The waters of baptism wash over us cleansing and refreshing and re-birthing.
And even though the Baptizer was a wild sort of man, living in the wilderness, he must not have been drowning people. They kept coming, seeking … something. Reconciliation? Enlightenment? Or perhaps the thrill of a communal experience, like the charge we get in the crowd at a rock concert when something shocking happens.
Because he was not soft.
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.” (Luke 3:15-17)
Suddenly cool, cleansing waters are replaced with fire — unquenchable fire.
We’re far too inclined, in the institutional world of religion, to rest on the collective interpretation of this text, that it applies to who is in and who is out. Get baptized and you will be gathered into the granary; go the other way and you will burn with unquenchable fire. And the Messiah will be the one standing by the bonfire.
It sounds almost gleeful.
Not that, Lord. Not that.
John may be wondering about himself, too. Where will he stand when the real Messiah arrives? Will his work be judged worthy? Has he done his job well? Will he be gathered in, or set aflame?
When I was a little Southern Baptist girl growing up in Virginia, I had a very simple understanding that amounted to just about that. You had to be very good indeed to be part of the community of God’s beloved children. I couldn’t possibly be that good, no matter what I did. Oh, I tried! I wasn’t one of those people who just gave up and did whatever she pleased, nor was I one of those people who rejected faith because it sounded hard. I kept trying, but never with a sense that it would turn out well for me.
Later, I grew up. I became more psychological, even though I kept up the church part of things. I reflected on my life. I realized the things in the previous paragraph. I came to understand their root causes, intellectually.
But they continued to cling to me, even as I became a mother, a Sunday School teacher, a seminary student. No matter how hard I tried, I was likely to end up in the flames. Not you, though. I felt sure all of you would receive grace and forgiveness. This was a very small, though unquenchable, fire I imagined.
I knew why I felt this way, but I couldn’t stop feeling it.
The winnowing fork always sounded violent to me. I think when I read threshing I heard “thrashing.” But to winnow is “to free (grain) from the lighter particles of chaff, dirt, etc., especially by throwing it into the air and allowing the wind or a forced current of air to blow away impurities.” Winnowing isn’t separating good wheat from bad wheat. It’s letting the unnecessary bits fly off what is already good and useful.
When Jesus winnows, he keeps us and lets the bad parts go.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Did it happen to him, too? I like that in Luke’s version it doesn’t happen just as soon as he comes up out of the water. When all the people were baptized, and Jesus, too, and he was praying, then the Holy Spirit came. Then the voice from heaven came. What did baptism winnow for Jesus? Did he wonder what he was doing there? What God wanted from him? Did he realize it fully only then?
In his life, in his human life, I find hope that the process of winnowing is not a one-time activity, a once-for-all choice for or against me or you by a fire-tending God. I find hope that the bits of chaff we have accumulated can be blown off by a Holy Breeze. I find hope that we can be free.