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.Matthew 3:12
In the first congregation I served after seminary, when it was time to pass the peace, I noted that most members of the congregation commented on each other’s clothes, or asked about their neighbor’s grandchildren, or wondered about someone’s mother’s health. They talked about pretty much anything they could think of rather than offering each other the peace of Christ. I was frustrated, in that way you are when you feel pretty sure you know the right way to do everything.
I stopped calling that moment in worship the passing of the peace. Instead I invited the congregation to rise and greet their neighbors. Several months later, after Easter, we read about Jesus in the Upper Room leaving his peace with the disciples. I preached about passing the peace as a radical acting out of our faith, a way of claiming our identity in Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist offers a vivid image of the coming Messiah, wielding unquenchable fire to clear out all the mess of human systems. He has a very particular idea of who God will send, and we’ll learn later that it does not include Jesus’ fondness for having dinner with sketchy characters. John is making the way for a reordering according to God’s priorities.
We probably all have moments when we hope for the same thing, as long as the definition of “chaff” is up to us.
John expects the Messiah to burn away all the people who would not obey God, and I feel an uncomfortable identification with him when I remember how self-righteous I often felt in my first pastoral call. John is right to think that the Messiah will change the world, that the Messiah will change us. But he’s wrong about how. Jesus came to wield unquenchable peace. We see it in his healing, in his teaching, and in his dying, full of generosity for the rejected and the misaligned and the broken-hearted. Following him is all the things John suggested – letting go of our sense of importance and turning from our accustomed ways of being – and it is more – living in harmony with one another and with God, whose desire for peace will never be extinguished.
I wonder how ready we are to claim that identity? It’s tempting, instead, to talk about the weather, or that attractive reindeer pin our friend is wearing; it’s also tempting to adopt John’s perspective and threaten devastation against the people who don’t live up to our expectations. Who wants to admit, humbly, that we have been too harsh, too righteous, too wrong?
For today, let’s try it.
The Peace of Christ be with you.
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