I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12)
I still remember the baptism song we would sing at the church I grew up in, even though it has been thirteen years or so since I have attended there regularly.
Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king. Born of the Spirit, we are God’s children, joyfully now God’s praises we sing.
It’s a lovely song. I like it.
I also think it’s interesting that in this song, and just in general, we like to think of baptism as baptism with water, but we’re not as comfortable with the image of baptism with fire. But baptism with Holy Spirit and with fire is what John the Baptist says that Jesus will do.
Literally speaking, baptism with fire seems a bit dicey. I’m picturing, I don’t know, singeing a couple of a baby’s hairs with a candle instead of sprinkling water on her head, or having an adult run across hot coals instead of dunking him in a baptismal tub.
I’m not saying we should do these things in church…although it could make for an interesting service. But I do think it’s important to ask some questions. Questions like, why is John talking about baptism in fire? What does baptism with fire even mean?
Of course, I don’t have all the answers…or much at all in the way of answers…but I do suspect that it has something to do with what John says next: Jesus’ winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
In our world as we experience it, wheat and chaff are all jumbled up in one big pile, and it’s often hard to tell what’s what. Weeds and wheat grow side by side, and you can’t really root up one without destroying the other as well (Matthew 13:24-29). Evil things are hidden in darkness and smoothed over with nice-sounding language, and people love that darkness, not wanting who they really are and what they’ve really done to be exposed (John 3:19-21).
Yes, Jesus came to offer forgiveness. But that image―the image of forgiveness of debts, like having someone pay off your student loans for you―is only one image the New Testament offers us as we try to wrap our minds around who Jesus is and what Jesus does. As we see in this passage, Jesus came not just to forgive debts, but also to winnow. To clear. To gather. And to burn.
Jesus came to sort out and clarify what’s good and what’s evil. To name these things as such, in a way that’s completely right and accurate―which proves elusive for even the most discerning of humans. Jesus came to bring light that exposes the things done in darkness, so that justice is no longer obstructed, and people no longer suffer under oppressive systems and leaders.
We like to think that no one is above the law; unfortunately, and often tragically, again and again, that proves not quite true. But no one―really, no one―is able to avoid Jesus’ cleansing fire, no matter what kind of political office or other sources of earthly authority they might hold.
In Greek, the words used in this passage for “clear” and for “burn” are very strong. We might say that Jesus will “thoroughly cleanse” the threshing floor, and that the chaff will be “burned up completely,” or “utterly consumed.” Powerful people get away with doing evil things for now, but, in time, Jesus will bring judgment, with clarity and thoroughness―a judgment that is, finally, fully complete, and entirely good.
Of course, in our more honest moments, most of us can easily see that the line between good and evil does not run between Judean peasant and Pharisee, or between regular citizen and corrupt dictator or president, in any kind of straightforward way. We know, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.
And so, John’s statements about Jesus―that Jesus baptizes by fire, that Jesus comes to cleanse the threshing floor thoroughly and burn up evil completely―offer both a hope that Jesus will judge people with power who do not do right by others and a hope that Jesus will cleanse each of us from the evil within us. The suffering we bring to ourselves and to other humans through our own selfishness will not last forever. Jesus is making us new and will make us new, burning up completely all of the chaff within us.
May we, like John the Baptist, see and welcome Jesus’ chaff-burning, baptizing-with-fire work, both in and around us.