Wheat. Chaff. Alley Trees. Shoot of Jesse.

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Advent 2
December 4 2016
Matthew 3: 1-12

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " 4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

It’s the 8th annual John the Baptist Second Sunday of Advent tradition to eat some locusts and wild honey together. I know that sounds cult like. But why not engage another one of our senses as we think about these words from John. I put some wild honey for your bread and some sweet and savory locust snacks downstairs to be enjoyed along with the soup after worship.

John’s my favorite. Because I love the weirdos and like speaks to like. He wore weird clothes and ate weird food and said things that made people nervous. I imagine that when he was growing up no one wanted to invite John to their birthday party because he would say things like, “Yes, thank you I would like cake. And also, repent you brood of vipers.” 

There were others—like John—who said things that made people nervous. People claiming to be the Messiah. Others who were itinerant preachers. Others who gathered a crowd and said things that people listened to. Some snake charmers, cult leaders, sooth sayers. 

But no one like John. He was different because he told the truth. And it was the sort of truth that would eventually make people free—but first it was going to mess them up quite a bit. Even the religious people came to hear what John was saying. The professionals—the super faithful people who spent their lives tending Scripture and faith practices. The priests. The church folks. Me. You. John had a word from God for everyone and the word was this: bear fruit worthy of repentance.

This sticks out. Because it seems that there is some work to do before we even get to the repentance part. Bearing fruit—inner work—that leads to repentance. That’s an invitation to being open for a change of heart. The openness has to come first. Let that settle in for a minute. Bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Might your heart be ready change? Might you feel yourself open to that direction?

John leaves us with strong farming imagery. Since I’m just fresh off the ND potato truck—I just eat that sort of imagery right up. 

“Jesus winnowing fork is in his hand, and Jesus will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Wheat. My family also grows wheat. My husband spends his time turning wheat into bread for me to eat. I’m never far from the role of wheat. Wheat grows on long stems. When it’s harvested, it has to be crushed so that the outer shell—the husk—might be discarded so that we can get to the kernel. The useable part. That shell—the outer husk is a protective layer that is useful for a while. And then, it isn’t. It’s discarded. It becomes dry papery husks that easily blow away in the wind. During wheat harvest—the chaff is what blows out the backside of the combine. It fills the air—this dust. Makes the air hazy. It smells like bread and dirt and heat. 

Outer layers.

Think about the outer layers around us. 

What have we convinced ourselves that is protecting us? 

What has outlived it’s purpose in our lives? What is ready to be crushed? Burned away? Might your heart be open and ready to discard a few layers?

John invites us to consider what that might feel like. Like any change—it will be unsettling for a bit. Because we are used to those layers of security. But maybe they aren’t serving us so well anymore.

And, like any change—If we can hang in there long enough—through the uncomfortable part—something will be uncovered. Something new will spring forth. Because that’s how God works. Jesus is always working near the tender spots. The places that need healing. We will feel so exposed and naked—like turtles without shells—like wheat without it’s hard outer shell.

But then a shoot will grow. 

The Prophet Isaiah tells us a shoot will grow.  A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on you, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

A shoot will grow. 

Like all those annoying feral trees in every single alley in this city. Up through the cracks in the pavement. We cut them back. And they come back. Relentlessly. Jesus is like that. Relentlessly coming up through hard places—bringing about life. 

Many of you feel like this country has lost it’s freaking mind. That we need to change everything. John the Baptist is asking us to begin here. To start close in. And trust that God will bring forth a shoot.

Want to change the world? Start close in. And watch for the shoot.

“Start Close In”

by David Whyte

Start close in,

don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step you don't want to take.

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

Start with your own


give up on other

people's questions,

don't let them

smother something


To find

another's voice


your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear


to another.

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don't follow

someone else's

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don't mistake

that other

for your own.

Start close in,

don't take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step you don't want to take.