Last week we started our new series on baking bread with the harvest. We learned that in order to make bread, we need to follow four steps: harvest , threshing, grinding into flour, and finally combining with other ingredients to bake into bread. We also learned, more importantly, that the time for harvest is now, but only through the harvest can we actually begin to live in Christ.
Tonight we will continue this series by discussing the second step -- threshing. Threshing wheat simply means separating the actual wheat kernel from the chaff, which is a coarse, dry, and scaly covering. The chaff is not edible and really doesn’t have any use as far as humans are concerned. A good example of chaff for those of us who have never been on a wheat farm is that dry, papery stuff around a peanut right after it’s shelled. That’s the chaff of a peanut! Unfortunately, in order to get rid of chaff, you need to do a lot of hard work.
One of the first methods people used to get rid of the chaff involved animals -- they would spread the wheat on hard ground -- either rocky or hard-packed dirt. They would then make oxen or donkeys walk in circles on the kernels. The weight and force of the animals stepping on the wheat would force the chaff to separate. Afterward, the people would gather up the wheat kernels in baskets for the next step.
If oxen, donkeys, or other large animals were not available; they would thresh the wheat by hand. This was accomplished via a threshing flail, a long pole connected to a shorter rod by a short chain. The dimensions were different depending on what they needed to thresh (wheat versus rice versus barley, etc) but wheat flails typically had a 5-foot handle connected to a 3-foot rod. People would pile the wheat kernels up on a wooden or stone floor and beat it with the flail until the chaff had separated. One could expect to thresh around sixty pounds of wheat per hour -- that’s about 480 pounds of wheat threshed by hand per day.
This is a brief video that shows the old method of threshing.
As a side note -- threshing flails are thought to be the origin of nunchucks. Japanese and Chinese farmers would use their threshing flails as makeshift weapons against bandits, robbers, or overzealous tax collectors sent by the emperor.
Back to threshing. Farmers have already done a lot of work -- but they weren’t done yet! The oxen and the threshing flails couldn’t get all of the chaff separated -- there were still several bits stuck onto the kernels. In order to remove the last pieces of chaff, they would toss the kernels using a pitchfork-type tool or a special basket to let the wind blow away the remaining pieces of chaff. The heavier kernels would then fall back down to the ground. This is called winnowing.
Compare this to what a modern combine harvester can accomplish. One man with a harvester and one man with a truck can harvest, thresh, and winnow more than five tons of wheat per day, compared to 480 pounds per day when doing it by hand.
Farming is hard, even with the help of today’s advanced technology. But it was still something that was understood by everyone at that time. Even people who were not farmers -- like all of the disciples -- understood what threshing and winnowing meant. This is why John the Baptist used it as an example when describing Jesus. Turn to Luke chapter 3. Here, John the Baptist is doing his thing, baptising people in the Jordan river. He’s already started to get quite a name for himself, drawing crowds of followers. At one point, John is asked if he is the Messiah! John answers them starting with verse 16: “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. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’”
Well, that’s vivid, isn’t it? There is a lot going on here, especially in verse 17. Let’s hear it again, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
At first glance, this verse seems fairly straightforward. It sounds similar to the harvest I described last week -- God is separating His people from the world’s people. His people go into the barn (meaning Heaven) and everyone else is burned with an unquenchable fire (meaning Hell). Easy peasy lemon squeezy, right?
Well, yes, actually. This verse does mean that. But it also can apply in a more specific, personal way to all of our lives. Let’s think back to the message from last week a bit. The harvest is us deciding which way we want to go -- do we want to live a life in the world or live a life in Christ. That decision, that part, is completely up to us. God granted us free will so that we could choose Him -- He has too much love and respect for us to simply force us to love Him. Forced love is not really love at all.
So, that being said, we choose what happens during the harvest because we get to choose who we follow. Once we make that choice, though, our work is not done. Talk is cheap. We can say that we choose Christ all day long, but if our actions don’t show it, we haven’t really done anything. Turn to Matthew 7:16-20. “16By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
In other words, good fruit comes from an honest decision, and bad fruit comes from a dishonest decision. And look back there in verse 19 -- “cut down and thrown into the fire”. There’s the “fire” again! I’m seeing a pattern, here.
So talk is cheap, we must show that we really mean it through our actions. This is the first step after the harvest -- the threshing. This is when we tell ourselves that we cannot go through life alone anymore, that we need help. When we do this, the world tries to beat us down. We try to stop sinning, but wham! We have a moment of weakness and sin. We try to start reading our Bible more, and wham! We get distracted by Instagram and Snapchat and that cute girl over there and just forget about our Bible. But think about the video we saw earlier -- every time one of those rods hit the wheat, a bit of chaff got loosened. With every painful strike of a wooden rod, a bit of good happened. When we think things are hurting, they’re really helping.
There’s a story that’s been passed around for ages about a farmer and his donkey. One day, the donkey -- who was particularly annoying and stubborn -- decided he just didn’t want to work and ran away from the farmer. While he was running, enjoying the freedom of being away from his Master, he falls down an old abandoned well. Scared, the donkey starts to bray, calling for help and hoping that his Master can hear.
Of course, the farmer does hear, and runs over to see what was wrong. He looks down into the well, sees the donkey, then just shakes his head. He walks over and grabs a shovel, then starts digging up dirt from around the well and throwing it right on top of the donkey! The donkey begins to panic, convinced that this was the end of the line, and the farmer would bury him alive. The urge to survive is a powerful one, though; so the donkey shakes the dirt off. With every shovelful, the level of dirt in the well rises and rises. Eventually, this cycle continued enough times that the donkey was able to rise up from the deep dark depths of his mistake and walk out into safety.
Sometimes things that hurt are really designed to make our lives better.
It’s interesting to note, back in our verse in Luke, that Jesus has a winnowing fork, not a threshing flail. I believe this is intentional. See, we can do a lot on our own -- we can decide to accept Christ; we can decide to pray and meditate on the Bible, we can even decide to begin to try to live a more Godly life. However, it takes the influence and input of Christ in order to completely live a sin free life -- in fact, we are so sinful as a species that we can never truly be sinless so long as we live.
But Jesus Christ Himself is holding the winnowing fork. He tosses us up, allowing the divine, holy wind of redemption to blow over our lives, finally and permanently removing the last traces of sin and darkness from our lives. Only after this can we be pure.
See, we all have things that need to be taken away before we can be truly useful to the kingdom of God. For some of us it’s pride. Others struggle with anger. Still others face trials of lust, or an addiction, or dishonesty, or any of a number of other sins that plague us here in the world.
But there’s more to chaff than just an example of sin in our lives. Chaff covers up, or hides, the useful part of the wheat. It’s removed by threshing and winnowing because it is not needed, and gets in the way of the intended purpose of that plant -- to be ground into flour to make bread. In this way, chaff is also a representation of what we all do to hide our true self, not only to ourselves but to others. My sister-in-law used to say before church that she had to “put on her Jesus face”. What she meant was that she felt like she had to pretend that everything was OK, and everything about her life was perfect, before she would go into church. She got so sick of feeling like she had to lie to go to church that she just quit going altogether. This is not OK! Jesus doesn’t want us to try to be perfect before we form a relationship with Him, He wants us to meet Him where we are.
Think about it for a moment. If Jesus wanted all of us to have our lives right with God before He would save us, we’d all be sunk. He never would have died on the cross for our sins, because there would always be someone who wasn’t living right. But the Bible says in Romans 5:6-8, “6You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This says it very clearly -- God doesn’t want us to be right with him before we form a relationship because it would never happen! We simply cannot be right with God without the blood of Jesus covering our lives. That’s why we should never pretend when we come to church. Romans 3:23 is a very famous verse, many of us could quote it now. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But read that in connection with verse 24, and suddenly you see the point that Paul was making when he wrote the book of Romans: “and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
If we all have sinned, we all fall short of the glory of God, and we are all justified freely through the redemption of Christ, then why do we pretend that we all have it all together? Why do we act surprised when we learn that someone in church has sinned? Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” If we hide everything that’s wrong with our lives, how can we expect someone else to sharpen us? We need to allow the pretense of perfection to be blown away with our sin -- leaving our true selves uncovered and unashamed before God.
So, I think we can all agree that chaff is something that we don’t need nor want in our lives, and it should be taken away. Great! God is good at doing that sort of thing -- there’s a reason why He sent Jesus to “hold the winnowing fork”, as described in Luke. But think back to what it actually takes to separate wheat from chaff. Imagine what the wheat goes through! It’s trampled by animals or beaten repeatedly with a large wooden stick. Then it’s tossed into the air and allowed to freefall back to earth, where it’s tossed again and again until all of the kernels have no more chaff. Only then can it be used.
Sounds like it’s a lot of work, right? Thankfully we now have machinery to take care of that for us, right? Well, no. A combine harvester does the exact same thing to thresh and winnow wheat, it just does it faster. Wheat is taken into the front of the harvester where it’s beaten repeatedly by metal rods. It’s then shaken violently into a series of sieves that are blown by a large fan, allowing the kernel to remain on top while the chaff blows away. Then the kernels are taken up a conveyer belt to the waiting truck, where they can finally be taken to be used.
No matter how you do it, threshing and winnowing sounds like it hurts. And that’s OK! Sometimes things that hurt are those things that cause the most good in our lives. When I was a kid, the PE coaches in school would often say phrases like “No pain, no gain” or “pain is weakness leaving the body”. As much as I hated to admit it, they’re absolutely right! They were referring to exercise, of course, but their point remains. God will never hurt us simply for the purpose of causing pain. He will, however, work in us to make us more Godly men and women -- even if that process will cause pain.
In today’s culture, pain is considered to be a negative thing. And many times it is -- pain is the body’s way of saying that something’s not normal. But we don’t want to be normal! We want to be abnormal -- we want to be true followers of Christ. If it hurts, so much the better -- we know that the pain we feel is God making us stronger by removing the chaff in our lives. And that makes it all worth it.