7John 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? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John 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. 17His 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.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (John 3:7-18, NRSV)
He's a tough-talker, John the Baptist. The gospel lesson for Advent 3C begins with name-calling. The people who come out to see him and be baptized are a "brood of vipers." Trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Undaunted, the people ask him for specifics. Over and over they ask him, what are we to do? He gives them simple rules for life: share with others, don't take more than you are entitled to take, be satisfied with what you earn.
He's powerful, John. People wonder if he isn't the Messiah himself. When we look around the world today we see plenty of messianic figures, people who proclaim one truth or another. He's preaching the opposite of today's popular prosperity gospel, more like the common sense thinking of our grandparents' generation. Make do with what you have; do a hard day's work and earn what you're paid; keep an eye out for those in need and help where you can.
It seems strange that his rules involve money and wages when he lives in the desert and not in the community of commerce. And it seems even stranger that he suddenly changes the subject from the practical to the metaphorical.
"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." (Luke 3:16-17, NRSV)
That sounds more complicated than what came before.
And that's perhaps the key to Advent. What's coming will sort us out, into wheat and chaff. The winnowing fork is in his hand.
That's John's take on it, anyway. He has expectations of the Messiah, and in that he's no different than everyone around him. He believes the One who is Coming will move us all to the next level.
That's John's good news.
John speaks of wheat and chaff being sorted, and we tend to think of this as an outer process, a division of faithful people from the rest of the world. But perhaps we can apply this to the inner life. As we begin this Advent, can you identify the wheat and the chaff in your life? Are you ready to leave the chaff behind?
Advent God, in this season of anticipation, prepare our hearts and minds to receive the truth about our world and our lives. Help us to sort ourselves out with the help of your Holy Spirit. We pray in the name of the One who is Coming. Amen.
We invite you to share reflections in the comments or to link to your own blog if you are virtually retreating there.
Many thanks to Jenee Woodard at Textweek for the art links, which I found here.