Have you considered how many changes you have encountered throughout your life? Do you like it when things change? Are you a “go with the flow” kind of person or do you try to keep things the same at all cost? I have a mantra that life experiences have taught me; it is “you never know what is next.” Change is a given. We can have many different reactions to it. We can fear change, we can look forward to change, we can deny change and we can accept it.
Think about the change that happens when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. How does the metamorphosis happen? The change that a caterpillar encounters is as natural and miraculous as childbirth. We can't really stop it from happening and it is bigger than us. What would happen if the caterpillar said, “No, I want to stay a caterpillar all of my life. I don’t want to become a butterfly?” What would happen if a baby who was going to be born into the world tried to stop the birth process and said “No, I will stay in my mom’s womb forever?” The changes that happen in birth and in a metamorphosis do not usually get stopped. And if you think about it why would we want to stop these changes?
When we hear the prophet Zephaniah say “Fear not, God is in our midst,” he is talking about something much bigger than us. It is a metamorphosis kind of change that God’s very presence evokes. You see God’s righteousness is being born in our midst every time shame is transformed into new life or oppression is transformed into freedom.
John the Baptist also teaches about transformation. In today’s gospel he is trying to let people know that being baptized by the Holy Spirit is not just about being immersed in water. John is talking about the transformative changes that happen when the Spirit sweeps the “threshing floors” of our lives so that we can be transformed into children of God. He talks about the winnowing fork. Do you know what that is? I had to look it up myself because I didn't know how wheat is harvested.
One part of the process in harvesting wheat is winnowing. The wheat is lifted up either by a fork or in a basket and the air blows through so that the “good fruit” of the wheat is sifted out of the dirt and husks. This process is similar to what can happen to us when we encounter the transformative love of God. The good fruits of our lives can be harvested.
John is teaching the people that he preached to and is teaching us today about what happens to our hearts when we are baptized in the Spirit. A metamorphosis-like change will transform our hearts so that God’s purpose will become our purpose. The spirit blows through us winnowing out the good fruit of our lives leaving the husks and dirt of fear and hatred to be discarded and put on the fire.
Both Zephaniah and John are giving us good news about how God’s presence evokes transformation and new life. But with these changes, that are bigger than us, comes experiences that can be painful and even frightening. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s presence winnows out sin and evil so that righteousness prevails. God’s righteousness is, according to theologian Deborah Block, “the humble ethic of living toward others in just and loving relationships.”
It is tempting to be like a caterpillar that doesn't want to become a butterfly. We can get weighed down with fear. We never know what is next. Sometimes what is next can seem to us to be unbearable. The good news is God is with us. God is in our midst. God changes fear into joy and transforms death or loss of any kind into new life. Transformations do not happen instantly. Our part is to just be open and allow God in our midst to cleanse and purify us.
People often naively believe that stepping into God’s kindom is like stepping into a spiritual utopia filled with no problems or worries. To the contrary, stepping foot into the kindom as a follower of Christ leads to transformation.
The Spirit sweeps the threshing floor of our hearts often. God does not overpower us rather God offers us a love that miraculously births us into a place of growth and change. The pain in childbirth and the struggle that a caterpillar encounters as it comes out of the cocoon are images of the similar changes our hearts encounter when we open them to the transformative love of God.
We encounter pain and a need to let go of the dirt and the husks that try to keep us in a place of fear, shame and oppression. But what comes next is well worth the pain and the letting go. What comes next is God’s purpose becomes our purpose and we begin living toward others in just and loving relationships. Fear will become joy and the oppressed will be set free as we live into God’s transformative presence. What kind of changes have you encountered lately? Have you experienced any pain or struggles? Could that be the Spirit sweeping the threshing floor of your heart? If so, hear the words of Zephaniah, “Fear not for God is in our midst.”