First Reading: Malachi 3:1-3

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Our Scripture readings for today are a little…intense. We’ve already heard from Malachi, the last of the minor prophets in the Old Testament. The reading we’re about to hear is along the same lines, but it comes from the gospel according to Luke and it details the beginnings of John the Baptist’s ministry. In the same way that Malachi’s work as a prophet was both to comfort and to warn, so John’s ministry holds both God’s judgment and God’s presence at the same time.

As we listen this morning, I want us to listen particularly for what John calls the ‘good news.’ What is good news, according to John, and why is it good?

Second Reading: Luke 3:7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 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.’

 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

It’s quite a transition, to go straight from ‘but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ to ‘with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.’

I will admit that these passages are difficult – not just because they’re hard to figure out, but because they’ve been used and abused in so many ways that it’s hard to get past our immediate reactions to the actual heart of the passage.

This passage is not about dividing out ‘good people’ and ‘evil people,’ keeping some and burning the rest. No one is that simple—and neither is the allegory John’s using. The idea here is that every single one of us contains multitudes – light and shadow, love and hate, beauty and fear, rage and compassion. But rather than toss us all and start over, God has decided to work with what and who we are. In Jesus, we see the perfect image of God – what humanity was always meant to be.

So when John tells us that the winnowing fork is in Jesus’ hand, it’s not a threat – it’s a promise that the worst of who we are will not hold us captive forever.

But this is also a warning – because the process of letting go of that rage, that fear, that shadow and hate is not fun.

As Heidi Haverkamp, author of Advent in Narnia, puts it: “[Jesus’] mission isn’t to avenge or punish but to purify and restore, which are, frankly, painful. Silver was burned and refined by fire; wool was cleaned and whitened with harsh soap and rough paddling. Reconciliation can bring great relief, but it’s a rough process.”[1]

The Messiah we see in these passages is not sweet, newborn Jesus, asleep in a manger. This is the Jesus we see flipping tables in the Temple courts. This is the Jesus we see arguing with the religious leaders who were more concerned with their own power than seeing God at work in their midst. This is the Jesus who told the Apostle Peter, who tried to stand in the way of Jesus’ path to Jerusalem, “get behind me, Satan.”

In the same way, the Pevensies find themselves presented with a King in Narnia who is…not quite the warm, fuzzy person they expected. After arriving in Narnia, they try to go visit Mr. Tumnus, all together, but find that he’s been arrested by the White Witch for letting Lucy leave Narnia in the first place. As they try to figure out what to do next, they wind up meeting a beaver—a beaver who talks. He invites them to his home for supper, and after they’ve met Mrs. Beaver and eaten a lovely dinner of fish and roast potatoes, the Beavers begin to tell the children the big plan: they’re to meet Aslan at a specific spot in order to ride into battle to help defeat the White Witch.

They have no idea what or who he’s talking about, so the Beavers fill the Pevensies in on all of the history and legend they’ve missed. This is how their conversation goes:

“’Who is Aslan?’ asked Susan.

‘Aslan?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Why, don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time, nor in my father’s time. But word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen alright. It is he, not you, that will save. Mr. Tumnus.’”

Later, he elaborates:

“’Is—is he a man?’ asked Lucy.

‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.’

‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’

‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’

‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.

‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”[2]

There is a difference, you see, between ‘good’ and ‘nice.’ We see it in Aslan, whose roar in the movie still makes my heart jump, and in the words of the prophets that help us understand who this Messiah truly is, and what he’s up to among us.

Jesus’ goal is not just to make us feel good, but to help us—and through us, the whole world—become good. And not just good, but good and compassionate and joyful and empathetic and patient and gentle and self-aware! This is work that we’ll be doing for the rest of our natural lives, and for generations to come, until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, and all is made right again.

Jesus’ coming to live among us is the fulfillment of a long-held promise, that God would not abandon us to our own devices, but would come to save us from ourselves. And at the same time, it’s a renewal of the promise that God truly is good, and has good intentions for us.

Still, as Haverkamp says, “Jesus’ second coming will be both joyful and fearsome, too. Who won’t be glad to see things made new and put right? But… what will it cost? What will be changed and refined in us? Will it hurt? How much?”[3]

C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia series, borrows from theologian George MacDonald in his book Mere Christianity, and gives us a slightly different image along these same lines:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of— throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”[4]

Jesus is not safe, but like Aslan, “he’s good,” and “he’s the King.”[5]

[1] Haverkamp, Heidi. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia, p. 86

[3] Haverkamp, Heidi. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Haverkamp, Heidi. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] Haverkamp, Heidi. Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season (Kindle Locations 657-658). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.