This is a winnowing fork. Several sharp prongs stick out at one end, and at the other end those prongs wrap together into the base of the handle. Today, we typically use these forks for pitching hay, but the winnowing fork has another purpose: it separates. So, you harvest your wheat and heap it outside on a flat, packed-down floor. You plunge this winnowing fork into the pile and toss a bunch into the air. Of course, that bunch thins out and the wind can blow through it. The stalks, the tough, chewy husks— the unwanted stuff— blows away. The heavier kernel— the good food—drops right down to your feet.
This winnowing meant business. See it and you know it was time to separate the good from the bad. That’s the picture John the Baptist paints for us today. Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. That means business; Jesus comes to separate. He clears away hypocrisy and He gathers in the repentant.
That is the heart of John’s message. He stands in this barren landscape of a desert, preaching to equally dry, barren hearts: “Prepare for the Lord!” (Luke 3:4-6). ‘Get ready!’ for Jesus coming! ‘Get ready!’— because you will meet him. ‘Get ready!’— because he is perfect. ‘Get ready!’— because you are not perfect, and that leaves you unable to stand beside him. Remember, the Bible contains two major teachings. (1) God’s Law shows our sin. His every ‘You shall’ and ‘You shall not’ just cuts us to shreds; it exposes disobedience— and there’s no hiding that. God’s Law reveals a deadly sick soul, a soul that so desperately needs a Savior. You see, if we do not see how sick we are, then we do not see the healing we need. We reject the Savior God sends to heal. (2) God’s gospel, his ‘good news,’ reveals that Savior. That is why John trumpets: “Repent! Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!”
That message spreads like wildfire. Crowds come out to him… So many are curious about this man and his ministry.
When John sees them, he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? He calls these people ‘snakes!’ More than that, ‘offspring of snakes’— or, ‘the offspring of the Snake,’ that is, the devil (see Revelation 12:9). These are Jews coming out! Descendants of Abraham. God promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22:17-18); Abraham’s family would (1) include Jesus and (2) believers from every nation would enter heaven.
So, these Jews travel out to John. No, not because they want Jesus. They thought God’s judgment would automatically skip them because of their ethnicity. They trek out just to fulfill another religious act. They are really hypocrites: they claim to be God’s children, but want nothing to do with God.
John warns them of that. [D]o not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The heart of a hypocrite is hard like a stone. It takes nothing in. If they would not listen, then God’s Word would hit other hearts and bring those once-stony hearts to life.
John asks every single person—including you (and me): ‘What is the reason you are here?’ That’s a searching question. It challenges you to consider the object of your trust. Simply keeping your name written in a church membership book will not save you. Parents may have their child baptized and that baptism creates faith (1 Peter 3:21). However, baptism can be treated as a tradition or ritual; you consider it just another check-mark in the box of Christian actions. Faith is a living thing; it must be fed with God’s Word. Baptism is the start of your Christian life, it’s not the end of it. You are not saved because your family built the church. God does not forgive you because mom sat in that pew for so long. Your non-believing spouse does not go to heaven because you are here today. On the outside, you (and I) might look morally upright; you might be a poster-child for Christianity. Yet, you cannot fool God. God knows what is in your heart (read Psalm 139). He sees the object of your trust. God clears away hypocrisy.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He will clear his threshing floor… and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Yes, even if that means you’ve sat in the pew for years. Yes, even if that means your family built the church. Yes, even if that means you were baptized, but never fed your faith. If God does not find trust in his Son as Savior, then he will cut you down and throw you into hell.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! The sight of that tool means business. Jesus comes to clear away hypocrisy. Yes, even the hypocrisy that can nestle into our hearts. We may treat worship like a ritual or tradition. We may disconnect heart from outward actions. We may even rely on empty-minded habits— like giving an offering or sitting in a pew.
God’s Word cracks that tough husk off of our hearts— because that Word highlights the One who intentionally lived his life for you (and me). Jesus is baptized, not out of tradition, but to step into our lives. He worships with a willing heart. He brings an offering to God out of sincere love. He knows obedience is the only way into heaven—and he has it! …and he gives it. To you (and me). Jesus uses the cross to break off our hypocrisy and create in us this living heart of flesh.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! This is a sobering message, but sobering for a reason. Jesus comes to do business, and has done the work of clearing away our hypocrisy so that you now stand before God healthy. You are ready to meet your Lord. Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. Again to do work; he gathers in the repentant.
“Repentant.” Remember what that means? To ‘repent’ means ‘to turn”— like making a U-Turn. God exposes the foolishness of living like a hypocrite. It cuts our hearts; we resent that way of life. If you shudder at that way of living, you naturally ask: “What is the right way to live then?” God tells you, “Live sincere.”
John calls this fruits in keeping with repentance. Turn from what is wrong, you naturally produce a new action. Picture that. Apple trees produce apples. This is natural. No one must flip the switch and ‘power on’ the apple tree. A farmer does not pray the tree produces apples and not oranges. A healthy apple tree produces edible apples. When God’s Word penetrates our hearts, it makes us turn to what is right, what is God-pleasing.
The crowds ask John: “What should we do then?”
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Those are the fruits of repentance. All sorts of people in different types of work— God exposes their greed, their stealing, their bullying. It grieves them that they grieved God. That grief leaves a void. What fills that void? An action— a Godly one! This crowd shows their love for God by doing what is God-pleasing. You can see good, pleasing fruits of repentance.
Notice, John’s every encouragement takes the light off of ‘me’ and shines it on ‘others.’ Give. Be honest. Work faithfully. This way of selfless living only flourishes when I see Christ focused on “me” instead of “himself.” Jesus is the motivation to producing fruits of repentance.
What is at least one area where you produce fruits? Well, look at verses 15-16. The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The crowds are looking for Jesus and John does what is God-pleasing. He tells them about Jesus. Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He gathers in the repentant.
These words are stern, but stern for a reason. You need Jesus if you want any hope of heaven! Do the people in your life know that? Or, are they hoping their good actions will win them life? Do they think God just saves everyone (even when this reading makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case)? Everyone has thoughts and opinions, but God has truth and facts. God reveals what will happen, and reveals it so that all are ready for that Great Day.
You (and I) currently have this marvelous opportunity to point others to Jesus— just like John did. Christmas Eve is still seen by many as a ‘religious holiday.’ That means, many still associate Christmas with God. That means, people are more likely to step into a church and hear this news about God.
So, this year we are running an advertisement for Christmas Eve in the Clare County Review and Clare County Cleaver. Thousands will have a chance to see our service times. They will have an opportunity to consider coming and hear this good news of Jesus.
Still, the best way to share Jesus is for you to share him with your words. Yes, that’s you inviting your neighbor. That’s you inviting your dinner-friend. That’s you inviting your daughter and son— just like John the Baptist did long ago. [W]ith many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
You have some very good news. Jesus comes! His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn… That’s the end-goal of life. Jesus gathers believers into heaven. What better news is there than that? Actually, what better news is there to prepare people for eternity? Jesus Is Coming, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He gathers in the repentant.
Maybe you have this in your barn or shed. This tool means business. You’re going to get work done. No wonder John uses that picture for us! Jesus gets work done. He Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He comes to separate the good from the bad. He clears out our bad; Jesus clears away hypocrisy. What’s left is good— healthy and living hearts! Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. This time to do a different kind of work. A work you are prepared for. He gathers in the repentant.