John the Baptizer has strong words for religious leaders; but, in the kingdom of heaven, even the most vulnerable person need not be afraid. (Listen.)
Sin. For many of us it’s a dirty word. Because many of us are recovering Christians. We are recovering from churches which preached judgement and condemnation, triggering fear and shame. We are recovering from feeling manipulated; we are recovering from the threat of hell; we are recovering from bad theology. We are recovering from mincing moralism which taught us to be afraid of our own desires. We are recovering from abusive shepherds and church leaders who stole our innocence away. We are recovering from all the ways the word ‘sin’ has been wielded like a weapon, to make us compliant and afraid. And yet, we are here.
We are here, I suggest, because we are weighed down and exhausted. We are here, because we want something our lives cannot give. We are here, because no matter how much we buy and no matter how hard we strive and no matter how much we do, there is still a great emptiness inside. Our lives are full of desert winds and harsh thorns and terrible longing. We know sterility; we know disharmony; we know depression and doubt. We are here because we see the catastrophe of normality; we don’t want to sleepwalk through our lives. We are here because we know how often we are our own worst enemies.
And so we are here to acknowledge and repent of sin. Not the sin of wagging fingers and pursed-lip preachers and manipulative moralizers, but real sin. We are here to name and turn away from the powers and principalities which drive us; the messages which cajole us; the noise which issues from every media outlet; the culture which shapes us. We are here to reject the claim that our value is limited to what we do and what we buy; and that we can do anything and have everything and be everything to everyone. We are here to challenge the lie that we are all in competition; that bigger is always better; and that we are in ultimate control of our lives. And we are here because it is sin which spreads these lies and causes disconnection and estrangement: from ourselves, from each other, from the earth, and from God.
Perhaps the people of Jerusalem and Judea felt similarly. They, too, were surrounded by noise. There was the noise of the Pharisees preaching salvation through obedience to the law; and the noise of the Sadducees preaching salvation through purity of bloodline; and the noise of the Romans preaching salvation through colonization, military power and the protections of wealth.
And so, filled with divine discontent, the people poured out of the cities and towns, away from harsh preachers and self-righteous teachers, away from empty words and hollow rituals, away from narrowminded legalism and animal sacrifice, away from politicians and military commanders and consumer messaging and 24/7 living; and they headed to the wilderness.
What did they find there? A thundering prophet calling them to repent. Repent. It’s a simple word; it just means ‘turning’. Turning away from the lies, and turning towards God. And so they turned away from the noise and turned towards God and confessed their sins – all that wearied and confused them; all that tipped them in false directions and inclined them to destruction* – and they gratefully received the water bath which washes it all away.
‘But,’ said John, ‘one is coming who is more powerful than me. I baptize you with water … He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire. 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.’ (Matt 3:11-12).
Last week, we heard how Jesus will come like a thief in the night: how he’ll probably appear poor, scruffy and somewhat threatening; and how he’ll probably take something away. Here, it sounds like Jesus will come like an arsonist: flame thrower in hand, ready to burn and wreak havoc wherever he goes. For those of us recovering from hellfire preaching, for those who have been taught a violent, vindictive, wrathful God who becomes apoplectically enraged at the very idea of sin, this sounds both plausible and horrific.
It sounds particularly horrific since in our minds this description of Jesus is often linked with ideas of God’s wrath. John seems to thunder at the people coming for baptism: ‘You brood of vipers!’ he says, ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ And the wrath and the fire and the judgement and God get all mixed up in our minds: it’s difficult not to cower. But most of us here are grown ups: we can face those things which scare us. So let’s take a deep breath, and revisit the wrath passage: because I don’t think it’s something to worry about; it’s not even directed at you.
First, notice that the wrath named by John is not attributed to God. We know from history that the Pharisees and the Sadducees collaborated with the Romans, albeit in different ways; and we also know that the violence which smashes Israel and burns the fields and murders the people and obliterates the temple is Roman military violence. It’s the violence of empire: and within a few years of this episode it will devastate everything. So when John thunders of wrath, we should not assume the wrath is God’s. Instead, he’s demanding to know, ‘Who are your friends? Who warned you of the wrath to come? What do you know and how do you know it?’
Second, notice that John doesn’t direct his strong words towards everyone, but only to the Pharisees and Sadducees who are coming against baptism. Now, most English translations say they’re coming ‘for’ baptism; but I find this highly unlikely. The Greek preposition ‘epi’ can go either way; it can mean by, for, against; it simply indicates things in relationship. In those days, baptism was a cleansing activity which happened within the temple system, not down by the river; it was controlled by the high priests and the priestly class, not by random prophets going solo. Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees are the priestly class. They’re not going to let some crazy two-bit prophet baptize them freeform in a river. It’d be like some bishops coming to be baptized by little old me. So they’re coming against baptism, because by taking this rite and returning it to the people in a wild, unregulated space, John is undermining their influence and authority.
This brings me to the third point: John’s harsh words are not laid on the common people. Instead, he directs them to these religious leaders. For they are working with Rome to maintain their power, suppress revolution, and keep the population quiet; and they do this in part by tying up heavy burdens, laying them on people’s backs, and denying most people full participation in religious life. They regulate baptism; they limit who can eat the bread of the sanctuary; they will not lift a finger to show a kindness on the Sabbath day. They cordon off the holy of holies; and they block foreigners, eunuchs, menstruating women and many, many others from accessing the temple at all.
So John is enraged, not by the common people, but by religious authorities who are complicit in governmental oppression, and who use religion to dominate the masses and corral power to themselves.
To the popes who whipped up the populace, even children, to expand their territories through military invasion, colonization and genocide, and who dared to call these holy crusades: You brood of vipers!
To the churches and pastors which colluded with Nazi Germany and the mass murder of European Jewry; to Patriarch Kirill, who eggs on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and calls it divine will; to every evangelical pastor who conflates Christianity with violent nationalism: You slither of snakes!
To the priests and bishops who once negotiated with Victoria Police to overlook clergy abuse; to the religious orders who continue to block and quibble over calls for justice and restitution; to the denominations complicit in Indigenous child removal and forced assimilation: You quiver of cobras!
To the pastors who are paid brand ambassadors, who stoke discontent, competition and envy even among their followers, and who equate ministry with corporate management and Christianity with capitalism: You tangle of taipans!
To the ministers who place barriers around the communion table and refuse to eat with all comers; to those who lobby governments to limit who can be married, attend school or even be baked a wedding cake; to those who stir up exclusion, condemnation and violence against LGBTIQA+ folk and their allies: You rhumba of rattlesnakes!
These are strong words, and they are clearly directed at those who use religious power to dominate, exclude, harm and kill. To the rest of us, however, John is calling for repentance: because, he tells us, the kingdom of heaven has come near. It’s imminent. And according to Isaiah’s vision, when it arrives, ‘The breastfed babe shall play over the hole of the tiger snake, and the toddler shall put its hand, unharmed, into the nest of the copperhead.’ (Isaiah 11:8).
When God’s culture is at hand, even the most vulnerable people will no longer be harmed by those broods of vipers, those poisonous religious leaders who abuse their power and damage people’s faith. And so John wants us to get in on the action: because this is good, good news.
What, then, of Jesus wielding fire like an arsonist? Is it to hurt and destroy? I don’t think so: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 11:9). For Jesus to hurt and destroy would be inconsistent: ‘For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ says Jesus elsewhere, quoting the prophet Hosea.
John’s whole point is that Jesus is not like those religious leaders who collaborate with government or military to maintain their own power, privilege or funding; Jesus is not like those who try to limit access to God; Jesus is not like those who, for the sake of purity, exclude and sacrifice vulnerable people, destroying lives in the process. So Jesus’ fire is not the fire of invading armies, burning cities and smouldering bones; it’s not the fire of religious sacrifice and the stench of burning fat; it’s not the fire of some divine condemnation or punishment. Instead, Jesus comes to reap a harvest; and the fire is simply for the rubbish left behind when the good in us has been gleaned.
To people who usually buy their wheat winnowed, ground, sifted and baked, I’ll spell it out. Wheat and chaff don’t come from separate plants. It’s not that wheat grows on one plant, and chaff on another. Instead, you harvest a whole stalk, and you winnow it. Then you are left with two things: the good, nourishing, life-giving seed, that is, the wheat; and the husk, hull, shell, stalk, that is, the chaff. The chaff is the rubbish: and Jesus will burn the chaff so that there’s nothing left in his granary but healthy grain, ready for feeding people or sowing abundantly, or even for fermenting for joy.
I began by talking about sin: we end at the burning of chaff. So what might this chaff be? We’ll each have our own answers. However, to people who have been burned by the church, so to speak, I suggest Jesus is coming to burn away the residue: the toxic memories, harmful theologies, and pernicious lies. Jesus is coming to burn away your shame and fear and grief and anger, the internalized judgement and accusatory whispers which bubble up from within. Jesus is coming to burn away your self-loathing; your sense of unworthiness and futility and despair. Jesus is coming to burn away your striving, your grasping, your desperate need to prove yourself holier than the hypocrites. Jesus is coming to burn away all these things and more: because he loves you, he’s coming for the harvest, and there’s a sweet, sweet kernel in you that he seeks.
So turn away from overbearing institutions, fenced-off rites and rituals, and religious leaders who abuse their power; and come down to the river flowing through the wilderness, the margins, the wild spaces, where there is little wealth or resource but abundant spirit and grace. Come, because the kingdom of heaven is near. Come, turn once again to God, and confess everything which fragments and disrupts relationship: and may the Holy Harvester’s refining fire burn all the chaff away. Ω
From here, we moved into a time of confession and assurance of forgiveness.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10 (Year A Advent 2) given to Sanctuary on 4 December 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. *Paraphrases words from a prayer by Michael Leunig © 1991. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash.
Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, punk honeyeaters are feasting in the Mexican sage, and the poas are weighed down with burgundy-tinted seed. River water continues to stream into the ocean; offshore you can see the sharp line between murky silt and clear blue sea. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all. Amen.
If this post stimulated your thinking or restored your equilibrium, why not share it on social media? And why not flick a double shot coffee our way, to support our ongoing thinking, writing and praying. We are a small young faith community seeking to revitalize tired faith. Your contribution helps keep us awake.