Sunday, February 24, 2019

Fork and Furnace: Sermon on Matthew 3:11-12

The day was a warm one. It was near the end of May or the start of June, and Araunah the Jebusite sat with his sons on a set of wooden threshing sledges that the oxen were pulling 'round and 'round in an indentation carved in the rock atop Mount Moriah. He gazed down toward the south at the walled city. Jerusalem. Araunah used to be a big kahuna there, in the old days. Before David and his Israelites came crashing in and took the city by force. Still, as years had passed, Araunah minded less and less. The Israelites had been kinder to the Jebusites than expected. And Araunah still had space all his own. So here he was, at his threshing floor on the mount on a warm day, his four sons helping him grind down the wheat.

The wheat crackled as the threshing sledge, coated with sharp teeth on the bottom, dragged over it, ripping the grains and the straw, loosening the connections. And so it went for a long time. Araunah and his sons talked about the old days. They talked about the troubles in the land. The plague, mostly. It had just started, but a few thousand Israelites had died, and the epidemic seemed to be spreading their way. Take every precaution. When the threshing seemed at its end, Araunah figured the day was yet young, and they might as well turn to the next job: winnowing. So as his sons led the oxen and the sledges off to the side, Araunah grabbed his winnowing fork, a nice implement perfectly designed to hoist and toss the damaged wheat. Which is exactly what Araunah did. His sons grabbed a few spare winnowing forks and did the same.

They tossed wheat into the air, and being atop a mountain, the wind above was stiff and strong. It carried the lighter bits – the protective outer coating of the wheat stalk – off to the side. But the heavier grains themselves, they mostly just landed back on the bare rock of the threshing floor. Fine way to separate the parts you could eat from the parts you really oughtn't. Separate the wheat grain from the useless chaff. And so, beneath the gleaming sun, they tossed their wheat and let the wind do its job.

Until Araunah heard one of his sons yell. “Dad! Dad! Look!” You see, they were hard at work beneath the gleaming sun. But which sun was suddenly the question. For it looked like there were two, almost in alignment – but the closer one, on further squinting inspection, had the shape of an angry swordsman, looming right over them. A warrior from the sky-realms, poised between heaven and earth, massive beyond compare, with sword drawn and flaring and pointed south toward Jerusalem, waiting to strike – and its feet were so nearly overhead! Araunah's sons, as they saw it through the falling grains from their winnowing, began to scream and dive for the nearest outcroppings, little nooks in the rock. Araunah stood, mesmerized, yet fearing to look lest he go blind.

But he tore his sight away when he heard an approaching ruckus from the south. He looked, and up the hill marched another surprising figure, clad in rough sackcloth, and in his train a line of elders and linen-clad priests. It was David, the king of Israel, the one normally arrayed in gold and fine robes – but not this day. And Araunah was no less flummoxed by a royal visitation than he was by the divine one. For Araunah knew from experience: a king in his power didn't come out to you; he sent word for you to come to him. But here David walked, right toward Araunah's threshing floor. So, disregarding what loomed just above, he ran southward off the rock and fell to his knees, his arms, his face at David's feet.

David, for his part, was distracted. Partly by memories. He was headed, after all, to a threshing floor. As a boy, he used to run around his family's threshing floor near Bethlehem. The same one where his Great-Grandpa Boaz got a marriage proposal from Great-Grandma Ruth. He knew the story of the threshing floor well. But now on his mind was also the present angelic menace looming above. He never should have given the order to recount the available military men in Israel without running it by God first. But this – this he could not bear. The plague had been upon the land, weapon in the hands of a destroying angel. And now the angel was standing in the sky, sword ready to exterminate all Jerusalem in a fell swoop. David had begged God to let the punishment fall on him alone – to make David sick unto death, but Israel healthy. He was ready to die for his people. No sooner had he said that than his prophet chaplain had come with a word – a word to go out to the threshing floor below the angel's feet and worship Yahweh there. So off he went, and other leaders followed.

Araunah was perplexed by the reason for David's visit, but David explained. “To buy the threshing floor from you, in order to build an altar to the LORD, that the plague may be averted from the people.” Araunah was scared, too. If this meant a financial loss to stay healthy, so be it. So he offered David the threshing floor for his own – said he'd even give David his oxen, and the wooden yoke between them, and the threshing sledges, too, so that David had wood to burn and meat to offer. A gift, one blue-blood to another, for the greater good. But David said no. No, his was the sin – his had to be the price. It'd do no good to make a play at religion that cost David nothing. So he hinted he'd be back for the whole mountain later, but for now, he offered fifty pieces of silver for the threshing floor and its contents. Sold. Araunah hoped David's God would be satisfied.

There, in the very spot where Araunah and his sons had been threshing and winnowing their grain, David piled up an altar. He wasted no time. The priests butchered the oxen before their eyes, hauling hunks of meat over to the altar. And they offered it up, a sacrifice, pleading for peace as a messenger of heaven's war loomed ready to strike. Araunah watched, Araunah listened, as there on the edge of the threshing floor, David knelt on the grain and straw and prayed, begging his God to make clear whether it was enough. Araunah's eyes squinted aloft, as the swordsman in the sky took a step back. He readied his sword. But then, a flash! Fire, like a molten liquid, poured down, seemingly from the sun. It streamed through the sky, piercing and enveloping the staunch wind, and landed on the altar, cooking, no, incinerating the meat of the cattle. Offering accepted. Above, Araunah and David watched together as the angel sheathed its sword – and vanished. Araunah's sons and a few elders couldn't help but yell and cheer. For their parts, the two men in the heart of the action breathed sighs of relief in synchronicity. Instinctively, Araunah helped David gather grain off the rock bed – grain roasted already by the intensity of the nearby flames – and carry it to the altar, where the priests added oil, salt, and frankincense. A grain offering. A thank-you to David's God, who turned away his wrath and gave health to the city. Signaled by fire to consume at the threshing floor where Araunah once winnowed, separating the wheat from the chaff.

That's the last story tacked onto the end of Second Samuel. You can read it there, 2 Samuel 24, and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21. Chronicles makes clear the important detail we might otherwise miss. Later on, David's son Solomon went back to Araunah's old threshing floor, where David's altar still stood. And Solomon made the place bigger. And on that spot, on the threshing floor, that's where Solomon built something great. The Temple of the LORD. Over nine centuries later, an angel came back to Araunah's threshing floor, and passed along a message to a priest named Zechariah. The message was about Zechariah's future son, a boy named John who'd grow up baptizing people in the River Jordan. It was on Araunah's threshing floor that word of his life first came to his papa.

And when John preached to the crowds one day, the crowds were impressed. John seemed the greatest thing around – “among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11) – but John told them that, no matter how impressive he might seem, he was only the opening act before Another who was on his way. John was the messenger, the herald; but the real deal was coming. The Stronger One – that's who John hinted was on his way. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John told the crowd, “but he who is following me is stronger than I, whose sandals I'm not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11a). John wasn't even worthy enough, he said, to be the Stronger One's disciple. Disciples often served their teachers in many ways, but the one limit was, disciples never had to stoop so low as to carry their rabbi's dirty sandals. That was the job of a slave. But John said that even carrying the sandals of the One on his way was a privilege too high for John to aspire to. The gulf between John's greatness and the Stronger One's greatness was bigger than the gap between disciple and teacher, or even slave and master. This Stronger One would be the main event.

And for this Stronger One, the entire world was a threshing floor. That's what John said. Araunah's threshing floor, or one just like it, was going global. And everything and everybody would be like wheat being threshed. Which explains a lot, really. In life, we get threshed. And I don't think the wheat enjoys it. See, when wheat gets threshed, it gets run down, scraped over and over by the sharp-toothed threshing sledge as the oxen pull it 'round and 'round and 'round. To be threshed means to be run down. And that's a pretty good description of life some days – many days. We're wheat being threshed, produce getting run down beneath the sledge. But that is no bug. It's a feature. We get threshed.

But threshing is only to make us collectively ready for the winnowing. And John tells us that this Stronger One comes with “his winnowing fork … in his hand” (Matthew 3:12a). That's the tool with which he'll throw every bit of threshed wheat high up into the wind. And then comes the separation. Once things are loosened, the wind can rip apart what's useful from what isn't – the wheat from the chaff. And then the Stronger One will “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12b).

For a long time, prophets had used the image of wheat being threshed to describe the separation of right from wrong, good from bad, chosen from discarded. And in Jewish thought, usually, Israel was the good wheat that got kept, and all the world's other nations were just the chaff that would blow away. In Daniel's vision, after the statue of the world empires crumbles to dust after being walloped with God's kingdom, what happens to those empires? They “became like chaff of the summer threshing floors, and the wind carried them away” (Daniel 2:35). Isaiah tells Judah, “I make of you a threshing sledge – new, sharp, having teeth: You shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them” (Isaiah 44:15-16). And he says that “the nations … will flee far away, chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind” (Isaiah 17:3). For, as the psalm has it, “the wicked … are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Psalm 1:4).

So, leaning on that, the rabbis told a story. They imagined that the wheat-grain and the straw and the stubble were all having an argument about why the world was made, why the field of global human society had ever been sown in the first place. And the straw says, “For my sake has the field been sown.” And the stubble says, no, “for my sake was the field sown.” But the wheat-grain just says, “When the hour comes, you will see.” So, sure enough, after the harvest, the farmer burned up the stubble – only good as fuel, after all – and in the process of winnowing, he scattered the straw as chaff; but in the parable, he “piled up the wheat into a stack, and everybody kissed it.” And so, the rabbis said, it was with the argument between Israel and the Gentile nations. The nations would all claim that they were the meaning of history. But Israel would just say, “The hour will come in the Messiah's future, and you will see.” For when the Messiah came, he'd winnow and separate Israel from the nations, showing that the nations were expendable and useless, but Israel was of lasting importance. That's what some rabbis thought (Genesis Rabbah 83:5).

But they ignored a couple other words from the prophets. God through Jeremiah was speaking to unrepentant sons and daughters of Israel when he said, “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the wind from the desert..., because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. … Woe to you, O Jerusalem!” (Jeremiah 13:24-27). God through Hosea was speaking about idolatrous Israelites when he said that “they shall be like … the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor” (Hosea 13:3). And given everything John's been saying, that's what he wants to make clear to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all the Jewish crowds gathered around him: the line between good wheat and bad chaff runs through Israel and through the nations. Plenty from Israel won't make the cut; they'll be counted as chaff. And, John maybe hints, some from the Gentile nations will turn out to be worthy wheat that the Winnower will include on equal terms. Which we know to be true.

Which leaves us with the overall picture. When the Stronger One comes, he'll have a winnowing fork at the ready (Matthew 3:12a). And he'll toss everyone and everything to the wind. Which produces a separation. And there are only two possible outcomes. A neat disjunction will emerge: either wheat or chaff. One or the other. And that leads to two destinations. The good wheat will be “gather[ed] … into the barn.” And that's good. That's a safe place to be. But the chaff – what happens to it? It isn't edible. So it was usually used as fuel for heating. And, John says, that's what will happen to those with no other usefulness to God's kingdom: “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12b). It all comes down to what's useful, what's fruitful, for like John said in another picture, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

And that's the work of the Stronger One to whom John's been pointing. John could only baptize with water – a signal, a symbolic action, resetting people on the right path. But the Stronger One is capable of doing so much more. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11b). At his disposal is the very Wind of God, the Holy Spirit. Prophets had long looked forward to God pouring out the Holy Spirit on Israel. Israel would be broken, Isaiah said, “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest” (Isaiah 32:15). God promised through Ezekiel to “have mercy on the whole house of Israel … and I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 39:25,29). But through Joel, he pledged, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28). That was what Israel was waiting for – that was the sign of their redemption. And who was the one who would pour out the Spirit? God Almighty. Yahweh. The Spirit of God is at no one else's disposal.

And then John comes along and says that the Stronger One will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. He'll be the One who pours out the Spirit. He'll be the One who does what only Yahweh God, the LORD Almighty, could ever do. Which means that must be who he is, for the very Wind of God is at this Stronger One's beck and call. And so he pours out his Spirit, baptizes in his Spirit, does a divine act for God's people – but Israel and the nations alike must repent and be included: This Spirit baptism is available to 'all flesh,' not just one nation. And the Stronger One comes to baptize Israel's remnant and the redeemed of the nations with his Holy Spirit.

But the Stronger One will baptize also with fire. All the world's a threshing floor, and at Araunah's threshing floor long ago, fire fell from heaven and destroyed the sacrifice on the altar. So the Stronger One will also pour out fire from heaven. And it will do what the avenging angel didn't dare. The Stronger One to come will say what Isaiah hears Yahweh saying: “Now I will arise, now I will lift myself up, now I will be exalted. You conceive chaff; you give birth to stubble; your breath is a fire that will consume you. … Hear, you who are far off, what I have done; and you who are near, acknowledge my strength. The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: 'Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?'” (Isaiah 33:10-11,13). The Stronger One pours out a baptism of the Holy Spirit, but he also baptizes in fire – those who surrender to the Spirit and are fruitful will be purified by the flames, but those who ignore the Spirit and remain unfruitful will be devoured by 'everlasting burnings.'

It's a hard truth. I know it is. In our comfortable middle-class American existence, as in every time and place in history, we don't like to admit that judgment is real. We like it in the abstract, when we assume the sword can't be pointed our way. But when it comes close, we get really uncomfortable. We get uncomfortable especially with the language of 'consuming fire,' 'unquenchable fire,' 'everlasting burnings.' Hellfire. But we cannot afford to deny it, or too quickly gloss over it, in an effort to make our message more palatable. The Stronger One will bring a destructive judgment, baptizing the world in flame. And for some, that fire will prove infernal – unquenchable and everlasting, to their continual destruction. That is hell. And such a hell is a real prospect for chaff at the winnowing.

So the only hope is to be fruitful grain. “Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands lest he holds a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil – he will dwell on the heights, his place of defense will be the fortress of rocks, his bread will be given him, his water will be sure” (Isaiah 33:14-16). So said God through Isaiah. The Stronger One comes offering a baptism in the Holy Spirit. And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to fruitfulness; and being fruitful for God's kingdom enables one to endure through any global baptism in fire. Fruitfulness for God's kingdom leads to the other destination: the barn into which the Stronger One gathers his good wheat, the heights on which the righteously fruitful one will dwell (cf. Matthew 3:11; Isaiah 33:16). Baptism in the Holy Spirit, which only the Stronger One can give us, is the only hope. It's the difference between wheat and chaff. It's the make-or-break issue.

As believers, we regularly cry out the Stronger One's name. We carry it around with us. For John the Baptist paved the way for the Stronger One whom we know as Jesus Christ. And as followers of Jesus the Stronger One, we profess to have received his baptism – a baptism, not merely in water (though there is that), but in the Holy Spirit. That isn't for a special subset of Christians. It's what being a Christian means. As Paul wrote, “In one Spirit, we were all baptized into one Body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, you are a Christian, and vice versa. That is the definition. Otherwise – no dice. And being baptized in the Spirit is necessary because it's the only path to fruitfulness, which is the key distinction between wheat that must be saved and chaff that won't be.

So, if we claim to be baptized by Jesus the Stronger One by his baptism in the Spirit, fruitfulness should be the norm, shouldn't it? Fruitfulness should be the norm. The fruit of the Spirit should be everywhere in our church life, our family life, our social life. And we should be the kind of people Isaiah described as able to withstand everlasting burnings and dwell on the heights. Such righteousness, such fruitfulness, should be the norm. And perhaps one reason why we as the apparent church are sometimes so reticent to be honest – perhaps one reason why we shy away from forthright talk about baptism in the Spirit and baptism in fire – is out of a sense of unease with our own fruitless presence in the land. Perhaps we shy away from topics of eternal significance, and promise mere pittances like a 'best life now' or a warm inclusivity or a decent moral code or what-have-you – perhaps we avoid the stark disjunctions of judgment – because we recognize instinctively that our credibility is undermined by our own fruit-starved living. So we paper it over. We don't bring it up. We pretend there is no harvest, no threshing, no winnowing – no barn and no furnace, no Spirit and no Fire.

But there's a Stronger One – stronger than John, stronger than us, stronger than all the world and its pretended powers and privileges. And the Stronger One is never far from his fork and his furnace. So I ask you, if Jesus were to appear visibly in our midst with his winnowing fork in hand today – if he were to toss us into his winds of spiritual discernment – where would you land? Would there be enough weight to you, enough substance to your lived profession of faith, to have you land back down on the threshing floor? Or would your claims to faith be exposed as insubstantial, so that you're “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14), and so “like straw before the wind and like chaff that the storm carries away” (Job 21:18)? Would you be like a tree worth conserving for fruit-bearing, like wheat-grain worth storing safely in the barn? If so, then submit to the Spirit, lean in to the Spirit, be baptized in the Spirit through faith in the Stronger One who was crucified and lives again, and be fruitful through his Spirit!

Because I promise you. The furnace of “unquenchable fire” points to something real – to judgment that leads to a hellish half-existence, the path to destruction. And so does the barn for the good wheat point to something real – to vindication that leads to a heavenly fullness and, through there, to a redeemed new creation, where our fruitfulness will reap its full rewards a hundredfold. These things are real. And so is the winnowing that makes clear whose faith is fruitful through the Spirit and whose unbelief is fruitless unto fire. All these things are real – every bit as real as the angel and his sword and the plague in the days of David and Araunah. We cannot deny it. We cannot escape it. But there is hope. The Stronger One, Jesus Christ, is ready and eager to save, ready and eager to baptize in his Spirit, ready and eager to see his fruitful wheat flourishing to no end. Trust him. Receive of his Spirit more and more, and be more and more fruitful as the final stage of winnowing draws near. To the Stronger One, to Jesus the Messiah of Israel and the Hope of All Nations, be all glory and honor through his baptizing Spirit – may all the world be a field filled with his fruitfulness, starting here and now! Amen.

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