I find the readings for this Sunday (read them here) to be very comforting. Even though that blunt-instrument John the Baptist utters the words that many have read with fear and trembling: "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."
When I was a child, I thought this meant that some of us are wheat and some of us are chaff, and so you can imagine the anxiety that produced. And, to be honest, many a preacher has encouraged that reading. But those who do misunderstand the nature of wheat. Perhaps in the South where I grew up, the example of corn might have been more easily understood. And indeed, elsewhere in the Bible (and in some of our hymns), the example of precious metals and dross is also used.
In other words, it isn't that some people are wheat (or corn kernels or gold or silver) and others are chaff (or corn husks or imperfections present in precious metals) but that all of us are both. All of us have an essence to ourselves which is precious and good, and all of us have some other stuff that God would like to burn away for ever. Stuff that makes us less than who we were made to be. Stuff that gets in the way and diminishes us.
And Jesus is coming for the purpose of helping us slough off our chaff, our husk, our impurities and will cast it into the fire so that we can stand before God as ourselves finally unburdened of all that stuff. He came to take all that stuff away and to get rid of it for ever.
And the comfort comes from Isaiah. Throughout that process, which no doubt will be difficult and perhaps painful, God will be with us. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, says God. Even when the waters are up to your neck. Even when you walk through the fire, I will be with you, says God, because I love you.
Because I love you.
Thanks be to God.