Time seems to move differently at various stages of one’s life. When you are young and eager to learn and discover and go on adventures, time seems to lag. Standing still for too long can seem like an eternity. Time moves slow as you count down the days until you can drive a car or buy you first beer. But as you get older, as people frequently tell me who are on the opposite end of that spectrum, when you are much older time seems to slip by with terrifying ease. Days melt seamlessly into weeks which turn quickly into months and then years. Before you know what has happened a whole decade can be swallowed up in the blink of an eye. In fact, what people call a mid-life crisis is often simply what happens when one becomes aware of this shifting sense of time. There is a moment when the routines and patterns of life which once gave meaning and purpose to endless days now only allow time to move too fast. So, one begins to look for something, anything to disrupt the normal flow of things.
The movement of time throughout our lives effects every part of who you are. It impacts your physicality, your mental capacity, and, of course, your spirituality as well. If we do not stop to smell the roses or contemplate life every now and again, we can find ourselves in a place we never imagined at the beginning. But for us, the arrival of John the Baptist on the pages of Scripture works as sort of a wake-up call to our typical movement through life, especially regarding your faith. John works like a line drawn in the sand, or perhaps even better, he operates as a very real dividing wall which cannot simply be ignored or passed by. John must be dealt with. Time cannot simply role on, not with John standing in the way. This is the great forerunner of our Lord, the voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. The road to Jesus goes through John the Baptist.
The Baptist’s message is clear and simple. Repent, for the Kingdom Heaven is at hand. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to change the way you think and act, to turn back to the Lord your God. Repent because God’s Kingdom has arrived. It has come to govern, to rule over the people. It has come in our Lord Jesus Christ. And people were flocking out to him to do just that. They came repenting of their sins. They did not simply continue on in the flow of time, they were shaken awake, startled into urgent action. Eventually, the religious leaders of the day catch wind of what is going on out there around the Jordan River and they head out to see what is happening for themselves. The Pharisees and Sadducees went to the baptism of John, but they do not seem to be coming with genuine repentance and do not appear to have any intention of changing their behavior. They do not want to experience the preaching and baptism of John for themselves. Rather, they seem to come scoffing and rejecting what he is doing with every intention of just continuing on as things have gone before. They come to look at the weirdo dressed in camel’s hair garments and eating locust and wild honey. They do not come to heed his desperate warning.
But John cannot be ignored. John cannot simply be brushed aside. Like the great prophets before him, John does not hesitate to call it like he sees it, and he is clearly not worried about making new friends. “You brood of vipers!” he says, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Of course, this is probably a little less cordial than these religious leaders were used to hearing. There is wrath coming, there is destruction on the horizon, which is why he is calling for repentance. So, if this brood of vipers is really desiring to be spared, they must bear fruit in keeping with repentance. They cannot simply claim their lineage, their connection to Abraham. They cannot continue to roll on as things have been going. Because things are different, now is the day to repent. For as John says, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John is making it quite clear that the arrival of God in our Lord Jesus Christ is a definitive moment in time. This is not just a continuation of the old, not simply the rolling on of time. This is a new thing God is doing. So, John confesses, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” John prepares the way for the mightier One. He prepares the world for the One who will separate the wheat from the chaff for all eternity, the One who will clear His threshing floor.
This is the wrath to come. This is the moment John is warning us about. If we thought John was a line drawn in the sand, Jesus is the final division. Either one will receive Him, trust in Him, believe in Him, or they will reject Him, discredit Him, deny Him. Now, at this point a lot of people will begin to make some distinction regarding the difference between wheat and chaff. Perhaps you will look at yourself and wonder if you have what it takes to be the wheat which gets swept up and stored in the barn or will you be consumed by the eternal fire as the useless chaff? But that is not the process of clearing a threshing floor. A threshing floor was the place where all the harvested wheat would go, for every grain of wheat contains both the good grain and the chaff which works as sort of shell around it. The wheat needed to be crushed under weight to break off the husk. Then the winnowing fork is used to throw the wheat into the air. The wind would blow from one side carrying away the lighter chaff allowing the heavier grain to fall back to the ground. This process was repeated over and again to permanently separate the wheat from the chaff.
What this means for you is you are not either wheat or chaff, but both. In fact, the process of clearing the threshing floor is the process of separating out the good from the bad, the saint from the sinner. It is not done by separating you from one another, but by pulling you apart to your core, by breaking you, and saving you. The coming of the Word made flesh is the coming of the One who will not allow the status quo to just roll on. He will clear His threshing floor, which means He will smash you with His Law to crack your hard shell of arrogance and selfish pride. He will point out your sin and declare just how far you have fallen from the grace of God. He will sift you with His Word, measure your obedience, and empty you of any standing on your own. This is the point of repentance. This is the place where we die to ourselves, where we see the foolishness of our own works. Therefore, with desperate and empty hands you have nothing to give but everything depends solely on the grace of God.
And the coming of the mightier One, the coming of the One who chops down the unfruitful tree is also the coming of the One of promise, the One of life, the One of hope. For as He clears His threshing floor, He strips you of hope in yourselves. He then gives abundantly of all He has. He gives to you hope, life, and salvation. He gives a perfect life, a sacrificial death, and a resurrection from the grave. He gives to you welcome and inclusion in the eternal Paradise of God. He gives you garments of righteousness and the proclamation that you are forgiven of all your sins. To trust in Him, to believe in the promises of Christ, is to be the good wheat. It is to be the fruitful tree. It is to bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Our time, our life does not just roll-on uninterrupted. You have been changed by your God, and you are being changed even now. Washed and sifted by His Word, you have been broken in your sin and justified in the love of Christ. Jesus is clearing His threshing floor; He is doing it even now. And one day, you will see with your eyes the wonder’s He is doing in your midst. You will see how carefully He has separated out the wheat from the useless chaff. You will see the eternal life He has prepared for you.