At Peace Mennonite, we are currently using the Narrative Lectionary for worship. I will occasionally post some thoughts about the coming Sunday’s scripture as part of my own sermon preparation. These aren’t fully formed pieces, but may give some inspiration.
John the Baptist apparently didn’t read many church growth blogs. He sets up his ministry in an uncomfortable, out-of-the-way place that—by some ancient accounts—smelled really bad. He didn’t bother with skinny jeans or a hipster beard but just threw on an old camel hair tunic and let his own hair get dirty and unkempt.
And then. Then. When, against all odds, people come out to the wilderness to find him anyway, he greets them with: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”
Who? You did, John!
Despite his poor outreach strategy and apparent lack of “people skills,” crowds keep showing up, asking questions and receiving a baptism for repentance.
The last line we hear from John before he (understandably) gets thrown in prison is: “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.”
This is labeled as “good news,” but that’s not how I initially hear it. The winnowing fork seems a threatening, violent image to me. Yet, considering that John is primarily preaching about repentance, I wonder if there is another way to read this metaphor.
In case you don’t know, a winnowing fork was used to throw the grain up in the air. The chaff, which was light, would blow away, and the grain would fall back down into the pile. Then the chaff would be burned and the grain would be used for food. It was a messy, labor-intensive process; but it yielded good results.
I always assumed that this image referred to the Messiah separating the good people from the bad people; but looking through the lens of repentance, it is possible that Jesus is separating the good from the bad within each of us. And that makes this a beautiful, deeply comforting image.
I’m not big on quoting the dictionary, but listen to this: winnow: “to free (grain) from the lighter particles of chaff, dirt, etc., esp. by throwing it into the air and allowing the wind to blow away impurities.”
Allowing the wind to blow away impurities.
If Jesus took the stuff of your life and threw it into the air, what grain would fall back down to nourish you–and others? What impurities would blow away in the wind?
Maybe the winnowing fork is good news after all.
You can read a sermon I wrote on Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:1-11) here.