‘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.’Matthew 3:12
These are the words of John the Baptist to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptised. They are also the final words of this week’s Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12. As I read them, I shudder. As I reflect upon them, I shudder even more. You see, the readings of the past few weeks have been quite intense, filling me with a sense of foreboding. Seems an unlikely reaction to Scripture? Not at all. Holy Scripture encompasses the range of emotions we experience. Holy Scripture reflects life. And intensity and foreboding are part of the package.
The readings of the past few weeks have a tone of warning. I say warning and not alert: alerts can be good or bad. For example, it can be desired if it’s a message from your love interest, from a university, confirming your acceptance, or a potential employer confirming your selection for a job. On the other hand, it isn’t a good thing if, for example, the alert is that you’ve used up all your storage so the document you just finished working on can’t be saved. It’s even worse if the alert is that you missed the deadline for something important, or that your credit card has been declined. A warning, though, is different. A warning always suggests, ‘do this, or else’.
The readings this week say, ‘Something heavy is going down. Watch out! A change is gonna come. Something’s gonna upset the applecart.’ This week’s readings warn, ‘Those who’ve been ignoring the call to turn around, those who’ve ignored the yellow, amber and even the red alerts are going to face the fire. Those who thought the time to account for their sinful ways would never come must now suffer the consequences of their hardness of heart.’
Just over two months ago, in my piece entitled, ‘Them’s the Breaks’, I spoke of accepting the consequences of one’s actions. I pointed out that while we’re free to choose the path we take in life, we don’t choose what lies at the end of that path. This week’s readings continue in that vein. The difference now, though, is the day to account, the day to face the consequences of our actions is now here and there’s no avoiding what awaits us. Now, admittedly, this has positive and negative implications. As such, if we choose the path that leads to purpose, we will walk in the light of the Lord and the outcome is our victory. The readings this week, though, don’t seem to be shining the spotlight on those who have chosen the purpose path. On the contrary, they seem to be shining the interrogation floodlight on those who have chosen the dark path, the path that separates us from purpose.
The tone of warning is set from the Collect (the Opening Prayer), which begins, ‘Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins […]’. The Lesson, Isaiah 11:1-10 reads in part, ‘[…] he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth’. (Isaiah 11:4). The Psalm (Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19) and the Epistle (Romans 15:4-13) and to a larger extent the Lesson are overwhelmingly positive in tone. They point to hope and victory for those who persevered in faith along the path to purpose and who are rewarded with peace.
I tell you though, the Gospel, the reading that rises to the fore in our weekly readings, tears into those who have been stubborn in their sinful ways. I mean, who wants to hear this warning sounded in Matthew 3:10: ‘even now the axe 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’? I know I don’t. And I’m sure, neither do you.
Let me say this: I’m sure you need not fear. You need not fear if you have responded to the repeated calls you’ve received through these HEWing messages to step onto the path that leads to purpose. You need not fear if you have allowed yourself to be HEWn by the Potter’s hands. You need not fear if you have chosen to walk in Faith. You need not fear if you’ve chosen to persevere. You need not fear if, etc, etc, etc. If, on the contrary, you haven’t, if on the other hand, you’ve closed your ears to this call, well, then, prepare yourself for the outcome of that choice.
I end on a hopeful note, though, for it’s not too late to turn around. Two weeks ago, we discussed the thief who repented as he hanged next to Jesus. We celebrated his victory when Jesus said, ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’. Friends, let not my calls to begin your purpose journey have been in vain. I call out to you, as John does in the Gospel, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
Trusting that your heart has been softened, I bid you
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