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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

You Are the Chaff - 01/13/2019

One of the things that keeps me coming back to these scriptures of ours, time and time again – besides my call as pastor here – is that no matter how many times you read or hear them, you can almost always count on being able to discover something new.

I have to tell you I’m very thankful for that, especially when it comes to texts like this one that contain what can be understood as messages of hellfire and brimstone.

I have felt bothered and a little alarmed by what John says about how the Messiah will conduct his ministry when he comes. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” (Luke 3.16b) John says at first when asked if maybe he is the Messiah. Okay, we can get behind that. We know this story, so we know that fire will come into play again at Pentecost, for instance, the fire of the Holy Spirit that will alight over the heads of the followers of the resurrected Jesus. That fire would bring the gifts of the Spirit they needed to carry the ministry from there.

We remember the pillar of fire leading the Hebrew people to the Promise Land. Fire can be a positive and powerful symbol of God’s activity in the world.

And then we hear John say, “‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, (John) proclaimed the good news to the people.” (3.17-18)

Even as I child, I remember hearing that and thinking, “God, please let me be wheat. I don’t want to be that chaff!” This imagery frightened me. I didn’t want that fork scooping me up and throwing me into an unquenchable fire. What if I couldn’t be good enough? And even if I could, what about the people I loved and cared about? Like my dad, he wasn’t always so good; my grandparents, they seemed to bicker a lot; or John Lennon, I loved him, but I worried he might be more chaff then wheat.

This really bothered me and right up until recent times, I think I would have to admit. I’ve preached on this story of the baptism of Jesus several times now, and I’ve always stayed a safe distance from this unquenchable fire and the hellish images it might bring to mind.

But this time around, I’ve been able to wrestle with this idea of chaff and unquenchable fire, like Jacob wrestling with God down by the river, and I’ve actually come to a different understanding on it.

I think one of the reasons this text bristled me so much in the past is because the kind of eternal judgement it seemed to portend. If Jesus was coming to slam God’s people rather violently onto a big floor in a barn somewhere …

… if Jesus was coming to separate the good people represented by the wheat, from the bad people, represented the chaff, and then toss those bad people into this terrible fire that never stopped burning, never stopped consuming, …

… if that was what he was coming to do, well, that didn’t seem to match up with what Jesus actually did and said while he was here on earth.

So I looked at it a little more closely, and it doesn’t match up.

John is talking here about this other person of God … THE OTHER PERSON OF GOD … and how when he comes, he will have that winnowing fork and a whole lot of upper body strength at the ready and there will be no chance for that chaff to hide away among all those glistening and nutritious heads of wheat. It will be separated out and thrown into the fire. Problem solved. Eternally.

So what happens if we compare that imagery with what Jesus actually does when he comes among the people as a rabbi and healer?

Our gospel writer gives us a first glimpse of this when, at the very beginning of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus goes to his home congregation in Nazareth.

 “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4.16-20) Then they tried to throw him off a cliff.

So much for all that upper body strength and fire and formidable farming tools.

And that got me thinking, what if the chaff and wheat doesn’t represent good people and bad people? And if that’s true, then what does it represent?

So here’s the part where God brought a video to show me during that wrestling match down by the river.

Some of you may remember that as part of our TN@C lineup I offered a Marriage Renewal Experience this past week. Well, first of all, no one came.

As a side note, this is something I have noticed since I started full time ministry. It has been my experience that when opportunities for married people like this are offered, people don’t come. I mean, even I am guilty of this. And it seems illogical. In a culture where so many of us end up with failed marriages, it seems like a 2-hour marriage renewal experience might draw some folks. I might try to offer it again, so keep that in mind. The material I used to put that little program together said it this way … you wouldn’t expect a car to keep doing what it’s supposed to do without checking the oil once in awhile … you wouldn’t expect your body to keep going if you didn’t give it food and water regularly. So why wouldn’t we feed and do a little maintenance on a relationship we commit to for the rest of our lives? Just some food for thought.

So, while I was getting ready for this marriage renewal experience, I came upon this Ted Talk called “Say Your Truths, and Seek Them in Others” by a woman named Elizabeth Lesser. She is co-founder and senior adviser of Omega Institute, a large adult-education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality and creativity. She started her career through, as a midwife … helping families deliver their babies in the home.

It’s a really good Ted Talk and one little part of it completely opened this text up in a new way. (Video)


“ … each one of us comes into this world with a unique worth. When I looked into the face of a newborn, I caught a glimpse of that worthiness, that sense of unapologetic selfhood, that unique spark. I use the word "soul" to describe that spark, because it's the only word in English that comes close to naming what each baby brought into the room.

Every newborn was as singular as a snowflake, a matchless mash-up of biology and ancestry and mystery. And then that baby grows up, and in order to fit into the family, to conform to the culture, to the community, to the gender, that little one begins to cover its soul, layer by layer. We're born this way, but --

But as we grow, a lot of things happen to us that make us ... want to hide our soulful eccentricities and authenticity. We've all done this. Everyone in this room is a former baby -- with a distinctive birthright. But as adults, we spend so much of our time uncomfortable in our own skin, like we have ADD: authenticity deficit disorder. But not those babies -- not yet. Their message to me was: uncover your soul and look for that soul-spark in everyone else. It's still there. (

As I wrestled with this text this week, the images of those babies kept returning to my mind. As did this idea of those layers we all pile on top of that soul spark God created in each of us go through life.

What if those layers are the chaff? … everything we hide about our true selves, our sins, sins against us?

What if what is really happening on that threshing floor is this: What the Messiah has come to do, the thing that separates him from the rest of us baptizers and teachers and healers and counselors, is that finally in Jesus those layers are cleared away and burned up once and for all. In clearing that chaff from our souls, we shimmer like a field full of glistening golden wheat heads reaching for the sunshine.

It happens to many of us the first time in baptism. And it happens to us when we return to that threshing floor and are separated from our chaff each and every time we repent and are released from the prison of sin. It happens to us at this table when we take into our own bodies and souls the body and blood of the one who made this our reality.

The good news, as it turns out, is that we are the chaff after all and Jesus has come, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

And so with many other exhortations, we go from here – proclaiming the good news to the people. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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