There is a story of a young novice in a monastery who goes to his abbot and says, “Father, what can I do to attain Salvation?”
The wise old abbot responds, “As little as you can do to make the sun to rise in the morning.”
So the novice replies, “What then is the purpose of meditation and all our spiritual exercises?”
And the abbot says, “To make sure that you are awake when the sun begins to rise.”
I love this story because it does such a good job of getting right to the reason why we, as people of faith, put ourselves through the hard work of prayer and the rigorous demands of the Christian life.
Saved by Grace
As Christians in the Reformed tradition, we are fond of insisting that salvation comes to us by grace, as a free gift apart from our good works, ritual observance, and correct theology. We receive this gift by faith, but even that receiving faith, St. Paul says, is a gift from God, “so that none may boast.”
We sainted sinners and sinful saints are utterly incapable, either by works or by faith, of doing anything to make the light of Christ appear in our hearts or world. Like the young monk in the story, we can do as little to attain salvation as we can to make the sun rise in the morning.
Like the shepherds of Bethlehem in the Christmas story, we do not bring Christ to birth, we simply bear witness as the Word of God “takes on flesh and dwells among us.”
In today’s gospel, we encounter a man who understands intimately what it means to bear witness to the presence and activity of Christ in the world.
St. John the Baptist was a dangerous radical and progressive prophet whose task was to “prepare the way” for Christ’s first coming to earth. I call him a “radical” because of the Latin term radix, which means “root.” John was a powerful mystic. As the last prophet from the Old Testament era, his ministry was inspired, not by a particular school or tradition of rabbinic interpretation, but directly by God.
Religious traditions need prophetic renewal from time to time. Without direct experience of the divine, religions begin to calcify and get “stuck in their ways.” The Buddha played a similar role in the Hindu faith. We Protestants might point to Martin Luther and John Calvin as prophetic voices in 16th century Europe. In Judaism, there were many prophets who arose throughout the history of Israel. Prophets, as radicals, reconnect the faithful to the “root” of their faith in God. They are always “dangerous” to established authorities because they call into question “the way we’ve always done it” and remind us of our core commitments to God and neighbor.
This is exactly what St. John the Baptist is doing in today’s gospel. He calls the people to a renewal of their spiritual and political lives by announcing:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
He has particularly harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the two major parties of established religious authorities in first century Judea. To them, John says:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
By “fruit,” John means the kind of changed life that a person leads when they have come into a deep relationship with God.
The religious leaders would have been understandably offended by such comments. They might point to their seminary degrees on their office walls. Or they might make reference to their traditional ancestry, which they trace back through the prophet Abraham in the biblical book of Genesis.
But John anticipates this defensive response. He says:
“Do not presume 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.”
In other words, John recognizes this ruse for what it is: a distraction from living the kind of life that God envisions for the covenant community. After liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God said to them, in effect, “I want you to be a different kind of community from the nations you see around you. Old patterns of exclusion and oppression must not be present among you. I want the nations of the world to look at you, my people, and see what kind of God I am.”
But the people of Israel, like all peoples, were consistently unable to live up to this high standard. We read in the Old Testament just how often God’s people “missed the mark” and began to take on characteristics of Egypt, Canaan, and Babylon. They worshiped humanly constructed images and ideologies in place of God, exploiting the earth and their neighbors. This is why God continually sent prophets like John. They called the people back to what it means to be God’s covenant community on earth.
Facing the Consequences
When the people refuse to listen (which is most of the time), God warns them that this way of life (“Every man/woman for him/herself”) leads only to death and destruction. This is why John says:
“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.”
Notice how John does not name God as the source of this destruction. We might be tempted to think of God as the primary actor in this event, but I think it would be just as legitimate to think of it as a natural consequence of our tendency toward selfishness and the violent ways of the world. God’s intention, in sending us the prophets, is to save us from this path of self-imposed destruction. If we refuse to heed this warning, God respects our decision by allowing us to face the consequences of our actions.
Wheat and Chaff
The good news is that there is another way. Even in the midst of our rebellion against God’s ways of peace, God is present and active. In first century Judea, God sent St. John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
At first glance, this image might seem like another warning of wrath and judgment. But it might help if we look more closely at John’s image of the Messiah as a farmer winnowing a harvest of wheat.
Wheat grains grow inside of a husk on a stalk, much like corn. In order to salvage the nutritious wheat, the husk must be removed. This is done by a process called “winnowing.” In the ancient world, farmers did this by setting the pods over a fire. The heat would crack the husks open and the wheat would fall out. Then the farmer would toss the pile in the air with a large fork. The wheat would fall through while the husks (called “chaff”) would be blown away by the wind.
Here’s the interesting thing: the wheat and the chaff are parts of the same plant. I take them, not as symbols of two different kinds of people (“good” and “bad”), but as two realities that exist within myself. I am, at the same time, both sinner and saint. There are good parts of me and bad, wheat and chaff.
Chaff is an essential part of wheat. It protects the precious grain while it grows on the stalk. Without it, the grain would be vulnerable to predators and the elements. But there comes a time when the chaff must be removed, or else the grain will never fulfill its destiny to make new plants or be ground and baked into bread. In the same way, we who live in this complicated world are a mixture of more useful and less useful parts. These parts of us must grow together for a time, so that we can become fully-formed, well-rounded people. We wrestle with these complexities and long for the simplicity of a life where only good remains forever.
When I imagine my destiny at the end of life, I imagine God taking those less useful parts of me and separating them from the goodness in me that reflects the divine image. I see divine judgment as the “winnowing” process, by which goodness is preserved and evil eliminated. Whatever is left at the end of this process is that which will live forever in God.
How will God accomplish this division of good and evil with us? John tells us quite clearly:
“He [Christ] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
This is directly related to the winnowing process. The Holy Spirit, the presence of God within us, is the winnower’s fire that liberates the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need in our lives. God is at work within us, transfiguring us day by day into the divine image and likeness.
And John reassures us with the good news that this inner fire of God is “unquenchable.” That is, all the chaff and sin within us is unable to snuff out the presence and power of the Spirit.
Kindled by Water
This fire was kindled in us, ironically, by water in our baptism. In that moment, when the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection were applied to us, the Holy Spirit came to dwell in us in a way that cannot be undone. Baptism is not so much something that we do for God so much as something that God does in us. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s pledge to save us and never leave nor forsake us.
Baptized Christians are part of Christ’s Body, and Christ loves us as dearly as we love the parts of our own bodies. He could not abandon us any more than one of us could cut off a hand or a foot. This is why John calls the fire “unquenchable.” We can resist the Spirit, but we cannot snuff her out entirely.
The prophet invites us, in this Advent season, to “prepare the way” for Christ’s coming by cooperating with the energy of the Holy Spirit, who is already at work in us, separating the good wheat from the chaff we no longer need. We are invited to return to the roots of our faith and consider again what it means to be a member of Christ’s Body, the covenant community of God’s Church in the world.
This work is not something we do for God, but what God is doing in us. We cannot make Christ appear in our hearts any more than we can make the sun to rise in the morning. The good news is that Christ is already here, working God’s will in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our only choice is whether we will resist or cooperate with the work of the Spirit in our lives.
St. Paul writes, in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Thess. 5:23-24)
This Advent, may we open our hearts to allow the fire of the Spirit to crack open our hard shells, and the wind of the Spirit to blow away that which we no longer need. May the water, wind, and fire of baptismal grace gather us once again into the barn of the Church, where we will dwell together in peace at Christ’s coming.