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… 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.” (Read the whole passage)
Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God
Advent just isn’t doing it for me this year. Maybe you feel the same way too.
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 firey 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.
But this year, Advent has not felt so hopeful.
Normally, the light of the coming Messiah shines brightly through the cracks of our Advent images. We cannot help but see Messiah bursting into our world. This year, the light feels dull.
Instead, all the messy and broken stories of God’s people that we hear in Advent are hitting too close to home.
Stories and images of burning chaff speak less to farm hands separating wheat on the threshing room floor and more to a warming planet that world leaders cannot seem to get a handle on.
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 of the terrorism, shootings, and bombing that we hear about in the news.
Stories about the innkeepers who turned away the holy family remind us too much of political leaders like Donald Trump who are vowing to prevent any muslims or refugees to cross their boarders.
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, against indigenous people because they are indigenous as the murderer of Tina Fontaine was arrested this week. Tina Fontaine whose death just up the river from here sparked the call for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Advent stories are coming at us in the news as often as they are coming from the bible this year.
Not to mention that here at Good Shepherd our community and family is struggling with suffering, with illness and with death. We are grieving as a church family this week as we said goodbye to beloved wife and mother on Monday. And still there are those of us that are sick, lonely, and tired, even with Christmas approaching.
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. Somewhere between racist political campaigns in Canada, ISIS, Paris, US Gun Violence, Climate Change realities and all the other stuff our world is suffering from… the illusory veneer of the “Christmas season” has been stripped from us.
As Advent isn’t doing it for us this year, and its light seems to be dull, because the world is full of depressing stuff… 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 in Paris as world leaders realize the climate must be preserved for future generations and reach 11th hour agreements to heal the planet.
Messiah is taking us in as Prime Ministers and Premiers greet lowly refugees with smiles, hugs, jackets. With love, compassion and welcome.
Messiah is scooping us up off the floor with an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women so that we can know what happened to the most vulnerable among us.
And Messiah is gathering us here at Good Shepherd while we grieve the death of a member of our community this week, we are also finding new ways to care for each other.
And Messiah is taking us in as we collect hampers for those in need, and as we support the work of the Soup Kitchen, Food Bank and Homeless Shelter with year-end donations from our congregation.
And Messiah is scooping us up off the threshing room floor with children who reminded us this morning of the Christmas story and how God is coming into our world.
Messiah is gathering us up, all the mess and dullness of our real-time Advent so that we can see that a real God is coming to us in a real incarnation, and this real broken and suffering flesh that we bear is also born by Messiah.
Messiah is coming. Really coming to this real and dark world. Not into the world of sweet idealistic Christmases that sound more like fantasy that reality. Messiah is really coming to us.
Stir up your power Lord Christ and come.