May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
I feel kind of like the narrator of one of the old serial movies: “… when last we saw our hero, he was preparing the way of the Lord, crying out in the wilderness, making mountains low, valleys high and crooked roads straight…” That's what we heard about John the Baptist in last week's gospel from the first six verses of Luke 3. This week we actually hear his voice as he proclaims good news to the people. Yes, I said Good News…that is how Luke describes the message that John shares in the final verse of the passage this morning.
You don't expect good news to come from a guy like John. Luke doesn't describe his strange clothes and diet like Matthew does, but he does record the beginning of his “good news” message the same. John calls the people to whom he is preaching, “snakes.” “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And then he begins to talk to them as if they are a bunch of entitled, spoiled brats! “Don't begin to say that we have Abraham as our ancestor – God is able from these stones to make children for Abraham.” In other words, “Don't claim that just because you are part of this family that you are special and entitled to God's blessings!” To be sure, as part of God's family, we have the free gift of God's love and healing….but John reminds his audience that this promise elicits a response – repentance, living life the way God's people are called to live. There is an urgency and even a fear that are behind the words that the hearers of John's message express. They sincerely ask, “What then should we do?” If we are part of God's forest and someone is going to come and thin out the unproductive trees from the woods, tells us how we are to bear this fruit of which you speak!
I will get to John's specific advice a little later, but first I want to deal a little bit with his parable (if you will) of the threshing floor and the wheat and the chaff. Many people hear these words and think to themselves, “Wow – before it is too late, I had better start acting more like wheat and less like chaff or I will be burnt up with unquenchable fire!!” Oh if it were only that simple! Many places in the gospels, Jesus talks about sowing seed and wheat growing, and when he talks about that, it is intended to portray us as the stalk or the whole plant of wheat. What that means is, we all are made up of both the good fruit and the useless chaff – this is another way of stating what Luther says then he claims that we are at the same time Saint AND Sinner. Whenever the Bible talks about judgment, as John himself is talking about here, it is always with sense of mercy involved…hence the word of good news! As wheat plants, God has promised somehow, through some kind of judgment process, to shake off the useless chaff from all of us and leave only the good wheat, the fruit behind so that we may bear that fruit in all that we do.
While we seem to be caught up in passing judgment on people based on their gender, race, religion or nationality (to name a few) we forget that God has created us all, and God has promised to redeem us all as only God can do. I read this quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn this last week which speaks volumes about the topic of judgment and God, “If only it were 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.” Indeed, which one of us can claim truthfully to be all wheat and no chaff? Both are found within each of us! In the language of John's parable, when the judge winnows the wheat and burns the chaff, he will sift out and destroy the impurities within every person. Like the water of John's baptism, the promised fire of the Holy Spirit's baptism is a gift that cleanses. Hence, John proclaims good news!
George MacDonald, a Christian mentor to CS Lewis, meditated at length on the idea that God's love is a consuming fire. He taught that God's mercy and God's justice are not opposites, but are one and the same! He said, “When we say that God is Love, do we teach people that their fear of God is groundless? No. As much as they fear will come upon them, possibly more … the wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves that God made shall appear…”
So what does this all mean, and how does John's conversation with the crowds and tax collectors and soldiers shape our repentance? David Lose, a teacher, seminary professor and Biblical scholar, in relation to this text, says that he recently saw a brief segment on the Today Show about what values Americans want to teach their kids. Honesty topped the charts at 43%, kindness was second at 29%, and a strong work ethic came in third at 11%. He noticed that the results of this survey line up pretty closely with what the preaching of John the Baptist is calling for in Luke 3! Lose claims that following John's warning about the axe cutting down the unproductive trees, he basically answers the three questions by telling them to be honest – collect no more than is prescribed for you – be kind – whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food must do likewise – and hard work – do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.
John seems to be affirming the same kinds of principles that our parents tried to teach us, that we had emphasized in us from a very early age! Yes, in the very simple acts of sharing what we have, being honest with each other, and working hard and resisting the urge to be bullies, we are helping to usher in the kingdom that Jesus will soon bring near. To be sure, WE don't bring the kingdom (God does) but it seems like one of the chief ways through which we can witness to God's coming kingdom is to actually live like it's here…like we believe it's really coming; like we think it actually matters!
John is calling us to go forth from this very worship service looking for opportunities to be honest, kind and hard-working! In the midst of all of the fears which people encourage us to have – that a certain religion of people is out to get us, or that a certain race of people is bad, or that law enforcement officers are corrupt, or that violence and especially gun violence are the rules now and not the exception; even in the midst of those underlying fears that all of us have about our financial security or ruin, our health and wellness, the potential for our relationships to fall apart or for our beloved young people to fall victim to the evils of heroin or other substances… in the midst of all of these things that threaten to paralyze lives with fear, suspicion and distrust (which makes people into dishonest, greedy, selfish survivalists), John says that in the light of the dangerous world we live in, we are called to pledge ourselves to re-double our efforts to be honest, kind and hardworking – bearing fruit so that the hungry, cold, or just plain disadvantaged people of our society can experience the joy of being fed, clothed and lifted up by people who God has promised to judge with a merciful winnowing fork in hand!
John does preach good news to the world, because if Christians take his call to repentance seriously, then the breaking in of God's Kingdom is experienced by more and more people, and Jesus' presence makes a difference in the world that God created. May we be judged with mercy on God's threshing floor so that the chaff that we all hold onto may be cast into the fire, and the good fruit that is within all of us may be shared with a fearful, hungry world as we await the coming of our savior. Amen.