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"Winnowing Forks, Waiting, and Other Good News" - 3rd Sunday of Advent - December 12, 2021

Being an Advent people is weird, right?

If you stepped into literally any store on the way to church this morning, you probably heard “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” or “White Christmas" or that “Christmas Time is Here" song from Charlie Brown.

It’s essentially been Christmas since October, and yet it’s not yet Christmas.

And then you came to church, where it’s still Advent, and instead of the smooth crooning of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, you got John the Baptist.

There’s a certain kind of tension to being an “already and not yet” kind of people.

Fulfillment and waiting.

Merry Christmas... you brood of vipers.

Today's Gospel is problematic. Well, actually, the Gospel itself isn’t problematic -

No. Today's gospel has been *used* problematically.

I grew up in a different denomination, and the only part of this passage that I remember being preached was the winnowing fork part - and here's what it conjured up: a line of souls gathered, trembling, in front of a pitchfork wielding lightning-eyed God

Each soul is judged, and then scooped up with the pitchfork lifted on up to heaven or tossed over to hell. In order to not be pitchfork-tossed into hell, you'd need to say a little prayer to accept Jesus as your very-own personal, individual savior.

Which is great because saying some words

Seems like an easy fix and it's a one and done thing —

. . . except are you really sure that you're not chaff destined for hell? Really really sure?

And this type of anxiety-inducing message was sometimes called "Good News”.

Y’all. That isn't it. This

us vs. them

wheat vs. chaff

you vs. me

view of judgment that so often gets used to condemn people

is at best reductive - it’s a poorly-exegeted

contextually-devoid interpretation.

This view of judgment where the people who act like us and believe like us we call “saved”, and the people who are different or won't get in line and believe how we want them to are “damned” -

well it’s no surprise that this either/or theology

is often revealed to have been used to manipulate, to control,

and to abuse people into submission.

This kind of theology of condemnation is a bad tree that bears bad fruit. And even now the ax is at the root of that tree.8

And you know what?

That’s good news.

Spoiler alert for the rest of the sermon: it's good news when bad stuff goes away for good. It’s good news when the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”3 get burned up.

It’s good news when “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God”4 are drowned out by baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

It’s good news when we say “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”5

And so, when the end of this Gospel reading says “with [these and] many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people” - that’s not sarcasm on the part of Luke the Evangelist.

The problem for us is that “judgment” is a loaded, loaded word in our culture.

That’s because our human judgment and God’s judgment are not the same thing.

God’s judgment is good news for all of creation.

And I think the reason we cringe when we hear John the Prophet talk about chaff being burned with unquenchable fire is perhaps that we don’t understand wheat. And we don’t understand orchards. Our default worldview is “either/or” - good trees vs. bad trees - wheat vs. chaff.

It for some reason doesn’t immediately occur to us that chaff is PART of the wheat and a tree is PART of the orchard.

Y’all have seen wheat. It grows on long stalks. The edible part is the kernel, which is all the way up at the top of the stalk, wrapped up in a protective layer called chaff. In order for the kernels to be planted to grow a new crop or to be ground into flour and baked into something tasty, the chaff has to be removed first.

And how do we remove the chaff? Well, if you’re living in John the Baptizer's time, you’re gonna pile up the wheat in something that looks like a shallow tub - a “threshing floor” - and you’re going to take that winnowing fork and shake the wheat around and toss it up in the air. The chaff, being relatively light, will blow off, and the usable kernels will drop back down into the tub.

So the bulk of the wheat plant is something that is useful for protection in a somewhat harsh climate, but has no life beyond a single growth cycle. When it’s time for new growth to happen, well - then only the kernel is useful - so we might as well get the rest out of the way.

And if you’re a farmer in the first century, and you have an orchard, you have a limited amount of space. You can only plant so many trees. So if a tree isn’t bearing fruit, it’d be better to cut it down and replace it with a tree that WILL bear good fruit.

It’s not bad news for the orchard to become a more productive orchard.

See - God’s judgment is not about condemnation and destruction of trees - it’s about the radical healing of the orchard.

It’s not that I, as a person, am either wheat OR chaff. A good tree OR a bad tree. There’s plenty of good in me, and there’s some habits and biases and defense mechanisms I’ve picked up along the way that could use a good winnowing.

You know?

Getting rid of what hinders growth is NOT bad news.

God’s judgment isn’t about who is in and who is out - it’s about WHAT is in and WHAT is out.

And it’s not just the personal level of course - it works on the global and cosmic level too. Ultimately, God’s judgment is about the radical healing of the world - the world that God created, loves, and calls “Good."5

The Jewish crowd that John is talking to by the riverside in this Gospel would have been very familiar with this concept. They have long been awaiting God’s judgment. Theologian NT Wright talks about how, throughout the Jewish scriptures judgment is consistently portrayed NOT as “the end of the world” but as a “dramatic change within the present world order.”2

We can see it in our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures today.

Zephaniah9 talks about a coming judgment in this way:

  • “you shall fear disaster no more”

  • “I will deal with your oppressors at that time”

  • “I will save the lame, gather the outcast”

  • “I will change shame into praise”

  • “I will bring you home”

In the canticle from Isaiah10 we hear that this is how the people will greet God’s judgment:

  • God’s people will say, “Surely it is God who saves me I will trust in him and not be afraid"

  • They will” draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation”

  • They will "give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name”

  • The people of God, says Isaiah, on the day of judgment will “ring out their joy"

John is saying to the people by the riverside - many of whom, by the way, are colluding with the very oppressors the judgment of God is supposed to vanquish…

John is saying to them: Get ready - the judgment is coming. Repent - and bear fruit worthy of repentance!

Repent. In greek, metanoia.11 Meta for mind, noia for changing.

This is NOT a condemnation - it’s an invitation to transformation.

It’s an invitation to a radical change in perspective.

It’s an invitation to a radically different way to living.

It’s an invitation to be swept up into the

healing of lives,

the healing of communities,

the healing of the world.

And these crowds are hearing this and they are saying to John “What then should we do?”

“What then should we do."

And John says, well, here’s a start:

If you’ve got more than you need, give it away.

If you’re benefiting from dishonest gain, stop.

If you’re using your power to enrich yourself at the expense of others, STOP.

Don’t hold on to destruction.

Stop now or you will find yourself stopped.


And this is where John really lays the Good News on them - he points to the coming judgment:

There's somebody coming who can help them bear good fruit.

There's somebody coming that is going to really shake the wheat from the chaff.

There’s someone coming who will shake up the status quo.

There’s someone coming who can help them let go of what’s hindering them from thriving as a people.

There’s someone coming who will empower revolutionary transformation.

There’s someone coming who is going to put the world right once and for all. 7

And John, of course, is talking about Jesus.

His winnowing fork is in his hand. Alleluia.

Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel!

There’s a certain kind of tension to being an “already and not yet” kind of people.

Just like we are experiencing Advent and Christmas simultaneously.

We are confident that Jesus can heal the world.

But then we start looking around

And get confounded by the timeline.

We find ourselves living in the tension of Christ having come, Christ being present, and also awaiting Christ’s coming again in glory.

A people transformed,

a people in the process of being transformed,

A people in need of future transformation.

Fulfillment and waiting.

Already and not yet.

We, like the crowds in the Gospel find ourselves asking “What then, should we do?”

And John the Prophet would answer by saying

YOU know where YOU need to start.

And then he would smile and point to the One who is to come,

and we can hear John’s joy echo through our own voices as we say

“Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.”

Footnotes, References, Comments and Rants:

My apologies to the perhaps 2-3 people who will see these - you’re getting the notes in the order I thought to note them instead of in the order that they appear in the text.

1 - NT Wright*, Surprised by Hope, p. 122

2 - NT Wright*, Surprised by Hope, p. 122

3 - Book of Common Prayer, Baptismal Covenant, p. 302 - we’re going to say it this very day, in fact.

4 -Book of Common Prayer, Baptismal Covenant, p. 302 - we’re going to say it this very day, in fact.

5 - Nicene Creed, various spots in the BCP.

6 - “Radical healing of the world” is NT Wright* also.

7 - NT Wright*, Surprised by Hope, p. 137

8 - (Rant follows:) Call it “deconstruction”, call it “leaving the faith” - folks want a Christianity that looks like Christ and sounds like Christ and produces good fruit like Christ, and if they’re not getting that, they’ll probably start asking tough questions. (/rant)

9 - Zeph. 3:14-20

10 - Isaiah 12:2-6 aka Canticle 9

11 - Translation by Karoline Lewis, from the lecture “Preaching Christmas”

*- Every time I preach or write about judgment, the second coming of Christ, or even the resurrection, I find myself returning to the book Surprised by Hope, which is a relatively accessible and popular book by English Bishop NT Wright. And it’s unfortunate that I really like this book, because NT Wright is a very strident opponent of marriage equality in England - and I often find him to be a kind of an arrogant jerk about other things as well. We contain multitudes. This is not the first time I’ve quoted him and it likely won’t be the last. So it goes.

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