WHEN it was first proclaimed, the message of Isaiah addressed the immediate future for God’s people, specifically God’s removing his adverse judgement upon them. This was not because they deserved it. It was a sovereign act of divine will. Judgement brings home their human vulnerability, but God’s rescue will turn their shame into praise.
Centuries later, John the Baptiser came with a prophecy of impending judgment, but this time the focus was on individuals, not a whole nation. Correspondingly, the proper reaction to his prophecy was also individual rather than corporate. Each person must repent for themselves. Whether individual or corporate, however, repentance did not mean an act of will, but a change of attitude and behaviour.
If you were to ask people at random what a winnowing fork is, they might have some difficulty explaining. But, thanks to Google, a single image clarifies all. Someone digs a big fork into a pile of wheat, lifts it high, and shakes. The wind blows away the chaff (another tricky term in a post-agricultural Church), while the grain (which is heavier) falls to the ground to be gathered. It must have been a familiar image — perhaps even a comforting one — in Bible times, but John uses it as an image of separation and decision. It’s time to make a choice: who is on the Lord’s side?
If Advent as a whole is about judgement, this Sunday is about the consequence of judgement, namely the division that must then take place. Winnowing forks mean separation, but, if division is followed by condemnation, the aftermath of separation could mean — for some people — pitchforks instead.
Unity is a powerful idea in Christian minds; so divisions between people can be troubling, even when sanctioned by scripture. There is the axe ready to cut down any tree that does not bear good fruit. When we add in the idea of an unquenchable fire for burning up the chaff, the sense of threat increases. Even baptism — which for Christians is the sacrament of welcome, of inclusion — takes on a frightening aspect as John the Baptiser warns the crowds that Jesus will baptise with the Spirit . . . and fire.
John the preacher has his arguments ready and, like any performer seeking to win over a crowd, he anticipates objections to his message and deals with them, before any hecklers can sway the crowd in another direction. He is not a stranger, bringing a missionary gospel to foreign peoples. This makes it easier to tailor his message appropriately. In fact he knows exactly what stands in the way of their taking him seriously, and he goes straight for it: “Do not say ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” They cannot hide their individual sins behind a faceless corporate identity.
In a stable society, there are established mechanisms for shifting wealth and status within kinship groups from one generation to the next. But when established norms crumble, power is up for grabs by the person with most strength and skill to impose their will. Something like this may be in the back of John’s mind when he voices the crowd’s self-satisfied defence to knock it down. He himself has no time for claims based on status. Instead, he pictures for them the God on whose protection they are complacently relying, and reminds them what he is capable of.
There could be no clearer proof of the sovereign will of the Creator God than his ability to take stones and make them into children of Abraham. He had already created a woman from the rib of a man (Genesis 2.21), not to mention creating everything that exists — and not by turning one kind of material into another, but by making something that exists out of non-existence. That is majestic divinity.
In complete contrast to this awe-inspiring divine judgment, John’s message on how to prepare could not be more ordinary. Help other people. Share. Don’t be greedy. It fits well with the message at the end of Philippians (4.6-7), which a kind Christian friend once gave to me, printed on a green leather bookmark, before my first undergraduate exams. It did not stop me from being anxious. But it did remind me comfortingly of the bigger picture of which I am part: that God rejoices over me with gladness, and that he will renew me in his love.