At Wednesday morning chapel this week, I tried to introduce preschoolers to Advent.
At one point, I asked them, "Who comes at Christmas?"
When in doubt, the right answer to the pastor's question is usually Jesus.
But there was no doubt; they all knew the answer.
I'm so glad they all paid such good attention to the end of last week's sermon.
For those who missed it, I told the story of the infamous burglar in Turkey, Bishop Nicholas of
Myra, who snuck into poor homes with gifts of money and food, the humble beginnings
of what has now become a massive global industry tracked by our government.
But imagine if some other famous, bearded saint became Santa, say, John the Baptist.
He might ride through the skies on an empty sleigh pulled by camels, wearing earth
tones and leather.
You could leave him locusts and wild honey by the fireplace, which would be gone by morning, along with most of your other stuff.
Jolly Old Saint John would kindly clear you out of all the chaff in your life, all the things that he thinks distract you away from doing good works for God.
His bag would overflow with confiscated cell phones, money, toys, televisions, computers, stereo equipment, important work files, family heirlooms, and all of my Dodger gear.
Perhaps he would graffiti an inspirational message in blood on your bare living room wall:
Repent, you brood of vipers!
Just think of how grateful you would be on Christmas morning after his visit.
For some reason, this idea never quite caught on.
Perhaps the shrieking prophet of imminent destruction is too unmarketable.
Yet the church holds onto him, and not just because the church holds onto everything regardless of whether it will ever get used again.
The church holds onto John and trots him out every Advent, because Advent, by design, is
wisely, wonderfully off-key.
As the radio plays nonstop Christmas music, we sing Advent hymns and extend silence.
As society speeds up its frantic pace to add more shopping and parties and demands, we slow down, at least theoretically.
As the world bathes itself in red and gold and green, we turn blue.
We know things are not as cheerful nor as hopeless as they seem.
There is a different way, a different kind of life, a reality in which lions and lambs can be safe
and tender with one another, and John says it has drawn near, so business as usual is
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree, he thunders.
Who scheduled the tree blessing for today?
It is a stroke of Holy Spirit genius, actually.
This artificial tree is expected to bear fruit.
It's branches hold a combination of Christmons—symbols of the faith that tell and celebrate
God's story—and personal ornaments from people who comprise our community,
symbols that tell and celebrate our stories within God's bigger story.
It saves a tree in the forest from an ax, which is good stewardship of our environment, including our air, and it will do this for years to come.
This is important because we are planning for life to flourish in the future.
Appearances to the contrary, Saint John agrees.
All of his warnings are grounded in his certainty that God has a new and better future on the
way, so near that the disease and debris of today is on death watch.
All that is wrong with the world, call it whatever you will—sin, injustice, unrighteousness,
separation from God, immorality, the iron grip of death—is now threatened by the
invasion of the kingdom of heaven, and John hears the footsteps.
He is the opening emcee for God's main attraction, who will ratchet up John's cold water with blazing fire driven by the breath of God.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and he will
gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
This threat is also a promise.
Judgment is the face of salvation.
Justice is an expression of mercy.
The fiery crucible is the womb of gold.
The cross is the doorway to Easter.
The winnowing fork stabs us with the sharp edges of grace.
It is not as simple as who is fruitful and who is viper, who is wheat and who is chaff.
Jesus will make a point of this with a parable about a field where wheat and weeds grow
together, indistinguishable from the naked human eye and entangled with one another.
We cannot judge, and we do damage to the crop when we try.
We cannot separate wheat from chaff in society because we can't even do it in the mirror.
We saints are sinners, we sinners are saints, and sorting it all out is beyond our power.
But one who is more powerful than we is coming.
His winnowing fork in his hand, and he will continue to toss us into the holy wind until our chaff (yes, including some of our favorite fluff) is blown away and all that is left of us is wheat.
Christ comes to toss us and turn us until we are who we are truly meant to be, setting us free
from everything less, however long that takes, because the kingdom of heaven has come
too far to be denied.
There is no future for our phony selves, but a beautiful one for who we truly are, and that is
where John's screeching voice is calling us to direct our energies, because that is where
the one with the Holy Spirit and fire will ultimately direct us.
This confidence is why the church continues to risk Advent and keep listening to John, because
our Easter faith says, Yes, Lord, stick a fork in me, I'm not done.