There’s an awkward tension in our readings today. Zephaniah the prophet has good news for us. Sing aloud and shout, rejoice and exult! The Lord is in our midst rejoice and exulting and renewing us in his love and gathering us home into safety. The Psalmist has good news! Mercy and Truth and Righteousness and Peace! God’s salvation is near! Paul the Apostle has good news for the Philippians, too. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice our readings tell us. But just when we are starting to feel happy, we run into a cranky John the Baptist.
“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come??”
Jesus is coming, and he will gather in the wheat – so that’s good news – but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. So now what?
It’s what you do when you’ve harvested wheat. You take it to the threshing floor, which is a flat area with a little raised edge around it. It’s where we get threshold – the little raised lip on a door. So you take the wheat sheaves and you whack them to shake the wheat from the stalk.
The grains fall to the floor and the leftover stalks are lifted up into the wind with the winnowing fork to blow away. That’s the chaff. The grains you grind up and turn into bread, but the chaff if no good for anything, so you burn it
This is a story about judgment, and Jesus will be the judge. So how about you? Are you wheat or chaff? How do you know which you are? And until you find out, how can you rejoice?
I myself wrestle with this language of judgment in the scriptures. Some theologians have concluded that this language of judgment is too hard to reconcile with a good and loving God. A good and loving God wouldn’t separate a beloved creation into wheat and chaff. It’s a viewpoint called universalism, the idea that God will somehow find a way to redeem and save everyone in the end. It’s very appealing. It’s comforting. And perhaps it’s true. I agreed with this viewpoint for several years, until I read the Bible and noticed all the stuff in the Bible about judgment.
Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats.
Jesus talks aboutthe weeds that grow up around the grain.
Jesus talks about the foolish bridesmaids who didn’t bring enough oil for the lamps.
Judgment is a theme, and I found it impossible to ignore. At the very least, we have to face what seems to be a truth that Jesus wants us to hear: that it matters what we do and how we behave. And while we’re thinking about that, how on earth can we pay attention to Zephaniah and Paul, and rejoice?
John the Baptist is helpful to his congregation. They hear his note of warning and they ask “what can we do?” That’s always a good question. It forms the basis of much Bible study and worship. We seek to be saved, we want to be wheat and not chaff, so we turn to our God and ask what me do to be saved? Throughout the Gospels people often ask Jesus this question, and he always answers.
Sometimes the person doesn’t like the answer, or finds it too difficult. I’m thinking of the rich young man who laments when Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor.
But Jesus always has an answer to that question. We never find a place in the Bible where Jesus says “What must you do to have eternal life? Sorry, I’m not going to tell you. You’re on your own.” He always has an answer.
That’s why I would up rejecting another theology that you can find in our churches called predestination. That’s the idea that God has predestined some for salvation and some for damnation, and that it is fixed and certain and cannot be altered. This view protects the sovereignty of God as all powerful and all knowing, but I’m uncomfortable with it mostly because there’s no room for free will, and I think that free will is a part of our human nature, part of what it means to be created in the image of God. I’m uncomfortable with predestination because Jesus always gives an answer to the question “what must I do to be saved?”
John gives answers, too. And they are straightforward, practical, and achievable.
To the crowds he says: “If you have extra stuff, share it with someone who doesn’t.”
To the tax collectors he says: “Collect the taxes, but don’t steal”
To the soldiers he says: “Don’t rob people, don’t threaten them, don’t take advantage of your authority”
John doesn’t tell people to change who they are or what job they do. He simply urges them to begin with little steps. Live your life with justice and fairness. Don’t take advantage of the power you have. If you can find a little way to bring mercy into the world, that’s great. Do that.
Basically, John’s advice is to use your skills and gifts and possessions and circumstances for good and not for evil. It’s very simple. It’s something we can all do.
For we Christians, it’s like this – if you want to be wheat and not chaff, if you want to rejoice, then believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God in human form, the savior, and then behave as though you believe it.
And the best way to do that is to belong to the body of Christ, worshiping with the body of Christ, learning with the body of Christ, practicing mercy and Christian love with and through the Body of Christ.
Believing in Christ. Behaving like Christ. Belonging to Christ’s body. That’s wheat and not chaff.
St. Paul was writing to the wheat of the church in Phillipi. They had their problems, certainly; Paul only wrote to churches that had problems. But to the best of their ability they believed in Christ, they behaved like Christ, they belonged to Christ’s body, and so they could rejoice in Christ.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This confidence and joy is made possible because God came to be with us when Jesus Christ was born. As we prepare again to celebrate the mystery of his birth, we remember that we are no longer alone and afraid, for God is with us, even now, and we rejoice.