The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
December 4, 2022
“Did John Get It Wrong?”
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.”
I suspect there is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear. Nation states use this method all the time. Indeed, the threat of thermonuclear war has kept the United States, China, and Russia, from crushing each other’s throats. Every parent knows the value of instilling fear and punishment. Doug was less than five and we were walking to the home of his daycare provider. We came to the curb and without looking, he left my side and ran across the street. I was scared to death which may explain why I got in his face and gave him a swat on his bottom telling him to never, ever, do that again. He didn’t. There is a place for stern warnings and instilling fear. But when it comes to God, we have a problem. How can the God who gave His son up on the cross be the same God who rains fire upon the very sinners God is said to have died for? God cannot contradict God’s own nature. God is either for us or God is against us. Which is it?
So I begin this sermon declaring that John the Baptist got it wrong. His God of judgment and retribution is not the God of the cross. In addition, here in the third chapter of Matthew, John is not talking about the Second Coming of Christ. He is talking about Jesus. So I ask you, does this sound like an accurate description of Jesus:
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.
And if I were to make this personal, is John’s Jesus the same Jesus you know? This is the man who said:
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)
The truth of the matter is that we were called into the faith not out of fear of fire but by the compelling nature of God’s love. So, John got it wrong. The Jesus he describes is not the Jesus of history.
But was John completely wrong? I began this sermon stating that perhaps there is a place for judgment and instilling fear. I hold by that statement because I know it to be true. Let me illustrate this point.
In one of the churches I served there was a man who had a son. His son was troubled and suffered from heroine addiction. The pain of this addiction was unrelenting. It had destroyed what would have been a promising life. His father loved his son but would admit he did not know what to do. Seeing his son in pain was unbearable. One day when his son had run out of the drug that brought him peace, his father drove to a city where drug dealers were readily available. At his own risk, he bought heroine and brought it to his son. His love had compelled him to stop his boy’s pain, but most of us would say it was mistaken love. Without consequences, life evolves into chaos. Love is lived in light of consequences or it is not love. Without limits, life has no boundaries and without boundaries we are likely to fall off a cliff. So while I may have difficulty with John’s description of Jesus, I, nevertheless, believe that life’s natural order has inevitable consequences woven into it. Transgress against the principle of justice, and life will deal you pain. Oh, it may not come in the form of the fires of hell, but the soul becomes twisted and life becomes brutish. My friends, I believe we come to Jesus because His message and His life reflect what we know to be true.
This from Martin Marty writing in The Christian Century:
From the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages there survives the story of a woman seen in a vision. She was carrying a pitcher and a torch. Why these? With the pitcher she would quench the fires of hell, and with the torch she would burn the pleasures of heaven. After these were gone, people would be able to love God for God’s sake.”
So I end by saying this. As we look over the communion table set with the elements that ask us to remember the One who came into the world to be the savior of us all, do not come fearing the fire of John’s vision, but come embracing the God who loved us despite our sin. The One who bids us come is the One whose arms are opened wide. Let us pray…
 Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century, “Spirit at the Solstice,” December 22-29, 1982, p. 1309.
[i] Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His 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.”