“I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise 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 barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 3:16-18

John the Baptiser is calling people to rethink (repent), to clean up their act and to be transformed. John can exhort and proclaim. He can use water to symbolically enact the cleansing. But he has no power to actually cleanse or transform. Only God Himself, in the person of Jesus, can do that through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The “unquenchable fire” reference immediately takes many of us to medieval descriptions of a Last Judgement, with souls lined up to be ushered either into everlasting paradise or consigned to eternal torment. But is that what John is talking about? Can he really be saying that some people are wheat while others are chaff, and if you’re chaff then you better hurry up and transform yourself into wheat before it’s too late?

It makes more sense to me that the “good news” John is announcing is that while we (and John no less than we) are powerless to transform ourselves and thus the society in which we live, one who does have that power is finally coming.

How does that transformation from broken and messed up to restored and vibrant work? It will involve a good wash down for a start. A gentle soak in a lathery bath may not be sufficient, and being fully submerged or power-hosed for a time may well not be a fun experience. But God had promised:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

Isaiah 43

Now, in the person of Jesus, He affirms that promise:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.

Luke 3:21

Then there is the work of clearing up, carefully picking out the things that need to be saved and getting rid of the rubbish. To use an agricultural metaphor, the grain on the threshing floor needs to be sifted through with a winnowing fork to separate the wheat that needs to be gathered up from the chaff that needs to be burned up. The more thorough this process, the more fantastic the bread at the end of it. Letting go of the dead and flaky stuff is not necessarily easy or comfortable, but again God has promised:

When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Isaiah 43

That sounds much more like good news to me, even though I may need to be exhorted to come forward as the process may be daunting.

Inspired in large part by Brian Zahnd’s sermon “Water and Flame.”