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Winnowing the Chaff

Pastor Brian Rajcok

Matthew 3:1-12

Sunday December 8, 2019

John the Baptist means business. Most people think of Advent as a time of preparing for sweet baby Jesus. But John shouts like a madman about the coming Messiah and warns people about the winnowing fork in His hand, the ax at the root of the tree, and the chaff the Coming One will burn with unquenchable fire! Sounds like a totally different person from the baby, meek and mild, born in a manager in Bethlehem.

John said these words about 30 years after the birth of Jesus, just before he baptizes Jesus and Jesus’ ministry begins. But we hear John in the season of Advent talking about the adult Jesus, because his message is about preparing ourselves for the coming Messiah. His message isn’t all Christmas-y, but it is what we need to hear.

Honestly, it’s hard to listen to John. It’s hard hearing about all the chaff that will be burned. It’s hard hearing about all this judgement and wrath. Good thing we’re not the chaff right? That’s gotta be the other people who don’t come to church. The other people who do bad things. The other people who don’t believe in God. Surely we are the good fruit, the wheat that Jesus is coming to save and bring into his granary. It’s not us who are going into the unquenchable fire…right???

This text can easily lead to finger-pointing. To Christians saying the chaff are nonbelievers, or Jews and Muslims, or those other Christian denominations who don’t practice their faith the same way we do. It takes a lot of humility and brutal honesty to recognize that John is talking about us too. John the Baptist’s harsh words should shock us into repentance. We are sinners in need of a savior; and we should not just assume he’s talking about someone else.

But before we fall too much into despair, know that these words are not presenting an either/or scenario. We might wanna think some people are chaff (worthless and ready to be burned) and others are wheat (totally good and worthy to be saved). But life isn’t like that. And the Bible shouldn’t be read dualistically like that. Seen from a deeper, nondual perspective John the Baptist’s metaphor about chaff and wheat isn’t about good people and bad people. It’s about the good and the bad in all of us. The world isn’t split up into sinful people and pure people. Sinfulness and purity coexist in everyone. We all have our wheat and we all have our chaff. As Luther said we are simultaneously saint and sinner. What John the Baptist is saying here is that Christ will winnow us all, cutting down whatever branches in us are not bearing fruit, and baptizing us with the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. John’s message challenges us to look inward and see the chaff inside ourselves.

It’s easier to simply say we Christians are the wheat, and everyone else is the chaff. But as John makes clear to the Sadducees and Pharisees who believed just that about themselves, it’s not about being part of a certain group or people or being descendants of Abraham. God is at work in all people, purifying us of our chaff and bringing our wheat to bear fruit.

Christian spiritual teachers throughout the ages have taught that this purification is part of everyone’s faith journey. Thomas Keating, a Roman Catholic priest and monk and founder of Centering Prayer, explained that each of us has a “false self” that we mistake for who we are. It’s basically the mind’s idea of who we are, a set of thoughts we come up with to justify our selfishness and compensate for unmet needs. And by practicing humility and brutal honesty we can get underneath our mind’s idea of who we are, and live into God’s idea of who we are.

We are all broken in some way, sometimes the evidence of this might be right in front of our face and we’re not able to ignore it. But most of the time we push it down, and we live our lives ok but not aware of our hidden motivations or selfishness. The spiritual journey is about uncovering that. Learning more deeply about ourselves. And inviting God to peel back the layers of who we think we are.

You see, the spiritual journey is not about addition but rather subtraction. Burning away all those excuses we make for ourselves. Uncovering our secret motivations and selfishness. Being brutally honest with ourselves. And facing the truth of who we are. Letting go of all those excuses and inviting God to show us the real nature of our sinfulness and selfishness. It’s a hard journey. It takes courage. It takes trust. And it feels like fire. It feels like an ax is chopping your tree down. It feels like all the status and success you’ve built up over a lifetime is being destroyed. It feels like death. But it is in dying to yourself that you find yourself. It’s in letting go of our false self and all the old excuses and thought patterns, that we discover the truth of who we are and the Spirit has room to transform us and make us whole.

At the core of this is the practice of actively turning our wills over to God, and being willing to accept whatever truth about ourselves we’ve been reluctant to face in the past. In this way, through humility and brutal honesty, the Spirit winnows our chaff. Burns and purifies our false self. And what’s left is the wheat, the good fruit which is the core of who we are, our true self, a beloved child of God.

So what is the chaff in you? What needs cleansing in you? What is it you would like to throw into the fire? What is it you’re trying to keep that God is tearing away? We all have our chaff. And if you can’t think of anything right now, I invite you to pray about it and reflect on it this week. God is calling you to let go of something. God is challenging you to dive deep into this journey.

The process is often painful, it feels like a tree being cut down or chaff being burned in fire. But this pruning process is for our own good. This process of transformation may in fact be the whole reason we’re here in the first place. As Paul says in Romans, God is drowning the Old Adam and out of that death comes the New Adam, which is Christ born in us.

And so as we journey together this Advent season, I invite you to take on the discipline of actively seeking out your own chaff. Be brutally honest with yourself about your motivations. Learn to investigate your own selfishness nonjudgmentally, and try to discern where you need healing. Pray that God may gently reveal your chaff to you, and that Christ may gently winnow it out. And be prepared for it to not be so gentle; as our friend John the Baptist warns this journey can be painful. The death of the false self is indeed a death, a tearing apart of your sense of self. But we know that God is guiding us through it, that Christ has walked this journey himself, and that the Good News is that after death there is always an ever more glorious resurrection! So, trust the winnowing process. Invite the winnowing process! And know that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!” Let us walk this winnowing journey this Advent season and all of our earthly life—trusting in the promise of new birth as we await the coming of our Savior to be born in Bethlehem and to be born in us. Amen.


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