Earlier in the week, I wanted to tell John the Baptist to tone it down a couple of notches. This is advent, after all; not the apocalypse. I wondered how I was supposed to explain this wilderness madman to polite church people. We are all trying to reflect solemnly about our need for a Savior. We are waiting expectantly and, just as importantly it always seems, quietly. And then here’s John the Baptist, wearing a camel hair shirt like the prophets of old. Here’s John the Baptist subsisting on locusts and raw honey, fleeing to the wilderness and crying out about the wrath to come. We are waiting patiently for the peaceable Christ child. John the Baptist is making a fit about judgment by fire.
John’s imagery is frightening. The axe, he says, the axe is being laid to the root of the tree, and all of the trees that don’t bear fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. A Messiah is coming to 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.” Always with the fire, this guy.
And then the end of this passage is a little bit strange. After John is done with all of the talk about wrath and fire, the narrator adds, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” It maybe goes without saying that good news for the wheat is very bad news for the chaff. This is typically the way most of the biblical writers think about justice. When such a time comes that justice is finally established, you really, really do not want to be doing injustice. It’s a double-edged message. The hills are brought low and the valleys are filled. So John says, Why do you have two coats when other people have none? And to the tax collectors, Stop ripping people off. The Kingdom of God brings judgment, but only judgment for those who refuse to stop doing injustice.
If John the Baptist sounds desperate to us, it is only because we know so little of desperation. On Friday I heard anger and desperation that made John the Baptist look tame. Many of us, when we caught news of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, found that our initial feelings of shock and sorrow quickly gave way to anger. The chatter started in my workplace almost as soon as the news broke.
One co-worker said, “This is too horrible to watch, I’m going to have to turn off the coverage or I won’t be able to finish the work day.”
In a matter of minutes the conversation turned towards punishment.
“There’s no punishment harsh enough for someone who would do something like that.”
“Don’t worry,” said another, “people who hurt children don’t do very well in prison.”
And pretty soon all of that talk about fire and the wheat and the chaff didn’t seem so out of place. I assume I wasn’t the only one to see or hear someone express their sincere desire that the shooter burn in hell. It is in times of desperation, times when the world is turned upside down right in front of us, it is during these times that John the Baptist’s words carry the most weight. The world is so broken that there absolutely must be something new on its way. This can’t be the world as God intended; this must be something else. We need something drastic; someone or something to put the world back together by separating the wheat from the chaff. We need deliverance for us wheat people and punishment for those chaff people. Then the world will be set straight. And, of course, we all know exactly where to find the chaff. So all that remains is to get to winnowing and stoke that unquenchable fire. Justice is on its way.
The trouble with this wheat and chaff metaphor or, I guess I should say with a certain application of this metaphor, the trouble is that wheat and chaff very often depend on perspective. We are all in agreement on the basics, of course. Murderers are chaff people. Mother Theresa is a wheat person. And then there’s the rest of us.
I read recently that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who believe that the world can be divided into two types of people, and there are those who believe that it cannot. A lot of us, with our words or thoughts, (and this is most of all a self-indictment), have been showing ourselves to be the first type of person. We know pretty well where to find the wheat people and how to avoid the chaff people. The chaff people are those naïve, utopian liberals, thinking they could ever take my guns away or, maybe they’re those gun nuts who think there’s no problem with guns that more guns can’t solve. Depends who you ask, really. But if we can disregard our own allegiances for just a moment, it should be obvious that one person’s wheat is another person’s chaff.
I have to imagine that, when the crowds heard John the Baptist speaking of a Messiah come to separate the wheat from the chaff, a lot of people thought they knew exactly how to identify the wheat people and the chaff people. And we know that plenty of people expected a triumphant leader, someone to put all of the chaff people in their place. In truth, what they wanted wasn’t a Messiah, they just wanted a more powerful version of themselves.
And here we are, most of the time thinking we know where to find the wheat people. They all belong to one political party, and justice will be established as soon as that party is strong enough to stamp out the other. The truth is that we all hold onto Messianic delusions some of the time.
I think if we read John’s proclamations along with the rest of the Gospel narrative, we’ll come to the conclusion that we really ought to be acting like the second type of people in the world—those who believe that people can’t be divided into two camps. The one for whom John the Baptist paved the way taught us that the notion of an enemy is nonsense. Love your so-called enemies because they’re really your neighbors.
Our Prince of Peace must have known that it is difficult to winnow out the wheat people from the chaff people. The crowds chanted “Hosannah!” one day and “Crucify him!” the next. Were they wheat people or chaff people? Or what about the Disciples? They were Jesus’ closest friends and yet quick to abandon him. Wheat people or chaff people?
Try to rethink John the Baptist’s metaphor. One preacher put it this way: “The parabolic statement about wheat and chaff reminds us not only that the community is mixed but also that each of us have our own good and bad elements. There is for each of us chaff that needs to be blown away and burned. There is a separation here of good and bad, useful and useless; but it is not like the difference between apples and oranges. Each of us individually is wheat and chaff.”
It is easy to think that other people have a monopoly on the chaff market; easy to think that we’re the righteous ones meant to show everyone else the error of their oh-so-chaffy ways. But easy thoughts aren’t always true thoughts; sometimes they’re down-right silly. The other day I had what must have been one of the dumbest thoughts of my entire life. I was on my way home from school, sitting in some pretty infuriating traffic. In a brief moment of woe-is-me self pity, I thought, “Why is this happening to me!?” As if a traffic jam is something that happens without my participation! Or, as if one person can be caught in a traffic-jam without a whole slew of other folks also being trapped. The type of finger-pointing that allows us to regain our own feelings of righteousness by condemning others is like that, too. Contempt for others fuels their contempt for you. An atmosphere of contempt is like a traffic-jam—your involvement only makes it worse.
We need very badly to grieve. It is right for us to be angry about all of the outrageous violence and injustice in the world. It may be the case that the Bible’s promises of hope and new beginnings can’t ring true at the moment. Bible verses aren’t like magical incantations to be spoken in the hopes of an immediate change to our psychological state. The Bible is truest when people find themselves in it, and I suspect that for many people no words are truer than the words of Jeremiah, “A cry is heard in Ramah—wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.” There is truly no grief too profound for a tragedy of this scale.
And grief nearly always presents itself with anger, so let us remember the face of righteous indignation. John the Baptist saved some of his harshest words for those who thought that their identity would prove them righteous. It is the purity of our love that makes us participants in the Kingdom of God, not our social or political affiliations.
And as we yearn for justice we remember God’s implements of peace. We loosen our grasp on things like spite and contempt as the love of Christ is born into our hearts. That’s how we become wheat people without needing to brand others as chaff people. An old Christmas carol taught us well:
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Long live His truth, and may it last forever,
For in His name all discordant noise shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise us,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
All discordant noise shall cease. Christmas, whenever it arrives, brings a word of peace to those who previously would not be consoled. This advent we hold our joys and sorrows together in tension. For if we grieve deeply it is only because we have loved fiercely. A cry is heard in Ramah, but all discordant noise shall cease.