In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Earlier this fall, I had the chance to ride with a couple people in their combines while they were harvesting wheat. I learned some things about the process: I watched the cutting blade separating the stalks of wheat from the ground, and then I watched the thresher separating the good grain from the not-so-good straw. As much as possible, it is only the grains of wheat that you want in your trucks when they leave for the bins or the elevators. And with modern combines, that’s not too hard to do. It is the grain that is desired; it is the grain that pays. The straw’s no good to make bread; there are few, if any, people paying you for the straw. Maybe you need some straw to keep the soil from blowing away, but most of that straw is not going to help you grow more wheat next year, or the year after, or any year after that. When you’ve separated the grain from the straw, you don’t need the straw anymore. If the wind sweeps it away, you don’t worry too much.
Just like you harvested those stalks of wheat and separated them into grain and straw, the time is coming when sinners will be separated from each other. John the Baptizer uses exactly this image to call sinners to repentance. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he says, his fiery eyes scanning the crowds. “But he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12, ESV). You probably know this, but these winnowing forks were the equivalent of your (not in order of preference) John Deere and Case tractors. They would take these forked shovels and throw the harvested grain and straw up into the air; the grain would fall back into the pile, and the straw and chaff would be carried away on the wind. They still harvest grain like this in some parts of Africa (and probably elsewhere). But John is talking about sinners, not grain. He’s talking about you and me. Are you good grain, or are you chaff that is only good for the furnace? Likewise, as a tree in the orchard of God, am I bearing His good fruit, or do I deserve to be cut down and thrown into the fire? There is no comfort immediately apparent in John’s words. He is preparing the way of the Lord by clear-cutting everything that stands in the way. His is a slash-and-burn approach to making straight paths. He seems to be the worst kind of fire-and-brimstone preacher: he doesn’t go much further than “repent or burn.”
But you have to admit, John’s got a knack for getting right to the heart of the matter. He will have nothing to do with those who are merely curious, or who are only pretending to repent. Pharisees and Sadducees? He calls them out. “Offspring of snakes!” he calls them. The question in his accusation is this: are you coming because you want to see a show, because you want to see what everybody else is so excited about? Because John’s not messing around. Neither are we. This is life-and-death stuff. This is black-and-white, hell-or-heaven talk. This place is here because the cross marks off the repentant sinners from the unrepentant ones. We are here because Jesus Christ is the thresher, dividing the grain from the straw. Are you here for some other reason than this cross, this Jesus? “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7b-8, ESV). In other words, do not think that repentance is unnecessary, that you have no need of conversion. Do not think that there is a side-door, or a loophole, or an escape clause. Each one of us is either a good tree or a bad tree. Baptized with the Holy Spirit or with fire. Grain in the barn of the Son of God or chaff burning with unquenchable fire. Even now the axe is laid at the foot of the trees. John is not messing around.
That’s because God doesn’t mess around. He is dead serious about your sin and mine. It is no small thing when you smear the particulars so you can write off an expense; the money belongs to your employer. It is no small thing when you keep looking at the woman in the short skirt; she is not your wife. It is no small thing when you spread the juiciest details about the family across town; their reputation is in your hands. God does not overlook sin, from the smallest to the largest. He is righteous, and He will have a people who are righteous. He is just; He wants a people who are just. He is merciful; He wants a merciful people. He wants a repentant people bearing fruit corresponding to that repentance. And when we stand before the throne of God, no sin that you and I have committed will be overlooked, whether small or great, intentional or unintentional, in deeds done or left undone. John knew it. The people to whom he preached were made to realize it. Do you realize it? Our God is a consuming fire, and everything that is unworthy of His presence will be burned with an inextinguishable fire. How serious is God? How jealous is He for the people He has made? So serious, so jealous, that He does not overlook or excuse a single sinful thought or action. But He is so serious and so jealous that He will do anything to prevent His righteous judgment from being rendered upon you. He is dead serious; that is, serious unto death-even death upon a cross. Your life of sin has not been excused; it has been forgiven, which is something far more significant. The wages of your sin have not been ignored, they have been carried out on the only one who did not deserve it. They have been paid eternally by the eternal Son of God.
The message of John the Baptizer still comes through clearly, and his words of warning still put sinners to death, because they are the words given to him by God to prepare the way of the Lord. And it is still God who sends messengers to proclaim John’s message of repentance, making ready the way of the Christ-even now, even here. His second coming is still in the future-whether minutes, days, or years, we do not know-but what a strange first coming! He did not come the first time with pomp and power. He did not come the first time with consuming fire and double-edged sword. The Word of God came unthinkably concealed in unspeaking, newborn flesh. He came, indistinguishable from the wheat and the chaff among whom He lived. The mighty one coming after John was the helpless one in the manger. But this helpless one is Almighty God Himself. And the word of repentance that John spoke to prepare the way for the Lord the first time is the very same word that was spoken to you in your baptism when He came to you. The way had to be prepared, but how were you going to prepare it? You were dead chaff, waiting to be burned! Dead stuff needs to be out of the way when the King comes, and dead stuff does not move on its own. And so Christ Himself prepared His own way in you by His Holy Spirit. And He continues to separate the grain of the Holy Spirit from the chaff of your old, sinful self. This separation time can be painful because you are made to see your sin, but it is necessary so that you are not separated from Him eternally. He cuts down old, fruitless trees, but it is only to bring them back to life, so that they are not thrown into the fire when He comes again.
He is coming soon. Are you prepared? Has the Word of God in the mouth of John done its work in you? Does the Son of God find a dwelling place with you? He does, because He prepares His way among sinners. He has straightened the paths of your heart on the cross, washed them in your baptism, and cleared them of all ungodly debris. Being baptized, you confess your sins. And the Lord Christ comes to you and He makes His home with you. After John came, preaching repentance, “Jesus came from Galilee…” (Matthew 3:13). It will happen again in the latter days. Jesus will come, though not from Galilee, and this time He will, by fire and the sword of His mouth, remake His creation as He originally intended it to be. The time for separating the wheat from the chaff is coming, but you have nothing to fear from the consuming fire of God’s wrath. It will pass you over, because you are under water, drowned to keep from being burned. This water beats that fire every time. And pure wheat you shall finally be, gathered safely into the grain bins of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
–Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/5/07