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.”
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God.
Advent is normally my favourite season of the church year. I don’t think that is uncommon for pastors.
Christmas is of course the Super Bowl (or Grey Cup) of the church year. Christmas is like the most popular chain restaurant in town, everyone goes there and it is a big party. But Advent is more like that hole-in-the-wall family run restaurant with the most delicious food you can find, that most people seem to pass by without much notice.
The rich flavour of Advent is found in the images that we hear – the way of Lord, valleys filled up, mountains made low, crooked paths made straight that we heard about last week. This week it is the spicy brood of vipers, the fiery winnowing fork burning the chaff. Next week it will be angels and virgins, and promises and hints of Messiah. Advent’s beauty is in the blending of hints and promises of Messiah together with real life. With the messiness of people looking for something better.
Real people like the crowds in the desert going to John the Baptist, looking and hoping for something different than what they know. Real people like the hypocritical religious and political leaders that we know as well as 1st century Israel did. Real people like a girl dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and the reality of impossible life choices.
Advent speaks to the real circumstances that people – everyday, average people – deal with all the time.
And Advent weaves the coming of Messiah through it all. Christmas tells us of the extraordinary. Advent brings God close to the ordinary.
Normally, we prefer to focus on the light of the coming Messiah shines brightly through the cracks of our Advent images. We love to see Messiah bursting into our world.
Given all that we have experienced in these long couple of years, this Advent feel more Advent-y than usual. All the messy and broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent follow along side our story these days more than feels comfortable.
Stories and images of burning chaff speak less to farm hands separating wheat on the threshing room floor and more to the struggles of our communities trying to get a handle on public health measures, about believing science over misinformation, about putting the well being of all ahead of our own personal perceptions of inconvenience.
Stories about King Herod’s willingness to kill infant boys to protect his own power and the violent world of occupied Israel of Jesus’ day reminds us all too much violence that has become a constant refrain in our world. Murder trials, hate crimes, and school shootings encouraged by delinquent parents.
Stories about the innkeepers who turned away the holy family remind us too much of people fleeing floods and atmospheric rivers, essential supplies stuck in shipping containers in ports and warehouses, warnings that something must be done now to protect our planet’s future.
Stories like the possible stoning that Mary could have endured had Joseph chosen to dismiss her sound too much like violence against women simply because they are women reminds us of the anniversary of Ecole Polytechnic and the violence against women still taking place today.
Advent stories are coming at us in the news and daily life as often as they are coming from the bible.
Advent is our reality. Waiting for Messiah is what we are doing this year.
As John the Baptist declares, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We are living out Advent in real time.
We are the ones standing on the riverbanks hoping that this wild hermit preacher named John can give us some hope. And all he seems to be talking about is wrath. Axes waiting to cut down trees. Warnings to start living better lives. Threats of burning with the chaff unless we get it together.
At least that is what John seems to be talking about.
John describes the Messiah standing on a threshing room floor, the place where grain is brought in once it is harvested from the land. And the Messiah has his mighty winnowing fork in hand. A winnowing fork is used to separate a wheat stock from the grain itself. As the fork lifts the grain from the pile, the heavy grain falls to the floor, and the lighter useless chaff is blown into the fire to be burned away.
John’s message today sounds harsh but fitting for our world.
As Advent-y as things seem this year, as full of strife and struggle our world seems to be… maybe throwing us all into the chaff isn’t what John is getting at.
Because a pitchfork is not what Messiah is holding, for a fork would be a useless tool to clear a threshing room floor. And nor is the word fork used in the original greek of this text. No, the tool that the messiah is holding is more of a winnowing spoon… or more precisely a shovel. The winnowing shovel is not a tool of separating but a tool for gathering.
Maybe just maybe, Messiah is gathering us up. Gathering us all up. Gathering up our broken and suffering and dying world so that we can finally begin to see the light.
Maybe that is how God is reminding us that the Good News isn’t just reserved for Christmas.
As bad as the world seems to be, Messiah is already a work around us. Messiah has his winnowing shovel and is gathering. Messiah’s is bringing light to our Advent world.
Messiah is gathering us up as children and seniors roll up their sleeves to be vaccinated, adding more layers of protection to this pandemic weary world. As healthcare workers, education staff, businesses and community leaders, neighbours and families keep the inconvenient but essential public health measures day after day, week after week.
Messiah is pulling us together in the many hands working tirelessly to rebuild and repair water logged homes, washed out roads and bridges, caring for now homeless flooding victims.
Messiah is scooping us up off the floor as we recommit again to the work of social justice and caring for community, welcoming the stranger, providing for those in need. Just as our SLAW youth did in dropping a tremendous haul of Christmas supplies to the Urban this week.
And Messiah is building us up as National church committed to the work of ending domestic violence against women with the Thursday in Black campaign.
And Messiah is scooping us up off the threshing room floor here at Sherwood Park as we find new ways to gather for worship, to meet as small groups, to safely make music together, to reconnect with families and households, to find new ways of being the same body of christ that we have long been.
Messiah is gathering us up, all the mess and all the struggle of our real life Advent so that we can see that God is really coming to us in incarnation, God in flesh among us.
So sure, John the Baptist may sound a little harsh today. Advent might feel extra Advent-y this year. But the promised Messiah is gathering us up today, scooping us off the threshing room floor with his winnowing spoon, making us ready for the in-breaking of light and hope among us.
Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.