This is a pitchfork. [Holds up object for congregation to see]
Well, kind of. Technically, it is a spading fork. A true pitchfork would have a little smaller tines and have a little different purpose. The purpose of this guy is to get deep into that hard-packed Lawrence clay and turn up the ground for my garden, or in order to plant some grass seed. It needs to be heavy-duty, to turn stuff over.
A true pitchfork is a little different. It needs to be light, because the goal is to lift things. Straw. Hay. Pick it up and toss a bunch from one end of the barn to the other. If you are old enough, think about the opening theme to Green Acres. That’s a pitchfork.
Did you catch the pitchfork in today’s passage? Technically, John calls it a winnowing fork, and he says that the Messiah is coming, and he is wielding one of these when he does. Now, John is not the Messiah, and he knows he is not the Messiah, but he knows who is Messiah is and what he is up to. The Messiah, according to John, is going to come bringing a pitchfork!
Why a pitchfork, you ask? Well, in that time and place, farmers would take a pitch fork, or a winnowing fork, and use it to toss the harvested grain up in the air. While it is in the air, the waste material, the empty husks and stems and unusable part of the plant (often known as chaff) is lighter-weight and thus blown away by the wind. Meanwhile, the healthy part, the kernel, the seed, falls back to the earth, where it can be recovered.
For John, the Messiah comes bearing a pitchfork. In his mind, it is all about this separating. This winnowing. This removal of the chaff from the seed. The bad out of the good. John preaches in a way that asks what the wind needs to blow away the chaff from our hearts, our souls? What unhealthy chaff needs to blow away? When the people come out to see John, they are moved by his preaching, and ask over and over again, “what then shall we do?” What needs to be removed from us? What are our impurities? What chaff will the Messiah take away?
Look at the things that John proclaims must be separated from our collective consciousness:
- Greed. John tells the people to share what they have. He commands here a social balancing. We have enough together, but some of other people’s stuff happens to be in your closet. Do not hoard. Do not possess more than you need to. If you have two coats and someone has none, give it away. Same with food. Share what you have.
- Abuse of power. John attracts those with power out from the city. The tax collectors show up and the soldiers show up and ask “what shall we do?” John demands that they not abuse their power, or abuse those they are meant to protect. Do not extort or use your position to steal from others. Remove the stain of abuse of power.
- Privilege. John preaches, “some will say ‘but we are children of Abraham…’” John says “forget Abraham.” Forget the privilege you think you have because of how you were born. Who you were born to. The Messiah is coming and it doesn’t matter “what your daddy do.” Or who your daddy was. Set aside your privilege because it doesn’t matter in the coming kingdom.
John commands a separating from the chaff that is greed and abuse and privilege. Repent from it. Walk away from it. Let it blow away.
John preached to those who came out from the city but Luke includes his words because I think we are meant to ask the same question, “what then shall I do?” John names problems that are social and systemic and complex. Jerusha Matsen Neal says it this way: “(John describes) the faithful distribution of possessions, the rejections of corruption, and a legal system that refuses to use violence for its own preservation…(it is) good news for those who have no coat, those who have been cheated out of their wages, or beaten by soldiers.” The problems John speaks of are systemic, and he calls for a social reordering. But his answers to those problems are individual and personal, asking us how do we participate in those systems? And how do we repent of that participation?
- Where is the greed in my life? Want to know how many pairs of shoes I own? How many extra coats I think I need?
- Where is there abuse of power in my life? Maybe not intentional or sins of commission, but sins of omission…not using my power in ways that God would have me use it?
- And where is privilege in my life? Turning my nose up at those who don’t have as much as I do because I have not had to battle mental health issues, generational poverty issues, race issues, as so many other have had to?
What should I let blow away from my life? From my heart. The message of John is clear: we are all a part of the brood of vipers, the Messiah is coming, and you better get ready, because he is coming with a pitchfork!
But then he shows up! That very Messiah that John was predicting walks down the hill for John to baptize him. Now, a quick aside…this is why I love the narrative lectionary. Because the story drives the conversation. Often, we explore John in Advent, as a theological conception about waiting and preparing and repenting. And then, Jesus doesn’t show up for a few more weeks, and then he doesn’t grow up for a few more weeks after that. But in the narrative lectionary, instead of waiting three weeks, we just have to wait three verses. After a brief report about John’s arrest, we are told about what happens at Jesus’ baptism. John is talking about the coming of the Messiah in one breath, and in the next, here he comes!
I love that we read it this way, because this is clearly the way that Luke intended it. Scholar Craig Koester says that that is important. He speaks of the juxtaposition between the message of John and the message of Jesus. After all, John is not the Messiah, and he knows full well that he can’t even untie the shoes of the Messiah. He knows that his job is to point to the Messiah. But even that, we aren’t always sure if John understands where he is pointing. We get the picture from John that Jesus is coming in, lightsaber blazing, ready to take out the badguys. But does John really understand what Jesus is up to? Remember that in a few chapters (chapter 7), John is going to pull aside some of Jesus’ followers and whisper, “do I have the right guy here? Are we sure this is the Messiah? I am putting a lot on the line if this is just Cousin Josh from Nazareth.” John knows who the Messiah is, but we aren’t always sure he knows who the Messiah is. What he stands for. What he is all about. John understands part of what the Messiah is about, but he doesn’t get the full picture.
John is looking for a Messiah with a pitchfork in hand. Again, Koester explains that Luke doesn’t undo John’s message of winnowing and guilt and brokenness, but he does show that it isn’t the full story. This symbol of winnowing is not new in Scripture. The language of separating the wheat from the chaff is all over prophetic literature in the Old Testament. God is a God of separating the holy from the unholy. But here is the difference between John’s message and Jesus’ message. Jesus understands that the problem with a pitchfork is that it turns out that it is easier to point it at others than at ourselves. When we ask “what shall I do?” we are on the right track. But more often than we would like to admit, in Scripture and the history of the Church, we have picked up the pitchfork to use against each other. And with pitchforks and torches in hand, people claiming to be Christians have ended up on murderous and violent crusades to kill the infidel, behind hoods and masks in order to burn crosses, and just this last week on the steps of the Capitol building in a show of violence and force that felt very distant from the message and purpose of Christ. There is a reason that Jesus doesn’t tell us to pick up the pitchfork, like John and others do. He invites us to another way.
The word for “repent” in Hebrew (“shuv”) means two things at once. It means to turn—to stop what you are doing and end that behavior. But it also means to return. To go back to the ways that we are created for. It is a turning from and a turning toward. And while John turns us from, Jesus turns us toward:
Jesus turns us toward the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, that power of the Holy Spirit in Luke 3 was meant to reveal to us who Jesus actually was. Jesus already had the power. But the Holy Spirit is announcing that power to the rest of us. Remember, the Holy Spirit is not born on Pentecost. The Church is announced by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But the Spirit had been around a lot longer than that. In fact, by the time we get to Chapter 3, the Holy Spirit has already been mentioned in Luke 8 separate times. Mary. Elizabeth. Zechariah. John twice. Simeon three times. And, by the way, the Spirit has been around a lot longer than that…already in these last few months, we have read about the Spirit of the Lord hovering over the waters at creation, coming upon the prophets Joel and Isaiah, residing upon the king David. Everyday people living everyday lives, until God has something extraordinary in store for them. The Spirit has been at work a long time, and here Jesus is turning us toward that work. Reminding us that John’s social balancing agenda cannot be accomplished by our power. Instead, it requires God’s power on earth in the form of the Spirit. This is not our to-do list, our social manipulation agenda, this is an opening to a power beyond us. John the Baptist gets it right…in part. But there is more than turning away…there is turning toward. And we cannot do it without the Spirit guiding and leading us.
Jesus turns us to prayer. When does the Holy Spirit make this appearance? When Jesus is praying. It is not a coincidence that Jesus is in prayer. Again, Luke loves to tell us how often Jesus prayed. It is part of his message to us in his Gospel that Jesus prayed, and that we should pray. Again, prayer is a part of what Jesus turns us toward. We cannot accomplish this plan of social change if we are not praying, listening, asking for wisdom, asking for power. Jesus sends us to prayer because he knows that prayer will center us…will change us. One of my favorite quotes from the Two-Way last week was just that: “Prayer doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t do something to you.” Jesus turns us toward that receptivity. Jesus turns us toward prayer.
Jesus turns us toward peace. How does the Spirit come? In the form of a dove. The dove has long been a symbol of peace and shalom. In Genesis, it is a symbol of restoration as Noah releases a dove and it brings back a leaf representing an end to the destruction, a shalom. Here, the dove shows up as a symbol of the Shalom that Jesus brings. It is a symbol in direct contrast to the symbol of the Roman eagle, which comes in fierce and violent and “guns blazing.” Jesus came to show us another way. Let me say this as clearly as I can: the way of Christ is not the pitchfork and burning torch. It is not the way of an angry mob demanding its way. It is not the way of violence. It is the way of Spirit, of prayer, of peace.
Because what Jesus seems to be less about than perhaps John and others were looking for is the separating…the winnowing…the wheat from the chaff. What Jesus seems mostly to be about is what happens next. Once there is a pile of kernels on the threshing floor, what will be done? Because it is that grain, those kernels, that seed that represents nourishment, sustenance, and the future of next year’s planting.
Jesus is more worried with the pile of seeds. To grow. To restore fortune. Salvation. To build. Perhaps that is what we should be about, as well.