Baptism with Fire: A Reflection on Luke 3.7-18

As December pushes on with all its unrelenting preparations and pressures, our Sunday Gospels in Advent are much the same: unrelenting in their insistence that we stop and pay attention and prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord. Today’s Gospel, Luke 3.7-18, once again features John the Baptist, unrelentingly and unrepentantly preparing the way for Jesus. John had a message and he was going to deliver it, come hell or high water. But what might that message be telling us today, living as we do in a very different world, and two thousand years after the events for which he was preparing?

John the Baptist was many things, but relaxed was not one of them. In today’s Gospel, we see his characteristic intensity on full display. He goes after everyone, calling the people flocking to hear him preach “a brood of vipers” and warning them that their biological heritage as the People of God means nothing. The axe is primed and ready to fell anyone whose life does not bear good fruit: He commands them to share their food and clothing with those who have none; he demands tax collectors and soldiers to be happy with their base pay and not use their positions of bureaucratic or military power to oppress others for their own advantage. He is worked up and gets his crowd worked up too. They start to murmur, “Could he be the one?” “Could he be God’s Anointed come to free us and set the nation aright?” But John quells their rumours, 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.

These are vivid, apocalyptic images. And as such, we need to spend some time unpacking them.

The one to come would baptize, like John did, but instead of a ritual washing in water, it would be with the Holy Spirit and fire. The giving of the Holy Spirit to all of the faithful, and not just a select few, was a major sign in the Prophets of the Day of the LORD, and indeed it is a major theme in Luke and Acts of the new world order established in the coming of Jesus. So the first part of this new kind of baptism is in step with messianic expectations and Luke’s way of looking at the world. But how we should interpret the second half, fire, is less obvious. In the context of the warning that comes next, where the ‘chaff’ are threatened with destruction by fire, it’s easy to see this in terms of fire and brimstone. But, I don’t believe that’s the best way to look at it.

Fire, like all of the elements, is a multifaceted image. Yes, fire is destructive, but it also sustains and protects us. In the Hebrew Bible, it is a common sign of the presence of God: It was in fire that Moses first met God, it was in a pillar of fire that God led the Hebrews in the wilderness, and it was out of fire that God spoke on Sinai. Most helpful for our purposes is the prophet Malachi’s famous reference to God as a “refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap.” This is helpful because it links fire, not just with the presence of God, but specifically with purification and cleansing, which are also baptismal images. With this wealth of meanings in mind, the baptism of the one to come — whom we Christians identify, of course, with Jesus — refines us through the Holy Spirit working in and through us.

Even the image of the wheat and the chaff that follows is more nuanced than we might realize at first glance. This is not the parable of the weeds growing among wheat (Matthew 13), or even the trees chopped down for the fire earlier in this reading. There, it’s easy to read people or even whole nations as nothing but fuel for the fire. But something else is going on here. Chaff is part of the wheat itself; it’s the tough protective shell of the kernel, helpful for the growing plant, but useless for human purposes. John starts with the more palatable idea of the bad guys getting their due before twisting the metaphor to remind his audience that we all have bad within us along with the good. We find ourselves yet again at Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous words: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts” (The Gulag Archipelago). No one can therefore avoid the Refiner’s Fire. Jesus did not shy away from this fiery imagery, but appropriated it for himself, saying: “I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49).

So what might all this have to say to us today, on the other side not only of Christmas, but also of Easter and Pentecost?

What we have here is a call to radical openness to God, to allow, as much as we are able, the Holy Spirit to do her refining work within our hearts and lives, to burn away the chaff so that nothing remains but that which bears the good and beautiful fruit of Spirit. To return to our Advent question — “When I wake up Christmas morning, how will I be different?” — today’s message from Luke reminds us to look within, at whatever it may be that is keeping us from loving others as God loves us. And, like the chaff that is there to protect the kernel within, it may be coping mechanisms or strategies or barriers we’ve developed to protect the good within us but which no longer serve us.

And so today, we pray with John, that Christ will come with fire.

Lord Jesus, come soon.

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