff.html and Wikipedia articles on ?threshing floor? and ?winnowing.?