Texts: Isaiah 10:1-11; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
My reaction would have been similar to Jeremy’s. Hearing people saying things like that turns me off, makes me frustrated. It makes me want to go argue—or, more often, avoid them entirely. I imagine many of you would feel the same. It’s interesting, then, that Matthew chooses to begin his story about Jesus with just such a person: a man named John, dressed in camel hair, wading in a river screaming, “Repent! The Kingdom of God has come near!” Not only that, Matthew tells us that John is the one who baptizes Jesus, and that according to Jesus himself, this is right and proper. This means that, unlike my friend Jeremy and perhaps the rest of us, Matthew believes that John and his message are very Christ-like—so Christ-like, in fact, that Christ himself chooses to continue John’s work.
It may be that we don’t like John’s message because it makes us fear that when Jesus does return to judge the world in righteousness, we will find ourselves on the wrathful side of that love. This fear makes us uneasy, makes us anxious and uncomfortable. We don’t want to fear God. We want to love God and trust that God will love us in return. And yet, Isaiah proclaims that the fear of God is not only good, it is a delight!
During the season of Advent, we meditate on how our waiting for the coming Christmas holiday mirrors our waiting for the return of Christ. We use this season as a time to focus on our yearning and our expectation for Jesus, praying, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come!” We want Jesus to come back because we are all deeply, painfully, shockingly aware of how much of a mess we are in, and that we need God’s help to get out.
This is the same desperate, angry, urgent expectation behind John’s shocking words. Just like us, he was fed up with a system and a world that was broken beyond comprehension, and he placed all his hope on the One who would come to judge the world in righteousness: to wrathfully eradicate injustice and lovingly establish peace. We may not like judgement very much, but it is precisely Christ’s judgement that we await with eager expectation, because judgement is how justice is restored.
We, like John, recognize the need for God to come and fix a world broken beyond our ability to repair it. What John reminds us is that, in recognizing our need for God to fix the world, we must also recognize our need to be fixed, as well; we also want and need Christ’s judgment for ourselves. Unless you happen to be already perfect, we are all in need of God’s saving love, and perhaps even a bit of God’s wrath.
John’s message of repentance is a wake-up call to us, a reminder that praying “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come” means praying not only for God to separate the grain from the chaff in the rest of the field, but in our own little stalk of wheat, as well. We yearn for this, but if we know what we are asking for, we also fear it.
The “chaff” is all the parts of the plant that aren’t the grain—the stalk, the leaves, the seedcoat—all the things that keep the plant alive while the grain is being produced. It is all stuff we can’t imagine living without; it seems integral to who we are. It’s all the things we’ve grown and adapted to keep ourselves safe, to protect us from danger and get by in our world—but in the world that God is bringing, it’s all stuff we won’t need anymore. The wheat doesn’t need the chaff in the granary, so it’s separated and burned.
When harvesting grain, the chaff is separated from the wheat by threshing: the whole stalks are beaten with a flail until the chaff falls apart and releases the grain. It sounds terribly unpleasant, but it is also what we pray for every single week. We ask God to remove our guilt, to free us from death, to take away the sin of the world and grant us peace. To be free of the chaff is to fully become who God always intended us to be. And so, even as we fear him, we also welcome the One who is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand, because it is only when he arrives that we will finally be rescued from our captivity to sin and death.
Nevertheless, Matthew wants us to recognize that although John’s message is important to Jesus’ story, John is not Jesus. John sees the axe at the root of the tree and expects the One who is coming after him to pick it up and cut the tree down to make way for what is next. And he does—but probably not how John expected. Jesus, instead of cutting down the tree, is cut down by the tree.
Jesus’ wrath is much more gentle than John imagines. Instead of a raging fire that destroys sin and consumes sinners, the business end of Jesus’ love purifies us by filling us up and melting our icy hearts; it burns off the dross and refines us like a precious metal. This is Jesus’ method of threshing, of separating of the wheat from the chaff. His death still pronounces judgement on us and our sinful world, but we recognize that, as we suffer for resisting that sinfulness, we are being redeemed rather than punished.
When John urges us along with the Pharisees and Sadducees to “bear fruits worthy of repentance, he is not telling us to save ourselves with our good words, but to begin letting go of the chaff we have come to regard as necessary so that when Jesus does return in judgement, we will be ready to be free of it entirely.
During Advent, as we await the return of Christ, both John and Jesus admonish us to make ourselves ready, to repent and turn to God. God’s kingdom is coming, whether we are ready or not; we can resist it, or we can welcome it. Either way, we cannot prevent it from coming.
Nor can we make it come any sooner, the work of bringing the kingdom belongs to God and God alone; it is not something we can accomplish. We cannot earn salvation any more than a stalk of wheat can thresh itself. We can work at repentance, but in the end we await the return of the One with the winnowing fork to repent us fully, to judge the world in righteousness, separating the wheat from the chaff as far as the east is from the west before the chaff is burned in the unquenchable fire, never again to stain God’s good creation with corruption or death. Only then will the grain be gathered into the granary forever.
That day is a day of reckoning to be feared, a day of death and destruction; but because this is Jesus we’re talking about, we know that death is the necessary prelude to eternal life. That is why even as we fear, we also hope and yearn and prepare. With Jesus as our judge, we can be assured that everything will be made right—even us.