Matt 3:12 “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.”
We have deep in us, or at least I have, a desire for settling scores.
The Bible has an eye for an eye. The popular media has a habit when some criminal has been sent down or died. (The former, I guess, could be a euphemism for the latter) that he or she should “burn in Hell”. Refereeing mistakes “even out”. People are told they’ll “pay for this”. We sort out the wheat from the chaff, with the sure expectation that the wheat will be safe, but the chaff – well, it will burn. Isn’t that what chaff does?
And over the Advent expectation hangs the promise of pay-back, the threat of fire, the reminder that a Holy and Aweful God is, if you fall into those hands, potentially a Wholly Awful God. The threat of Gehenna (the rubbish-tip of Jerusalem, made eternal); of Hell, of the Inferno, of the burning chaff, blowing in the breeze, lies behind the promise of a baby in a manger.
The promise of the early apostles, it seems to me, wasn’t that if we repent we are saved from a kind of hollow feeling; not that we will know new middle-class rectitude; that we will be spiritual Waitrose shoppers. It was not that we will feel better at ease with ourselves – more comfortable in our own skin.
No, and this is one way that the New Testament message, by and large, differs from the old. The Old says, change your ways or you will be conquered by foreign countries. The New says, allow yourself to be changed entirely, or you will burn in Hell.
To be sure, the positives of turning around, running to our loving Creator God, are stressed too – becoming like him, being transformed, knowing the Spirit, all the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. But the two-path option – one tricky, hilly and hard to stay on, and leading to an Eternal City – one easy, wide, and all downhill to the extra-muros rubbish dump – that’s made clear.
And in that place, we’re told, all the rubbish of our lives – all the things we couldn’t help but cling on to – are burned to obliteration. All the scores we held unsettled will be eternally settled. All the wrongs we persisted in, distilled in the heat, to hang around the polluted waste-tip of Eternity. And if we cling on to them then we’re choosing to go with them.
But, say the apostles, there was another place where the rubbish was dealt with, the grievances sorted, the scores settled. And, oddly enough, that’s outside the walls as well. In that place, the scores are settled once, for all, not allowed cling forever unsettled. The rubbish is cast away, the chaff is winnowed from the grain and, in that place, we can walk away to be fruitful – clean and fit for eternal storage in the Lord’s barn.
The Cross is where we can be free from the chaff – the place where we see that human judgement, hatred, cruelty and slander last just for a while, but self-sacrifice, love and God’s forgiveness last forever. If we’re looking at the cross we can see what’s wheat and what’s chaff – what’s gold and what’s rubbish – what’s the gift, and what – no matter how glittery and golden the paoer – is just wrapping.
John’s message is of threat and promise. Of the eternal and the useless. Let’s have eyes to see it in our own lives – and bring our own lives to that place, where we can be separated from the chaff.