December 4, 2022, How to Use a Winnowing Fork, Matthew 3:1-12 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

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Today we begin the second week of Advent, the second week of bending our focus and our energy on the coming of Christ, not only in the past, God born among us as a child in Bethlehem, not only in the present, the power and comfort of his Spirit abiding with us now, but his future coming, at a time unknown, to bring to an end to the corruption of his long-suffering Creation, and to establish his healed and restored Kingdom once and for all. Once again, Isaiah reminds us of the heartbreakingly wonderful goodness of the hope that awaits us:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the seas.

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” That is the promise. The prey will no longer have any reason to fear the predator. The strong will no longer take advantage of the weak. The rich will no longer fatten themselves on the suffering of the poor. No more abuse, ever, no more cruelty, no more grief, no more fear, no more pain. That is the promise. That is the hope of Advent. That is what we are waiting for.

But John the Baptist, always direct and plainspoken, reminds us that waiting is not a passive verb. Because waiting is all about preparation, getting ready, doing what needs to be done now so that when all that glory and goodness is here at last, whenever that might be, today or tomorrow or a year from now, we can meet it with joy and not shame, with holy fear but not with terror.

John’s whole calling was to prepare people for the coming of God’s Messiah, and specifically to get people ready to receive Jesus in his earthly ministry. People came out to the wilderness in droves, to hear him, to be baptized by him as a sign of a change of heart and a change of life – a whole new path, a new direction. And John when they came, John told them, basically, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. The One who is coming is so much greater and more powerful than I am. You’ve all come out to hear me and be baptized by me, but believe me, I’m not even good enough to tie his shoe. He will baptize you as well, but not with the muddy waters of the Jordan River. He’s going to baptize you with the Spirit of God, and with fire.” Which is exactly what happened, of course, on the Day of Pentecost.

But John revealed something more about what Jesus was going to do when he came. The One who is coming, John told them, is holding a winnowing fork, ready for the harvest, even now. Most of us probably haven’t done a lot of winnowing, but basically a winnowing fork looks like a pitchfork. When the grain is ripe, and the stalks are cut, the threshers prepare a nice clean space, and take the cut grain by forkfuls. The heavy, ripe grains fall to the floor. But the chaff, the indigestible hulls of the grain, aren’t really useful for anything. They are just swept up and burned. And when the grain is gathered into the granary, and the chaff is cleared away, the harvest is complete.

Last week, we heard the voice of Jesus calling us to wake up and get ready. And I want to think about this picture of the winnowing process, as we think about living lives of readiness. Normally, I think, people associate this image of separating the wheat from the chaff with judgment, and I think that is both right and wrong. It is wrong, because I very much don’t believe that John is talking here about heaven and hell, or salvation and damnation, or good people and bad people. I think that because of what Jesus himself said about what he came to do, and didn’t come to do. We all know the verse John 3:16, about “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” But we don’t always go on to verse 17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.” There are many more verses that tell us Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of condemnation, but I’ll leave it at that.

On the other hand, I do believe John’s image of winnowing the grain is all about judgment. But the line of judgment doesn’t lie between “us and them.” The line of judgment cuts right down the middle, right through the heart of every single person. Jesus didn’t come to sift good guys from bad guys, or saints from sinners. Jesus was born, and dwelt among us, in order to sift death from life, to destroy death once and for all, and to make life available for all of creation. “I came,” Jesus said, speaking of his role as the Good Shepherd, “I came that they might have life, and have it in abundance.” Life or death, that is the judgment.

And that judgment, that process of winnowing, that begins now. If it means anything at all for us to live in readiness, to live our lives in preparation for the glory of which Isaiah is giving us such tantalizing visions, it has to mean that we are called to be part of the Messiah’s work of winnowing. Not – absolutely, positively not – of passing judgment or condemning our fellow human beings. Jesus made that abundantly clear. But we are called to be part of the work of sifting the good, life-giving grain from the useless chaff. And what do I mean by that?

I can think of three practical ways of going about the work of winnowing, separating life from death. Maybe the easiest is in our personal lives. We just had our Christmas bazaar yesterday, so my mind is very freshly reminded of how incredibly cluttered our lives can become. Most of us, maybe all of us, have an abundance, even a super-abundance, of just stuff, things, possessions. And on top of that, we are all very busy people; for most of us, our calendars are filled with an abundance of tasks and appointments and reminders. We have so much abundance in our lives, but how much of that abundance is an abundance of life? How much of our abundance is fruitful, how much of it is life-giving, like good ripe wheat? And how much of our abundance is just useless fluff, just chaff that could blow away in a stiff breeze, or chaff that’s so piled up it’s hard to see the grain anymore? I think most of our personal lives could use a good winnowing.

On the other hand, we don’t just live separate, individual lives. Especially when it comes to living out our hope, we live our lives as a Church family, as a community of faith. Our daily lives are bound together by our commitment to God and to one another. And as a Church, with all its attendant traditions and practices – not to mention possessions – we might also do some winnowing. Are our practices and traditions and possessions fruitful and life-giving, or are we holding on to things that are no longer fruitful, traditions or practices or possessions that distract or prevent us from living abundantly into our life as the Body of Christ? I think this is an extremely hard kind of judgment for us to make, and I think we can only do the work of winnowing out our life as the Church if we approach it with love and respect, and not arrogance or condemnation.

In the twelve years I’ve been at St. Philip’s there have been a few changes. We’ve tried some new things. When our basement flooded a few years ago, we found we could fill a need in our community by opening a thrift shop. That has proven to be a life-giving task, though not at all an easy one. Being awake and ready for the return of Christ might mean being open to that kind of change or it might mean being open to sacrifice – to letting go of something. But that’s the important work of winnowing in the Church.

Third third kind of winnowing I can think of makes the circle of our community a little wider still. As Christians, our citizenship is not in the kingdom of this world. We are called to be in the world, but not of the world. But just exactly because we have our belonging elsewhere, we are in a particularly good position to do some winnowing in our society. Christians have often been a prophetic voice, calling society to account for practices that lead to death rather than life. Christians like William Wilberforce, and like the Quakers, led the way in demanding the abolition of slavery – even though to our shame there were all too many Christians who perverted the Scriptures to support slavery. Winnowing might mean speaking out for those who aren’t being heard. It might mean being peacemakers, demanding justice, or weeping with those who suffer. But if we are awake, if we are truly preparing for the restoration of Creation, we bear a responsibility to be winnowers of our society, even if we might have to suffer for doing so.

We’ve reached the second week of Advent now. Advent is about our hope for what is coming, hope for the healing of our long-suffering world, hope for an end to war and sickness and violence and grieving. But Advent is not just a passive time. It’s also about how we live now, because if we are people of hope it will change our priorities, it will change the way we see things, it will change the way we make decisions, it will change our values. We often like to say that we are an Easter people, who live in the light of the Resurrection. But we might equally make the claim that we are an Advent people, people whose lives are shaped by the knowledge and hope of Christ’s return. Advent is not just about waiting patiently; it’s about how we are living now. As we look toward that hope, for next year or tomorrow or this afternoon, whenever he might come, let us live in this world as winnowers, sifting out and letting go of all the ways and things and attitudes – in our lives, in the Church, and in the world – that only bring death, and holding fast day by day to the ways of abundant life,

Let us pray: Merciful God, who sent your messenger John to call us to repentance and to prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed his warnings, to turn our backs on every way that leads to death, and to turn our faces and our steps into the way of life, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. +

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