Luke 3:7-18, “His winnowing fork is in his hand . . .”
The Advent season, we assume, is one of joy in our expectation of Jesus’s birth. But some of these passages sing a song of judgment more than joy. The same is true of this week’s gospel reading.
We read this passage from the gospel of Luke, these words of John the Baptist, words of judgment, words of condemnation, “You brood of vipers!” our translation reads. And John is calling them a bunch of snakes! Whatever happened to drawing more flies with honey than with vinegar; isn’t that how that goes?
It makes us think that John the Baptist is appropriately named, if our assumption is that Baptist churches are more hellfire and brimstone than most.
But surely most people would rather hear sweetness and light. We love for someone to tell us that everything is going to be alright, that there is hope. And when we first encounter John in this passage, this one who is preparing the way for Jesus, some of this sounds like “judgment only” to us. For some of the people that John is talking to are claiming that they have the right ancestry. “I am a child of Abraham!” they shout. And John shouts back that God can raise up “children of Abraham” from a shiny brown rock if God saw fit to do so.
And John starts talking about how there is an axe that is going to chop down all of the dead wood, the wood that is no longer green, that is not growing, that is not fruitful. John is trying to prod the people to see that relationship with God bears fruit! And John minces no words when he shouts at them that any such tree that is dead wood, that is not bearing fruit, that an axe is already sitting at the root of that tree, to chop chop chop, and to cut it down . . . and to throw it into the fire.
John is trying to shake up what the people are thinking, how they are acting, what these people who claim to be the people of God are doing in their worship and their relationships with each other.
And sometimes a little shaking is what it takes.
A few years ago my wife and I were pretty shaken up during this season of the year. We had found out that we were pregnant after several years of trying. The odd part is that we had given up on a biological pregnancy and had been in the process to adopt a little girl for the past year. It did shake us up to see those lines on the pregnancy tests.
Nearly a year before we had found ourselves at a point where we said to ourselves, “We have to try something else.” And even the process of getting to that decision took time . . . and took some grieving in a way . . . and some pause before we began our adoption. And in a way, that shook us up.
It always does to hope for something, to plan for something, to pray for something and to have that something continually, over and over, fail to happen.
What have you thought in a situation like that? What have you done when what you hoped for over and over did not happen?
We decided to do go another way . . . we decided to adopt.
In a way, we had a hard time believing that the pregnancy was true. I have read in a book about couples that have experienced infertility that whether you are going through an adoption or you become pregnant later, there is this nagging unbelief present because you have hoped and dreamed so many times . . . and so many times that hope and that dream have remained unfulfilled . . . so even when it seems to be there . . . right in front of you . . . staring in you in the face . . . even when you have an ultrasound picture . . . it is hard to believe.
You see, believing is not as easy as we sometimes make it out to be.
And for the people of Jesus’s day to believe, to think that this Savior, this Christ who had been hoped for and prayed for and longed for . . . had finally come . . . it was not as easy to believe as we might think.
And the people that John the Baptist was preaching to may have said to him, “But we are from Abraham” because that is what they knew, that was their identity. Do you know that even with a dreadful situation, even a people that is oppressed in the way that the Jews of that day were, you can begin to make that oppression such a part of your identity that you will not believe that you CAN be anything else?
It is the same thing that some of you have experienced firsthand or through a friend. They are in a bad situation . . . and you see it . . . but they don’t. They cannot imagine themselves NOT in that situation. And any of us can hold on to that hurt, to that pain, because that is such a part of who you are . . . that if you do finally let go . . . who will you be then, where will you go, what will you do . . . if you don’t have that hurt to remember . . .
And when the people did come to John, John baptized them. And then John told them to let go.
If you have two coats, give one away. If you collect taxes for a living, only collect from people what you should. If you have food, give it to others. John is saying to let go. John is saying to release the things that you are holding on to, the things that you are thinking are so important . . . and just let go . . . even of the hurt and pain . . .
And John is bringing this as good news. And this is good news! John is not just announcing judgment. As one of the scholars that I read stated about this passage, judgment is good news when it is accompanied by repentance . . . and forgiveness. And this is what our God offers. The chance to change, the wonderful opportunity to be different, a time to believe again . . . and it is in that moment that God is there . . . forgiving . . . but then God has always been there . . . forgiving us and loving us.
John uses the image of the winnowing fork, and the threshing of grain. The winnowing fork is sort of like a fork that we think of. It would have these long prongs on it, the size of your arm, and with those prongs they would throw the wheat along with the chaff, into the air. Chaff is that hull that used to surround the wheat. It was something that was useful at a time in the life of that grain of wheat, but it is not what is most prized, it is not what is useful now. So when the wheat has matured, after it has been cut, the animals walk over it to loosen that kernel of wheat from the husk, from the chaff. Then the worker with this great big fork, made of a light wood, will lift the remains, will toss it into the air and allow the wind to do the work.
When John is talking about this baptism of the Holy Spirit, he is talking about this wind. This is a wind that separates what is valuable, from what can be left behind. It is that shaking that may catch us a bit off guard, that may unseat us, but may cause us to remember what is most important in our lives. It is when that wind blows through us, through me and through you, that we can allow some of the unnecessary burdens that we all carry to go away with that wind . . . just to float away . . . just to let it go.
And that is why judgment is good news. Judgment is not just the hellfire and brimstone stuff . . . it is God giving us a wonderful opportunity for change and blessing . . . as we let go of what we no longer need, what we had been holding on to, and allow ourselves to give to others, to depend on God’s goodness and blessing. This is the source of the joy of our salvation.