(Matthew 3: 1-12)
Nothing says advent quite like John the Baptist, does it?
A group of my fellow Young Clergy Women and I laughed over this this past week, thinking about what John the Baptist themed Christmas cards would look like. Christmas cards that we’re all probably sending out about now have snowmen, or trumpets, snowflakes, Christmas trees, or angel bells. But these Christmas cards, these John the Baptist Christmas cards would look something like this:
- the image of a man in camel hair clothes grinning holding out a plate of honey-covered locusts with the caption, “I made you Christmas cookies”
- or, maybe a bunch of people splashing and having fun in the river Jordan with John standing all alone on the banks…the caption reading, “they never let John the Baptizer join in any water games.”
- or, “When it comes to naughty or nice, believe me, Santa’s list is the least of your concerns”
- or, my favorite, a card with a harried John the Baptist on the front and the text below which reads, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Ok, it may seem that John the Baptist doesn’t fit too well into this season, he’s not a cheery prophet, he’s an odd man in the desert. The words he speaks seem more judgmental than holy, more words of fear than words of good news. But John the Baptist is indeed the perfect picture of advent in the Christian world, maybe not in the secular world, he doesn’t fit in too well with Santa or his reindeer but the message of John the Baptist is the perfect way to describe advent in the church. John’s the poster child for advent, despite the awkward Christmas cards, because he calls on the people to prepare the way, to repent, and to look for Jesus.
John’s message of repentance sounds harsh and judgmental, his name calling seems a bit unnecessary, and his message of “fire” “wrath” and the “brood of vipers” all sounds rather unloving. But John calling the people to repent is exactly what we are called to do in advent. Repenting is one way we prepare the way, one way we prepare for the coming of Christ.
Repentance has kind of gotten a bad image, just like John the Baptist, it has gotten an image as terrifying, repentance has come to mean something along the lines of saying “I’m sorry” really loudly in response to a massive judgment on your life from some outsider. But the word repentance means something much different. Repent actually means to “change one’s mind for the better.” John is calling the people to change their minds, to turn their hearts toward God, or to return to a life lived more fully with God.
That image of Jesus standing with a winnowing fork and fire roaring around him burning the chaff seems terrifying. It sounds horrible. It sounds like the message of judgment we fear, a message of terror and not a message of grace. But let me offer a bit more interpretation on this, because this is not a message of fear, or of judgment, or terror; it is an advent message of grace and love
Now, winnowing fork was a term completely outside of my vocabulary, so was chaff, and so was threshing floor. In an attempt to understand this verse better, I went to see what a winnowing fork is, how you use it and what it does. What I learned is fascinating…
The winnowing fork Jesus holds in his hand in John’s prophesy is a tool for harvesting wheat, the farmer uses the winnowing fork to pull off the chaff–the unusable part of the grain – off the rest of the grain. So the farmer takes the winnowing fork and digs deep into the wheat and throws it high into the air. Now, here is my favorite part of this image, what pulls the chaff off the grain? As the farmer throws the winnowing fork with grain on it, he lifts it into the air and, this is my favorite part, the wind blows the chaff off, the chaff is pulled from the wheat and lands on the ground and the farmer is left with the usable grain. This image is made all the more beautiful when you think about that wind as ruach – the Hebrew word for wind or Spirit. The spirit pulls the unusable part from the grain. The spirit pulls the unusable parts from us in order to make us stronger.
John the Baptist’s message of repentance is a message of good news, a message calling us to prepare, to turn toward God. In this season of advent, John the Baptist calls us to repent and to draw near to God, not to face judgment, not because if we don’t we will burn in the unquenchable fire; but rather because in repentance, we draw closer to God, we grow intimately closer to God as God gently pulls away those things that are not useful to us, that do not serve God, to pull away the chaff in our lives.
John’s message of repentance is not a message of doom and judgment, it is not calling on us to blindly repent and say sorry. Saying sorry or admitting our faults is but a small part of repentance, repentance calls on us to look into the future, what things is God calling us to, what does God have in store for us, for you as individuals, for us as a community, as a church, as a city, as a people of God. John’s message calls us to look at those things and to wonder – what things are keeping me, keeping us from getting there. And repentance invites us to seek those things out boldly by letting go of what is keeping us, and to seek boldly those things that will allow us to live into the places God is calling us. David Lose writes, “Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and changing course.”
Now rather than making a laundry list of things that need to be fixed or repaired to set us in right path with God, let me invite you to try repentance a little differently. Pause for a moment and daydream, let yourself drift into a little bit of a daydream of what God might have in store for you or for your family, or for our church, or for our community. Daydream a little.
Just as Isaiah did, he painted a picture, a dream of a world. He dreamed a dream, he saw the vision that God had given him, and he painted a picture of a world lived in harmony, a world lived without fear, a world lived without hatred, a world lived with the messiah as its head. So daydream a little people of God, daydream about God’s vision for you. Dream beyond what you know, dream beyond what seems possible, dream big, dream big dreams of God’s vision for you, dream God’s vision for us. What does it look like? What is the vision being painted in your mind?
And now think for a moment, think about that vision, that vision that God has placed in your mind, that daydream. What is one element in your life that is getting in the way of that vision? What is one element of our life as a community that is getting in the way of that vision? Take this advent, this season of preparing the way, to pray and to repent, to change that one thing, to make that vision that God has cast into your life become more and more real.
Take this season of advent to live more fully into that vision, to take the invitation John the Baptist gives us, to take the grace that Jesus gives us, to live life more fully, to experience God more abundantly. Take this season to live more fully into God by making room for God, by making room for God to step into our lives.
Now, let me be clear, this isn’t a call for an early New Year’s Eve resolution, this is not a call to think about one thing in your life that you would like to change. It is an invitation to step more deeply into life lived with God, because the Spirit gently pulls the chaff from us. It is the call of John the Baptist, the invitation of Christ, to dream big dreams, to dream not just wants or desires, but to dream of worlds changed, to dream dreams of lives lived more fully, to dream of a world lived with God. And from those dreams, to step deeply into them, to repent and reorient, to repent and turn more fully toward God.
People of God, John’s message is an advent message calling us to prepare, to prepare ourselves and our communities through repentance. For us to draw near to God, to turn toward God, to call upon God to blow away the chaff in our lives and in our communities off.
How will you repent this season of advent? How will we repent this season of advent?
Let us live into this advent season with repentance, with hope, and with prophetic visions.
In the name of God our creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer. Amen.