Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Today we find John the Baptist on the riverbanks of the Jordan calling those who have come from far away a brood of vipers and laying upon them this warning:
“There is one coming after me with a winnowing fork in hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” And what we hear in these words without much difficulty is what preachers have surmised for a thousand years: that bad people are the chaff and good people are the seed. So, don’t be the chaff, be the seed. Be good, not bad. Santa is making a list and he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who is naughty and who is nice…so be good for goodness sake.
It would be nice if it were that simple, but it’s really not. So, it is my job as your preacher and in-house theologian to unpack this squirrely text. And what we are going to find is that, while John the Baptist seems pretty grumpy (you can’t blame him, I suppose, given his diet of grasshoppers and wild honey…and having to collect that every morning dressed only in a camel skin coat. So, while John seems a bit irritable, his tone and mood can distract us and obscure a message that is consistent with what we know about the Kingdom of God: that we are made by God, full and complete, with intent and purpose; and that each person is not only included in God’s kingdom, but has an important job to do within it. And when we all step into and own our job an energy reverberates, and an excitement emanates as God is glorified; and the vision God has for creation unfolds bit by bit before our very eyes.
So today we won’t hear: “Be good, not bad, or else you’ll burn in hell,” but rather, WHEN you are your fullest, most authentic self, you are satisfied, your neighbor is served, God is glorified; and creation unfolds to reveal the vision of God.
We start with wheat; and what we know about wheat is that it includes both chaff and seed. They are part of the same system and necessary for making up the whole. The chaff is the dry covering that protects the seed, until it is winnowed, which is the process of separating the seed that is good to eat from the inedible chaff.
This winnowing is done with a fork, a big fork. The grain is piled on the threshing floor, which is an outdoor room, and with the winnowing fork you throw the grain into the air, and the wind blows the chaff outside the room as the seeds fall to the ground. The chaff is then raked up and either plowed back into the soil as mulch, or burned as fuel…(Now listen closely because this is one of the paradigm shifts.) and if the chaff burned produces an unquenchable fire, you have a pretty efficient fuel source. No more matches needed. No more collecting kindling. No more cold nights or cold porridge. An unquenchable fire…that sounds like good news.
Here is the point that gets obscured by John the Baptist’s grumpy tone…You are the wheat, and your fullness includes both seed and chaff. Are you with me? OK! Because now I want to take this seed and chaff analogy one step further. The seed is edible, and the chaff is not, hence the need for winnowing. The seed feeds us, the chaff is fuel for our community. The food sustains our body. The fuel warms us, and anyone standing close by. We are made for ourselves and for others; seed for sustenance, chaff for service.
And this is Good News; which is why at the end of the reading we hear: “And with this and other exhortations John proclaimed to them the Good News.”
Now we don’t get to this Good News of seed and chaff until the end of the story today, so let’s see how Luke got us here by returning to verse 7 of chapter 3. Here we find a grumpy John the Baptist shouting at all of those good souls who traveled the many hot and dusty miles from Jerusalem calling them: “a brood of vipers…” He then gives them a swift kick in their lineage…“Do not begin to say to yourselves: ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
So, let’s stop here for a second, to be reminded of John the Baptist’s job. His assignment was to prepare the way for Jesus. That meant tearing down the mountains and filling in ditches by disabusing the Jewish people of the notion that they are different, unique, and more loved by God because of the shape of their DNA. John took on their entitlement by reminding them that God can bring forth people from stones. And the people believed this, because they believed that with God all things are possible.
And so, we see John doing his job of ripping down the mountains of tribalism and filling in holes of entitlement to prepare a way for Jesus’ message: That the Kingdom of God is here, and everyone is included.
And while John’s audience doesn’t quite understand what John is doing just yet, they do know that things are not going well for them as a community; and they do have a sense that this has something to do with their not being in right relationship with God; and John does seem every inch the prophet, and the prophet’s job is to help the people see their situation clearly, so they listen to John’s critique and take it to heart…which is so unusual. Mostly when people receive critique they just get all defensive and angry and dismissive.
But not these folks. I guess things have been so bad for so long, they are actually interested in trying to better understand how to be in sync with God’s vision for creation. So the people ask, and I love this, they ask: “So what do we do? What do we do?” To which John the Baptist replies: “Do your job!” The tax collector asks: “What do I do?” To which John the Baptist replies: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” In other words…“Do your job.” And the soldier asks: “What do I do?” To which John the Baptist replies: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with your wages.” In other words…“Do your job.”
The people are excited by John’s clear message. It is actually something that they can do…Do you job! It is a message that includes everyone, and so there is hope for everyone, because everyone, no matter their capacity or stage in life, has a job they can do.
John is a genius… and so they say to themselves he must be the Messiah. Now John could have owned their words. He could have said to himself: “Maybe if they think I am the Messiah, I really am, and so I should be so…
But John doesn’t do that. Instead, he does his job, his God given, purpose driven, community enhancing job, which is to be the one that announces the coming of the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah,” John says. “I have come to flatten the mountains and lift up the valleys, so all people can have access to the message of Jesus: that the Kingdom of God is here, and it includes everyone. This is the job John was born for, and he did it well.
So now, let me give you a taste of what doing one’s job as seed and chaff might look like by sharing a story I heard the other day. It has to do with the final hymn we are going to sing today: “Prepare the Way of Zion”
This hymn was written to music of an old Scandinavian dance tune. It is light and lively and easy to sing. But it wasn’t always that way. When this song was first written by Frans Franzen for some frosty cathedral in Sweden, no doubt, it was set only to whole notes, no jaunty tune.
The way it worked was the organist would lay on a chord that accompanied each word; and the stoic Scandinavians would bellow out a sound and then modulate it until it matched the organist’s chord, and then they’d repeat with another whole note for the next word, and in that way, word after word, chord after chord, slog through this song with brow furrowed determination.
And while that doesn’t sound like a service you’d want to attend, there was magic in it, because when each person did their job, that is, when each person found their note within the chord of the organ, based on the voice God had given them, that sound, resonating off the perfectly crafted, acoustically balance stone walls and wood ceiling, given as a gift from their ancestors; when it all came together around the one word and the one whole note, a most beautiful sound resounded, inside each person, and throughout the community, for the glory of God.
And this generated excitement. It was exciting, even for sober minded, stoic Scandinavians; it was exciting to do one’s job well, to be personally nurtured by it, even as you experienced how your work so wonderfully benefited the community.
We are wheat; seed, and chaff. It is our job to be both, and when we live into this wholeness of being, side by side with our neighbor; seed for sustenance, chaff for service, an energy reverberates, and an excitement emanates, and God is glorified; as God’s vision for creation unfolds in our midst.