"Separating The Grain From The Chaff"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 12, 2004

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1

     The story of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness is a Gospel story that is consistently used during the Advent season.  John was preaching about the one who would come after him.  He also spoke about a judgment that would be coming.  Then John used a very curious metaphor the meaning of which his listeners would easily understand.  

     John said, “The one who is coming is much greater than I am.  I am not good enough to carry his sandals.  He will bring a tool with him to thresh out the grain.  He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.” How are we to understand this new teaching?           

     The chaff is the outer shell of the grain, thus this pronouncement from John cannot be taken as an illustration of the division between the saved and the lost as we might suppose.  Our lesson tells us that the grain is gathered into the barn while only its outer shells are burned in a fire that never goes out.  This passage develops its more complete meaning when we learn what Jesus brought into human consciousness.   

     Hell is not a place where souls burn; it is an environment where everyone perceives reality very differently and insists that everyone else must conform to a particular idea of truth or perish.  This struggle is like a fire that has raged since the dawn of civilization.  Jesus brought into our world a very different understanding of God. 

     Early writers perceived God as a Being who was pleased if the Jews were obedient and angry when they were not.  The Hebrew Bible often describes God as a Being who was moody and who frequently engaged in abandonment as a teaching device.  Early writers wrote about God in the same spirit as they thought about each other.  Such concepts of God represented the chaff in John’s metaphor, an outer shell of beliefs that prevented community from forming.  

     Jesus introduced humanity to God as a Being who was long in mercy, patience and forgiveness. He taught his listeners how to reflect those same qualities by forgiving 70 times 7, even when it came to their enemies, even the Romans.  The tool that Jesus would use to separate the grain from the chaff, or people from their outer cocoons, was his introduction of the Kingdom of God.   

     A new era was being born in a little village called Bethlehem.  This morning we light the candle of Love to represent this shift in perception. As a corrective measure, God sent a shaft of light into our midst in the form of a baby. God was reaching out.  God was seeking us just like a Shepherd coming to sheep that have lost their way. Sometimes it is difficult for us to hear the message God sends.  Understanding a greater concept often means rising above or changing what we now believe or know.  Fear often prevents such growth and thus the fire continues to rage preventing community, preventing us from loving one another. 

     I sit on a board with a physician who lives in Potomac, Maryland.  He told a group of us a story that may illustrate this point.  His neighbor had planted a lot of azaleas and rhododendrons in his yard.  He also had a spacious vegetable garden.  Both neighbors live in a densely wooded area also populated by wild life.  While the good doctor’s friend loved to observe deer, these critters were constantly invading his yard and dining on his shrubs.  

     He employed the Long Fence Company to put their product around his property line.  To his chagrin, the deer merely jumped over it and continued feasting on his expensive plantings.  Not to be defeated, he had the company return and construct a three-foot extension on top of what they had built.  All was well.  He had won the battle. 

     One morning he was drinking coffee while looking at his reclaimed domain through the kitchen window.  His eyes focused on a scene that would change his plans for that Saturday morning.  A large buck was struggling to free itself while on top of his new fence.  His ample rack of antlers was entangled in the grid.  One of his hoofs had kicked a hole through the fence and was caught. The deer was exhausted from its struggle to free itself.  Upon seeing this, he and some neighbors got stepladders, blankets, rope and embarked on a highly technical rescue effort, an effort for which none of them had experience. 

     The animal had no idea that setting the deer free was their motivation. As they approached, the deer struggled with what energy it had left.  Once they got its antlers and hoof free, they released the rope, pulled the blankets away and dropped the deer on the other side of the fence.  This large disoriented buck rose to its feet and ran into the forest unaware of what had just happened.  These caring individuals had no way to communicate their intentions to a deer that was driven by fear. 

     In many respects we are a lot like that deer. Not all of us can conceive of God communicating to us through this magnificent world. Even when God’s love was communicated through a form people could understand, they refused to depart from the beliefs their forefathers had taught them.  They coerced the Romans into crucifying him.  Following his death Jesus appeared to people on numerous occasions and his detractors said, “These events never happened. Such appearances are folk lore designed to make Jesus into someone he was not.”  

     So many of our perceptions and beliefs are the very chaff that has kept humanity struggling in fires that have continued to burn out of control throughout human history.  They will not go out until we receive the message Jesus brought.  Like the deer, we become threatened by attempts to free us and we run into our more familiar forests fearful to change the way we think. 

     Jesus came into our midst to tell us how much God loves all of us. Are we ready to reexamine our protective husks made up of our separatist insights, theologies, ideas and beliefs?  John thought so and he announced that one was coming who would have the ability to make his Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.  Are we ready to hear that message more universally than we do?  Are we ready to surrender what prevents community from forming?  Are we ready to receive with fresh insight what Jesus brought?  


    Thank you, God, for these moments of quiet reflection.  As we experience life, we become absorbed in our traditions, rituals and habits.  We rush to meet our self-imposed deadlines.  Our homes become decorated within and without.  Our open houses and office parties distract us with our need for perfection.  Yet, how isolated these events are from the birth that causes us to respond in these ways.  For centuries humankind hungered for your presence and guidance.  Help us to recall those days.  Who would we be today, O God, had Jesus not brought into our world a greater understanding of you?  We thank you for your faithfulness.  You offered healing for the blind and a mending of those crippled within their hearts and minds.  Prepare us to receive your love once again.  Amen. 


    Loving God, how quickly our week has gone by, and we find ourselves having lighted a second Advent candle, drawing us ever closer to the day we celebrate Jesus' birth.  We enter worship with the hope that our rushing thoughts might be slowed to a snail's pace.  How little time we allow ourselves to sit peacefully and allow our minds to be open to the movement of your Spirit. If we will not grant ourselves such peace during this one hour, who will?  During the Genesis account of creation, you gave us an entire day to rest.  Few of us do that. In our desire to accomplish more of our goals, we would much rather prefer our own strategies for living. And then we wonder why our spirits are so often undernourished.  In all honesty, O God, we do not have to look too far to discover why. 

    During the days that lie ahead may we desire less of what this world offers and more of what would teach us understanding.  May we think less of what people believe about us and more of how we might help others to feel more loved.  May we dwell less on the imperfections in other people and more on brightening the corner of the world where we live.  May we hope less about what may surprise us in our future and more on how we might inspire others to look forward eagerly to their destiny. 

    As our Advent season continues to unfold, enable us to be less self-absorbed with our wants and needs so that we can truly represent the disciples your Son invited us to become.  Thank you, God, for offering us with each new day, a fresh opportunity to change our future.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .