After dinner on Thanksgiving my nine-year-old great-niece Vivi and I were drawing while we waited for it to be time for dessert. I asked what she wanted to draw, and she said, “Mythological creatures!” So we drew mermaids, a unicorn and a Pegasus, griffins and dragons. Then she drew a lion. I was puzzled why she would add a real creature to our fantastical drawings. She explained, as only nine-year-olds can, about lions in medieval art. She told me that they were often drawn as sort of skinny and…well, she couldn’t come up with the right word, but I think she was trying to say meek and tame. I had never heard any such thing but before I could ask her where she learned that, we were invited to join the rest of the family at the table for pie.
This mini-lecture came back to mind as I looked at the passages for today. Had she been looking at “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings, in which the lion is lying down the lamb? It’s possible. Certainly, a lion that eats straw would quickly become skinny and sickly, as all felines are obligate carnivores. Not to eat meat goes against their nature.
Those paintings are based on the reading from Isaiah which you heard today. It is an idealized vision of a world without violence, oppression, hatred, fear, destruction…sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? How do we get to such a wonderful world?
It starts with acknowledging the stumps in our lives.
The “stump of Jesse” is a shorthand way of referring to all the hopes God’s people had pinned on King David (whose father was Jesse) and the discouragement and despair that they experienced as the descendants of David grew more corrupt and inept, until it was finally ‘cut off’ by the enemies of Judea—despite God’s promises that someone from the line of David would be king in Jerusalem forever. This passage is promising that the stump is not dead. A shoot will grow out of it, taking root and regrowing—and this new leader, this ‘shoot of the stump” would guide them into a whole new creation.
This is where we, as Christians, need to be a little bit careful of completely co-opting this passage. We see this as a description of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But we need to be respectful of those who also claim ownership of these Scriptures, and who actually had them first. The covenant God made with our Jewish brothers and sisters has not been negated or replaced by the one God made with us who follow Jesus. God is capable of loving two separate branches of the tree of faith.
That’s at the heart of what Paul is trying to get across in the letter he wrote to the church in Rome, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles who had heard the Good News and were seeking to serve God faithfully. It’s hard, probably impossible, for us today to fully understand the dynamics involved in that community 2000 years ago. There were conflicting status issues running under the surface, each group believing they were superior to the other and trying to bend their opponent to their own way of thinking and acting. Paul wants them to consider instead that perhaps there is a value in each group being who they are, and finding a way to be in harmony. That whole “unity without uniformity” thing. Their ultimate purpose, he says, is to glorify God and reveal God’s mercy and love.
That sounds pretty good, right? A nice theme for the weeks leading up to Christmas? Peace and harmony and love?
Well, here comes John the Baptist, to blow it all apart, with his images of winnowing forks and axes laid to the roots of trees. What’s Advent without a little brood of vipers and eternal fire, after all?
If you were to hear that someone in the Bible was talking about forks and eternal fire, who would you think it meant? The devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, right?
But is that who John the Baptist is referring to?
John is using this imagery—admittedly disturbing—to describe the one whose way he is preparing, the one whose sandals he isn’t even worthy enough to carry. So who is that?
How do we reconcile this apparently violent, destructive image with the peaceful leader described in the passage from Isaiah? I think we start by noticing what kind of fork he is carrying. It is not the three-tined pitchfork of our cultural images of the devil (imagery we inherited from sources outside our Judeo-Christian faith tradition, by the way). It is a winnowing fork.
A winnowing fork is used to separate the kernel of edible wheat from the inedible chaff. That chaff had a purpose at one time. It protected the tender grain while it grew, provided a way to transport nutrients from the soil to the parts of the plants that could use them. The chaff is not evil. But once the wheat has been harvested, its purpose is no long relevant—and the grain inside it needs to be accessed in order to useful. It needs to be winnowed.
It might help to picture a winnowing fork if you known it is also sometimes called a winnowing fan. It has flat blades that are stuck horizontally into the pile of harvested wheat, to lift it. The farmer then tosses that pile into the air, using the wind to separate the lighter, dead husk which blows away from the heavier, usable grain which falls back down onto the threshing floor. The grain is gathered, ground up into flour, and used for food. The chaff is gathered up and thrown into the fire.
This work of separating really isn’t an act of punishment. For that matter, neither is the unquenchable fire into which the chaff is tossed. I think this is where we see the mercy of God most clearly, if we understand what is actually being described. This is not hellfire.
This is a cooking fire. In a society without matches, starting a fire was hard work, so they tended to keep feeding the fire alive even when they weren’t cooking, so that it would be ready when it was needed. The chaff fed the fire that cooked the bread.
Do you hear what I’m saying? The chaff is given a new purpose. The grain still needs it, but in a new way. Nothing is wasted.
Now that sounds a little like the promise of redemption and new life promised by the Gospel, doesn’t it?
In God’s kingdom, nothing is wasted. The Holy Spirit reclaims and transforms even those things we might consider dead and useless. The lions and wolves and leopards and bears won’t be destroyed or excluded, but transformed. There will still be room for them, right there beside the lamb and kid and calf and cow, all of them eating straw like an ox.
I invite you, in these weeks of Advent, to consider what needs winnowing in your life. Have the faith to toss it up into the wind of the Holy Spirit with faith that God will return to you those things that can still feed you, and trust that God will find another use for those dry husks that were keeping you from the grain within. Nothing will be wasted.
As my seminary friend Sakena says, “God don’t make no junk.”