This week, the world lost a great leader, Nelson Mandela – something of a modern day prophet. He was a man not afraid to stand up and speak out for what he believe. And even though he served nearly 30 years in prison, he was able to effect great changes in South Africa, was primary in ridding the country of the travesty of Apartheid, and served as their first black president. He was not afraid to pay the price to prepare the way for a better life for the people of South Africa. This is not unlike what John the Baptizer was doing in his day.
John the Baptizer proclaimed, “Prepare the way of the Lord – make straight his paths.” This means to go out and make the road smooth; get rid of the potholes and the rocks. Straighten out the curves. This is what you did when you knew the king was coming – you prepared the road for his arrival.
John is using this metaphorically – the path that the Lord wants cleared, is the road to your heart.
The ministry of John was a bridge between the Old Testament prophetic word and Jesus, the incarnate Word. The Word of God, once uttered by prophets, now lived in human form. John’s call to repentance precedes Jesus’ call to new life. It’s about getting rid of those things in our life that separate us – that draw us away from God.
You might be able to think back to various storms, hurricanes that leave piles of debris all over your yard and in your driveways – tree branches, parts of houses, lawn furniture, other belongings; that is quite often what the road to our heart looks like – littered with the debris of our life.
That debris might be the stings and arrows that have assaulted us – abandonment and betrayal are two of the big ones – being so hurt that it affects our whole life. And then there are the rocks and potholes that have caused us to stumble and fall – the addictions and temptations we have given in to. The human condition – self-centeredness – is being so involved in ourselves and our own problems that we fail to reach out to others.
In the last verse of our Gospel lesson today we hear John speak of Jesus saying, “His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear the threshing floor and will gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Too many people have a simplistic view of this and see judgment, either you are wheat (good) and get into heaven, or you are chaff (bad) and you burn in hell. But I don’t think this is at all what John is alluding to. If you look at the elements of this story you will find evidence that John means something different.
It starts by understanding that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Wheat is a small grain, the fruit of the plant, and the chaff is the light covering that covers the grain. The chaff is stripped off the grain by beating it or tramping on it, leaving both lying together on the threshing floor – most often the open ground. This winnowing fork has been translated by various versions of the Bible as a fork, or a shovel, or a fan. It is an instrument used to toss the mixture of grain and chaff into the air allowing the wind (or a fan) to blow away the light chaff leaving the heavier grain to be gathered for storing until it is used for making bread.
The chaff and the wheat are part of the same plant and I am now given to understand that they represent two parts that make up every person. The wheat represents that which is good, that part of us that is holy and godly, that connects us to God. And the chaff represents that which is less than holy, that which separates us from God. It is that debris in our life that needs to be purged from the pathway to our hearts.
That which is not of God cannot exist in the presence of God – There is something good in every person – but in all people, that good exists alongside that which is not of God. Jesus has come to ignite a fire within us that will help us cast off that part of us that cannot exist in the presence of God. It will be blown away like chaff from the wheat. Removing the chaff from our life is necessary for us to be able to stand before God.
We are in the season of Advent – it is a season when we are preparing our hearts to receive Jesus. Pray with me, “Lord, what are the things that you are purging from my life?” What are the things that I need to let go of, in order for my heart to be ready to receive Jesus when he comes? Lord, help me to prepare the way in my life, in my family, in my heart that I may with gladness welcome you and rejoice at your return. Amen.