Advent is about preparation.
Advent is about staying awake and alert.
Advent is about the in-breaking of God into this realm.
Advent is about change.
All of these themes are evident in today's gospel reading.
After the genealogy, the annunciation to Joseph, the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and their safe return to Nazareth, chapter 3 of Matthew opens with John the Baptist out in the wilderness being . . . well . . . John the Baptist. Christians believe he is whom Isaiah spoke of as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. John is telling those around him, and us today, that the kingdom of heaven has come near and we must prepare for its imminent arrival. Advent is about preparation.
Part of our preparation is to stay awake and alert. When we prepare for anything, we do it with an alertness beyond the normalcy of everyday life. When we prepare for a trip, we make sure the proper bags are packed, weather reports checked, reservations made, etc. Before the first football game of every season, I examine my bag much more thoroughly and alertly than later games. The kingdom of heaven is at hand and John is asking us to be awake and alert because this is something out of the ordinary for us. Advent is about staying awake and alert.
When we live like the kingdom of heaven is near, and when we prepare for that reality, then we are more likely to see the advent of Jesus as the in-breaking of God into this realm. Jesus becomes not just another spiritual guide with a lot of good ideas, but the incarnation of God himself in human form. The kingdom of heaven becomes not some far off pie in the sky bye and bye place we ascend to upon our death, but it becomes present in the here and now as a fulfillment of the goodness of creation. And the miraculous events recorded in the bible and in the life of Christ are not supernatural suspensions of physical laws, but the natural completion of God's laws which originally made all this good. Advent is about the in-breaking of God into our realm.
Advent is also about change. Advent is more than chocolate-filled calendars counting down to Christmas. Advent is more than knowing how many shopping days are left. Advent is a call for us to change, sometimes deeply, how we live our lives in preparation for the in-breaking of God into this realm. And nowhere is that call to change more explicit than in today's gospel.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” In other words, change.
This is about staying awake and alert and seeing what's coming. This is about preparing for the coming of the Lord. This is about seeing the in-breaking of God into the here and now. This is about change.
When we hear these words of John and what follows – the ax is lying at the root of the tree, his winnowing fork is in his hand, the wheat will be gathered in and the chaff burned with unquenchable fire – we might become afraid. This isn't the preparation for the beautiful creche set and the cute baby Jesus I had in mind.
One way to read this passage is through a very simplistic lens – get right with God or be forever burned. That is not a very appealing image to present to people; nor is it a very effective form of evangelism. As someone once said, “We are not in the business of scaring the hell out of people.”
To be honest, I used to worry about this passage with all kinds of self-doubt and fear that I might be the chaff that was forever burned. But then I made an interesting discovery: wheat and chaff are not two different things, but two parts of a whole.
That which God calls us to be, that which God created us to be, our true selves that bear the image of God and the marks of Christ, is the wheat. It will be this which God gathers into his granary.
Chaff, on the other hand, is the outer husk that protects the wheat, and it is what we have created. The chaff is the barrier we have put up to protect our inner selves. The chaff is what we use to keep God from getting too close. The chaff is what we show to the world to protect us from getting hurt, from loving too much, for caring more than we think we should. The chaff is how we want the world to see us.
But God doesn't want the shell of ourselves that we have created. God wants the goodness of his creation. God wants to break through our barriers. God wants us to be open, honest, and exposed. God doesn't want a blustery caricature used to shield us, God wants our true selves given over to him. This is the chaff, our self-made outer coat, which God will burn with unquenchable fire.
For some of us that will be traumatic and maybe a bit painful. I think it depends on how thick our chaff has become and how hard we want to hold onto it. But this passage shouldn't be seen as a condemnation as much as a promise that God will ultimately change us into that for which we have been created in the first place.
On this second Sunday of Advent, may you spend time preparing for the coming of the Lord.
May you stay awake and alert.
May you see God breaking into our realm in new and unexpected ways.
May you be open to change, removing more of your chaff to expose more of the wheat God has created in you.