We Need a Good Winnowing

Reflections on Texts for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year C

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 3:7-18), John the Baptizer tells us that the Coming One will winnow people, giving us an ultimate baptism of wind and fire.

It is a terrible mistake to think that this text signals a burning of “them” and a saving of “us.”

Such “us-them thinking” is devilish and destructive, as has been documented in blood in human history. Sarah Lipton provides us with one more documentation of this in ink in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Magazine essay, “The Words That Killed Medieval Jews.” http://nyti.ms/1IJyFvk  It shows that, contrary to specific intention of Christian leaders, their tolerance of the evolution of hate-filled rhetoric regarding Jews in the early centuries of the second Christian millennium coincided with the outbreak of horrible violence against that community. Christians who once lived together in peace with their Jewish neighbors now attacked them and saw them as monsters.

It was “us versus them” thinking run amuck.

Those who use such language today against immigrants and Muslims may not specifically call for violence, but their polarizing language fosters it.

The man the Baptizer pointed to brought us a baptism of fiery Spirit that creates a winnowing of the chaff from our own hearts so good grain can grow. The process is previewed in John’s interaction with the people who came to him. They are not called to become spiritual radicals—desert dwelling ascetics like John–but are instead to be good human beings: share the excess coat with the coatless, be fair in your dealings, don’t extort—don’t oppress—be a mensch!

Our First Lesson, Zephaniah 3:14-20 gives us added insight into the gospel at work. The prophet passes on an oracle from God to people who know what shame is. Now shame is a plentiful commodity in this world and it provides fertile ground for the devilish work of polarizing people into “us” and “them.” When people feel down and out one of the ways up is to look for scapegoats. Demagogues then come who say, “They are the ones who pushed you down. They caused your shame.”

In America today, these demagogues are the ones who say “Everything would be fine if it weren’t for the immigrants sucking up the social services, taking your jobs and driving up your taxes.” It’s all about the liberals or the socialists or maybe it’s the right-wingers or the police or the abortionists or the Muslims. But its always the other guy who is the problem. And the solution is to fear and hate, and then to trust the demagogue—never is the solution to do the complex, rational and realistic things we all need to work on.

Zephaniah addresses our shame in another way. “The Lord is in your midst,” he declares. We don’t need a new messiah. We already have our God. And this is what we must trust in. There are many ways this God’s presence cancels out our shame. He gives victory, renews us in love, exults over us, removes disaster, saves the lame, gathers the outcast, etc. And the real God does all this for all of us.

The prophets and Jesus heap up antidotes to shame. We don’t need false messiahs who promise an end to shame through their macho language about how they are going to change everything and bomb our enemies into oblivion and make us great again by the strength of their personalities.

In these unsettled times we need to be on guard against the kind of fear and hate-filled rhetoric that has often sparked orgies of violence in our world. We need to hear the Apostle’s call to let the peace of God, which is beyond the scope of our natural understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4.7).

May the fire and wind of God winnow the fear and hatred from our hearts and from our national character.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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