Thrown Into the Air
There’s a lot going on in our gospel text today.
We have Jesus talking about vipers, trees and axes, wheat and chaff, water and fire.
What’s he trying to communicate to us?
Jesus sounds angry in this lesson, especially with the Pharisees and Sadducees, and maybe he is angry.
But I think it’s an anger that comes from passion and urgency.
It’s like when you scold your three-year-old after she almost runs out in the street—it’s an anger born of fear and love.
You so want this person to be safe, there is no other way to communicate the intensity of your desire but through seemingly harsh words.
That’s how Jesus feels about us.
Jesus does not want us stuck in the same old patterns that keep us small and selfish and fearful.
He does not want us to live lives dominated by suspicion and cynicism and a vague, aching sense deep inside of us that there must be more to life than what we’re experiencing.
Jesus wants us to undergo radical change, stomach-churning transformation, having the rug pulled out from under us in the most disorienting way, because that is what it takes to grow up into the full stature of Christ.
All of Jesus’ images in our gospel today are about profound disruption, and I’m not sure that’s a message we’re all too keen on hearing right now.
We sometimes have this romantic notion of Advent that’s rather unrealistic.
We talk about Advent as a season of waiting, and picture Mary as serene and unruffled as she always appears in Christian art, peacefully and reverently anticipating the birth of her son.
Anyone who’s ever been pregnant can tell you that “peaceful” and “reverent” are the last things you’re feeling during those nine months, not to mention serene or unruffled.
Particularly by T-minus three weeks, which is where we are today, you are more likely to feel as if an alien being has colonized your uterus, and you no longer own your own body.
I hate to break it to you, folks, but spiritual transformation, real soul change, is just as messy, inconvenient, uncomfortable and downright awful as pregnancy can often be.
It’s got a great endpoint, but it sure can be no fun getting there.
This is what Jesus is trying to communicate with his unsettling images in our gospel today.
Advent is not a time of waiting by twiddling our thumbs.
Advent is a time of preparation for radical change, for the uprooting of our very lives.
Where does that preparation begin? With repentance.
Remember that the root of the word repentance means to turn around, to do an about-face.
It is to look somewhere different, to reorient ourselves, to redirect our paths from heading in our own direction to heading in God’s direction.
And Jesus describes that process to us with fascinating images.
I think the key to understanding what Jesus wants to accomplish in our lives is to know that none of these images—the axe at the root of the tree, the refiner’s fire, the winnowing fork—is punitive.
Jesus is not out to get us.
He’s not here to cut us down to size, to humiliate us and make us lament our total depravity.
Take a second look at these images. They’re not about destruction.
They are generative.
They are about creating change that brings new life.
They are about growth and birth and beauty.
Consider Jesus’ statement here: “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
Think of this in terms of Michelangelo’s process of sculpting.
He claimed to see the art within in unhewn block of stone.
His job was to free the art trapped within the uncarved rock.
That is what Jesus is doing in our lives.
He sees the creation that you are at your core, the person who lives with faithfulness and generosity and unchecked joy in relying on God, and his task is to liberate that self from the layers of falsehood trapping it within you.
Of all the disorienting images Jesus uses to describe how he will help us prepare for his arrival in our lives, one of the least familiar is the winnowing fork.
It can also be translated as winnowing fan, and I had to look it up to find out what it is.
This was an agricultural tool, still used today in some societies, that helps in a process called wind winnowing.
After the grain is threshed, which is when the grain or seed is loosened from the husks and straw, the useful grain must be separated from the useless husks and straw, also called the chaff. That separation is called winnowing.
Wind winnowing is very simple.
You scoop up a mound of wheat and chaff with your winnowing fork or fan from your pile of threshed grain, and you throw it into the air.
The wind blows through it and the very light chaff blows away, while the heavier grain falls back to the ground.
Now consider this in spiritual terms: Jesus is throwing us up into the air, and the wind of the Holy Spirit blows through our lives.
Disoriented, thrown out of our comfortable categories and patterns, we are suspended in this season, up in the air, feeling like there’s no ground under our feet.
But while we’re hanging in mid-air, feeling so insecure and afraid, here comes this cleansing breeze of fresh air blowing through our lives.
The Holy Spirit sweeps through us and clears away all useless things, all distractions, all false priorities, all misplaced attention.
We fall back to the earth, secure again where we started, but cleansed by the Holy Spirit in repentance.
And once the wheat has been separated from the chaff, what happens to it?
Now it is ready to be used, to be made into bread that will sustain others.
Was that separation process a punishment, like we feared it might be when we first read Jesus’ words?
No! It was disorienting and bit a scary to be thrown up into the air like that, but it was only by being lifted by Jesus out of our old ruts and habits that the wind of the Holy Spirit could blow away all our self-protections, letting our true value shine through.
Being brought to repentance by the Holy Spirit, far from being a punishment, is a liberation.
It frees us from our self-imposed limitations and lets us become who we truly are at our core, people who can give sustenance to others.
It’s so easy to already feel unsettled by the events happening in politics, in wars around the globe, all the heady rush of conflict and upheaval in the outside world.
Now we’re being told that our spiritual lives will be turned upside down as well? How is that good news?
The difference is that Jesus is turning us inside out in love, in faith at our potential to grow, in joy at our welcoming him into our hearts, no matter how tentatively.
This disruption of our lives is Jesus the artist chipping away at us, molding us, shaping us, rebuilding us and revealing the work of art that is our heart transformed to love more freely.
It’s okay to feel a little intimidated and unsettled, but think of it as that feeling when you reach the top of the hill on a rollercoaster and you’re about to take the plunge.
You feel out of control and in danger, but you know you’re safe and in for the ride of your life.
So strap in to be winnowed.
Jesus is coming with his refiner’s fire, his baptism of Holy Spirit and flame, but remember, it is not punishment!
In fact, consider one more remarkable fact I unearthed in my research about winnowing. The winnowing fork, Jesus’ tool that he plans to use in our gospel, is also called a winnowing cradle.
This implement that we might fear, that is going to sift our very souls, is a crib, a place of rest and care for a newborn.
Our fragile and vulnerable spiritual growth, new and so easily crushed amid our habitual priorities and sins, is taken up by Jesus and cradled.
Even as winnowing means being thrown up into the air and blown about by the Holy Spirit, the tool Jesus uses to do it is a cradle, the safest and most loving of all resting places.
And what better image could we have for Advent than the winnowing cradle?
It at once promises upheaval and love, disruption and peace, disorientation and new life.
And it speaks so clearly to what we’re preparing for.
The next cradle we see will be a manger, holding a baby whose life, death, and resurrection will bring forth the exact same life-giving contradictions: upheaval and love, disruption and peace, disorientation and new life.
If we say yes to the winnowing cradle now, we will be able to approach the manger cradle truly open to how Jesus will use us to usher in peace on earth, goodwill toward all people.
Are you scared?
I’m scared. But I’m more scared of staying the same than I am of being changed.
So come with me and let’s do something reckless.
Let’s open ourselves to the axe at the root of the tree and say yes to the refiner’s fire.
Let’s go all in for Advent.
Let’s get winnowed.
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