In today’s Gospel, it is not Jesus preaching, but John the Baptist. While Jesus tended to use parables and soft power, John puts it right out there in black and white. He is not particularly nice, because in a sense, he doesn’t have to be. He doesn’t feel that his job is to spoon-feed the crowds that come to see him, but to challenge them. He is not convinced that salvation comes from mere words, but in decisive action. Someone else will come to baptize in the name of the Holy Spirit. He is there to wake them up before that person arrives. His sermon reflects this:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. 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. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
He is saying to the Jews around him, “please stop with the ‘we are God’s chosen people’ line, because you think it gives you an excuse to act however you want.” In other words, you cannot treat people poorly and think that you can wriggle out of punishment for it just because you’re Jewish. You are just as likely to get the same ax that the fruit tree will get if you don’t show your faith through your actions and not just your words. John does not want the Jews to be Jewish in name alone, but to be known for how they act in community with others. I’ll let John continue:
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
In other words, no matter what you do for a living, be present in it. NOTICE the world around you and act accordingly. To John, it is reprehensible to have so much and not share the wealth with the less fortunate. It is a sin to steal from people by extorting taxes. And if you’re a soldier, be a good and honest one.
These words remain true today. When John was preaching to that group, he knew that a small amount of people owned most of the resources available, and he was railing against it. In our modern-day United States, we are facing the exact same problem. We do have the resources to feed the poor many times over, but do we actually do it? John believes that the poor work just as hard as the rich, so being poor is not their fault. It’s the result of low wages and the rich keeping their money for themselves. His idea of social justice is to call attention to that problem, to specifically call out people who have money and connections enough to help the plight of the needy, and don’t…. because in John’s world, the definition of being Jewish is caring for others. Look beyond his hard shell and into his heart. For John, it boils down to one idea. How can you say you love your God with all your mind and strength, while at the same time ignoring the world around you?
To John, this hypocrisy is unbecoming. He attempts to divide the line between good and bad in one brush stroke. Those who do good will be lifted up, and those who do evil will be struck down.
And yet, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, this line is too grey for a black and white decision:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
No person on earth is all wheat and no chaff. By the same token, no one is all chaff and no wheat, either. Good and evil look different depending on where you’re standing. Listen to the last verses of today’s Gospel:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s message is clear and larger than life… but is it feasible? Can you reduce a person to wheat or chaff when we all have elements of each? I choose to believe in this time of Advent, while we are waiting for the baby and sitting in the literal darkness of the season, we have the time to burn our own chaff. We do not have to wait for Jesus to do it for us. We have the time and ability to look inward, toward the bright hope of a new birth within ourselves. What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire? In modern day, I believe it is working on the pieces of yourself that tie you to past grievances which do not allow you to reach up. When you constantly focus on how much you need and how much you deserve, you close yourself off to the possibility that sharing your abundance with others will in fact, feed you. You cut yourself off from the possibility that grace will happen in a moment of seeing another’s need and filling it. Then, as now, John’s message of social justice rings true… even if it isn’t couched in the loving tone with which Jesus preaches.
John preached from a place that said God was capable of counting our sins and deciding whether we were worthy. Jesus preached from a place that said God was out of the accounting business altogether. Perhaps that’s why John has such an “I’m not worthy” (cue Wayne, Garth, and Alice Cooper) moment in talking about the One who is coming. John says that he is not worthy enough to even untie his sandals. I wonder what John was looking for in that kind of Messiah. Perhaps he knew that it was because his preaching was so divisive and the Messiah would come to unite…. something which John was incapable of doing because he could only see black and white. Shades of grey were beyond him.
But are they beyond us?
Perhaps John’s unworthiness stems from the fact that he is unable to do what the Messiah will… Jesus offers to become the chaff for us. He offers to take on the sins of the world so that they are forgiven before they even happen. He allows our chaff to burn away and forgives us as he does it. The gift has been given. What are we supposed to with it?
Are we, as children of God, able to handle the shades of grey that permeate our world? Are we, as children of God, able to handle the shades of grey within our own souls? All people, especially as they age, have layers upon layers of feelings about everything that has happened so far. And we are all fallible people, trying to make it as best we can. We carry the moments where we have created darkness on our hearts and sometimes, the weight becomes intolerable to us. In those moments, we are called to reach up for the tempering fire that faith has to offer. We are called to remember our baptism and the prevenient grace that Jesus provides. We are already forgiven for our humanity, but the invitation is so much more than that. What does it mean to live in a world where you know you are forgiven? What would it look like if you could put your burdens down and shout, “I AM BAPTIZED!” What would it look like if you tapped into the needs of the world and responded to them, because you were relieved of the weight your past sins have created? What would it look like if you said “enough is enough!,” and decided to live from a place of abundance instead of a place of need?
Scarcity is a scary thing. We all believe that there is not enough, and we hold on to everything we have because we are afraid that someone could take it. But it is a different thing to give it away willingly, freely in the name of burning your own chaff………. As we give away and see the hope and joy our generosity creates, the THINGS we are missing are replaced by the EMOTIONS which giving endows.
It is letting go of the preconceived notion that being loved by God is all it takes to be a Christian. It is acting in such a way that people around us know it by our actions. It is a radical, extravagant welcome to the poor, the sick, the friendless, and the needy. It is living in the promise that if we provide for others, it does not mean that we are losing anything. It means we are gaining the ability to extend the extravagant welcome that has been given to us.
If we are called to be Christ in the world, it is our job to be born with the baby every year. It is to take in new life, new hope, new plans for helping others as we achieve our own greatness. It is to burn away the parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and get into the business of serving others. It is tapping into the vibration of the universe that says, “if I provide for someone else, giving will become receiving.”
As Advent draws to a close and Christmas will soon be here, what is the chaff you will burn away to make room for abundance? How will you bring light into your own darkness so that you can receive the baby with open arms?
John’s message may be wild and rough around the edges, but do not dismiss it. This is important work we are doing, this shedding of our old ways and renewing our covenant to do what is right and good, both for ourselves and those with whom we live in community. People should not know we are Christians just because we tell them. People should know we are Christians by our decisive actions….. the ones that say “God has given me so much that it would make me feel good to share those blessings with you.” It is not proselytizing. It is quiet. It is giving your from your abundance to those who need it, without thanks or praise. The burning of the chaff is letting go of your fear that there will not be enough.
Growing up is realizing that there always is.