Reading the gospels has taught me a lot about pre-industrial farming practices. Today’s gospel story has John the Baptist talking about an apple orchard with many trees, some trees produce a lot of big ripe apples, but others only produce small, wrinkled and inedible fruit. Now a wise orchard keeper would fertilize the good trees and cut down the bad trees because it would improve the orchard. It’s the same with harvesting wheat. Whole stalks of cut wheat would be dried and then brought outside on a windy day. The harvester would pick up a winnowing fork, which looks something like an oversized wooden pitchfork, and toss big piles of wheat up in the air over and over. The lightest bits, the leaves and dried stalks, what was called chaff, the lightest bits would be caught by the wind and blow a short distance away. But the wheat grain itself, the part that could be ground into flour for bread, that was too heavy and too dense for the wind to affect much, and so it would fall straight down right at the feet of the harvester. They would gather up the wheat and leave the chaff behind.
Good apple trees and bad apple trees. Separating the wheat from the chaff. John the Baptist is not talking about agriculture. He is urging people to examine their moral lives like a thresher with their wheat. He is urging people to find what is good and necessary in life and to hold tight to it, but also to find what is harmful and unnecessary in how they are living and to let those things simply drift away with the wind. John the Baptist is talking about repentance.
Repentance can get a pretty bad rap, especially since it has so often been used not as a tool for self reflection, but rather as a cudgel to make people live in ways that are not true to who they are. But the word repent literally just means “turn around”. Repenting means recognizing when I’m on a path going nowhere good and then turning around to live life differently. And that opportunity, to live life differently and be a better person, that is a powerful thing. It is a desirable thing, a life giving thing. That opportunity alone was why the people were flocking to the Jordan River to repent and be baptized.
But when the people arrived, they found John did more than just baptize them into repentance. He also sternly warned them. He warned them; the Kingdom of Heaven has come near, the kingdom of heaven is at hand! That seems like a strange kind of warning. Isn’t it a really good thing that the kingdom of heaven has come near? Perhaps, but John is unmistakably warning those he baptizes. Watch out; if your life grows nothing but withered apples, the axe to chop you down is sitting right at your feet. Watch out; if your life produces nothing but chaff and no grain, the harvester is already holding that winnowing fork in hand and you’re going to get blown away. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is coming brought by One carrying Fire and Spirit to usher in a new day.
John was warning the people because the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is not an innocuous thing. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is not business as usual. It is not even an improvement on the way things are. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is not an improvement on the way things are; it is nothing less than the creation of a new order in which everything in the world—everything in us—will either prove worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven or it won’t exist at all. Some of the most beautiful promises in all of scripture flow from this idea. Revelation 21: “God will wipe every tear from your eyes, there shall be no more death, neither mourning nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It is surely to be longed for that tears will be wiped away, and death and pain be no more, God be praised that these will have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. But I wonder. I wonder, are there parts of who I am—things about me I’m not even trying to change—are there parts of who I am that will find no place in the Kingdom? What about my restlessness that leads me to be constantly in motion working on this thing or that thing? The One who says “be still and know that I am God” likely takes a dim view of my bustling. What about my ambitiousness and my striving to be recognized as excellent among my peers? The Righteous One who warns not to covet anything that belongs to my neighbor might very fairly ask “for whose glory are you striving”? It seems to me that when the Kingdom comes, many things I can see operating in my life might well have no place in the Kingdom. And if by God’s grace I enter that Kingdom, I will enter it having been winnowed down, with some of who I am left behind on the threshing floor. Indeed, there might not be much left of me, so that the grace of God would resemble very much the grace of a surgeon’s hands removing what is unwholesome from the body.
John the Baptist shouts on Jordan’s shores: the Kingdom of Heaven has come near; the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It is going to envelop you and me and everyone and everything. And we will be changed. And as frightening as that idea might be—that parts of who I am could be left behind forever—imagine the alternative. Imagine if I believed that the worst parts of me are intrinsic to who I am and that without them I would not truly be me. Imagine the fear that would grip a person, if there was a part of their life they hated and wanted to change more than anything, and to know that it could not be changed. Despair. Despair.
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and whether it comes on this side of the grave or the next, I will find myself changed. And thank God. As a Christian I trust that God, in drawing me close to Herself, will not do so such that I lose those innermost parts of who I am. Why would God have made of humanity such a wonderful diversity if Her plan was to make of us a pale bland mush in the Kingdom? I will be changed, yes. You will be changed, yes. But we will be changed for the better, like an orchard that has been pruned, like a harvest that has been winnowed. We will still be ourselves, but we will be ourselves as we best might be.
In the promise that we will be changed for the better when Kingdom comes, there is hope. And I do not simply mean hope for that day on the other side of tomorrow’s tomorrows when the One Who Has Come and is Yet to Come returns to set the world aright. I mean hope for today, hope for right now. Because if my jealousy or anger or spite will someday be excised from me, then that means they are not a necessary part of who I am. I will live without them in the Kingdom and so I can live without them, today. Because they are not necessary to who I am, I may always repent, and in repentance there is an antidote to despair. I can do a new thing.
God knows that in every life, there are things draining dry the best parts of living while adding nothing good of their own. That is part of what it means to be human, that is part of what it means to live. But to be a Christian means to refuse to passively accept that fact but rather to be at the work of our own moral reformation. We are called to be at the work of separating the wheat from the chaff in ourselves, of identifying those parts of who we are that are good and wholesome and life giving and to separate them from the chaff that we ought to let simply blow away.
The cry of John the Baptist: you can repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! We do this not because we must, as if we were under some threat or coercion, we do this because we can. You can turn around from making yourself miserable and step onto a new road, even if you do not know where it will lead, especially if it seems to lead deep into the wilderness. Listen, in the wilderness, there is a voice calling out—make a path for the Lord make it a highway wide and smooth. The voice is calling: You can turn around, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Thanks be to God.