Lists. We all have lists. For example I bet right now, in your head—and probably in your heart too—you have a list of folks who you struggle to tolerate. People who really irritate you and you just do not like. They may be people you know or people in politics or people you haven’t met but who are in the news. They may be a type of person or a group of persons or even someone who was once a friend or neighbor, a co-worker or fellow church member.
When we hear this reading today:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We all have those folks from our list who come to mind and we think: Yeah, Jesus. Go get’em! Put that axe to that tree—throw that chaff into the fire.
Am I right?
But, Beloved, if we think the trees and chaff are people, that means God is perfectly fine with some people being axed down and some people being thrown into the pits of an unquenchable fire. And there are versions of Christianity that profess this as Biblical truth, as Gospel—and this reading is one of the reasons why they profess that.
But this translation of the reading would also mean that God’s desire for all creation—and all people—to be restored to right relationship to God and each other—that God’s desire is not going to happen. That salvation isn’t for all people, but only some people. That God is not going to get what God wants, and therefore, there is a power that is greater than God’s love.
Beloved, this cannot be the appropriate way to read and understand what John the Baptist is saying in the Gospel reading.
Today, I want to invite us to hear this prophetic description of Jesus’ role in the world just a bit differently.
Beloved, what if every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit isn’t a person? Or if the chaff isn’t bad people or the people on our list who get thrown into the fire? What if, instead, within each of us are thoughts, beliefs, habits and practices that get in the way of us living Love out fully and boldly 24/7? So within each of us are trees that need to be axed and chaff that needs to be burned. What if it’s not people who need to be cut down or people who are banished to the unquenchable fire but it is the pieces and parts within each of us that following Jesus puts an end to? A refining fire that burns away the dross to leave the gold?
After all, John the Baptist is calling us to repentance; the first words out of his mouth today are: Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven draws near. And of course, the Kingdom of heaven that draws near is Jesus. Within and through Jesus—his life, his words, his actions, his ministry—God’s reign can be seen, known, experienced and shared. As the Body of Christ comes near, so does God’s Kingdom come.
And John is telling us that repentance is required to see, know, experience and share that kingdom. This Kingdom we hear described in Isaiah when the way of life we are living right now, the way that is based on prey and predator, based on violence and warfare, based on imbalance of power and wealth, based on individualism rather than the Common Good–this way of life ends, and the Kingdom of heaven begins a new way of life. A way of life that is based on Love, on interdependent relationships. A life, a reality, where they will not hurt nor destroy no more on all God’s holy mountain. Repent, John tells us, Repent and Prepare the Way for God’s Love to come in through the wasteland that humanity has created.
Repent. This word means to turn around, do a 180, or as Biblical scholar Sara Ruden puts it: to change your purpose. In Jesus we see this as turning from a self-centered life whose purpose is me and mine to having an other-centered life whose purpose is we, us and ours. Turning from individualism to community, from us vs. them to we all belong to each other. We all depend on each other. We are all each other’s business.
It’s Advent: Repent. Turn around. Take up a new purpose. So, I’m gonna ask you a question—one that I do not want you to answer right now, but a question that I do want you to take seriously and to answer for yourselves. Maybe, when you are ready, share your answer with another trusted person who can help hold you accountable to your answer. Because humans generally need accountability when it comes to the hard things. So, here’s the question: What are you doing to turn around? To take up a new purpose? To identify the chaff within you that needs to be burned? And then what steps are you taking to let that controlled burn take place within you?
Beloved:The Kingdom of heaven draws near. And as the Prophet Isaiah tells us: On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The root of Jesse—who we know as Jesus—-Jesus stands as a signal to all peoples. A signal: which is a sound, a gesture, an action that is used to convey information—that is used to begin a chain of events. Jesus stands as a signal to all people; his life is a series of actions that is meant to convey to us how to live— which then begins a chain of events– a ripple of effects of living differently that leads to loving, life-giving, and liberating repercussions which then change the world as we know it. This dog eat dog world is cut down at the root and thrown into the fire.
When the One who is Love becomes our signal, we become the Living Body of Christ in the world today. After all, that is what we profess. That is what we declare when we are baptized and say yes to God as our King. We are not just saying yes to trying to be good or trying to be nice or trying to do the decent thing most of the time. We have signed up to be the LIVING BODY OF CHRIST IN THE WORLD TODAY. The very place God dwells. Generation after Generation.
As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body on earth now but yours.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.