Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:
“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.’
“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.’"
I laughed when I read the gospel in the lectionary last week.
John the Baptist often has that kind of effect on me, which may be the point. I don’t laugh out of ridicule or mockery. Rather, John wakes me to the unexpected and absurd nature of good news.
The laughter was specifically centered on a verse actually skipped by the lectionary, a non-important juncture, so it would seem, in the flow of the story of our Lord’s baptism.
I read it anyway.
Right after John the Baptizer tells us about chaff burning with unquenchable fire, the narrator says: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3:18).
Is that not hilarious? I could not contain myself.
Oh yeah, One is coming, John said, who will baptize us with Spirit and fire—sounds pretty cool—and then, smackdown, this Coming One will separate chaff from the grain and BURN IT WITH FIRE.
Which is good news, Luke says.
What the heck about burning anything with unquenchable fire is supposed to be good news? When is unquenchable fire EVER good news?
And yet, there it is in the black and white. The coming of our Lord Jesus and his expert winnowing is straight up, according to brother Luke, good news.
It is also absurd. Absolutely absurd.
And I laugh, perhaps nervously. He’s talking about judgement, for crying out loud. How can this be good news?
My childhood religious environment issued judgement as a threat, which is decidedly not good news. Remembering my baptism this time of year puts me in deep contact with that world again. I was baptized at age 7 because a revival preacher convinced me that God was mad at me and to rectify that anger I needed to get dunked. I needed to say certain words and pray a certain thing in order to unlock the Love that had up to that point always been mine without question.
Have to laugh to keep from crying at that.
I have since put childish ways behind me as best that I can, though the young one within me still remembers the threat of judgement. She tugs at the corner of my psyche sometimes in warning, begging me to be careful with God’s good graces.
When I am at my best I remind her of all we have learned along the Way. I ask her to re-member us to that faithful God who never left us or forsook us, despite those well-meant but harmful lies of easy “faith.”
I ask her to re-member us to the Jesus who came to seek and save the lost, who came bringing healing for victims, salvation for sinners, and liberation for the whole creation (See Triune Atonement by Andrew Sung Park for a beautiful exploration of this).
On our best days we take a step together away from childish faith and venture the absurdity of the good news.
John meant Christ’s pitchfork judgement to be a good thing, Luke tells us, and so I venture to lean in just a little, a tiny flame of hope burning in my chest.
How can judgement be good?
When it’s not deciding between who’s in and who’s out, but rather which way is up. That’s when.
Judgement can be good when it is the light of truth burning through the lies that would keep us quaking and afraid.
Judgement can be good when it means liberation.
Grain and chaff are parts of the same plant. The grain part leads to new life and nourishment. The chaff is the stuff that helped the grain get to where it is, but is no longer useful.
While addressing broods of vipers and the like (Luke 3:7), folks terribly confused about the point of faith and the Coming One, John yells the best news he can imagine at them—You. Will. Soon. Know. the. Truth!
And the truth will what? Set you free (John 8:32). Not stick you in a fiery pit and leave you there. Nope.
Jesus comes with his winnowing fork to break us free from that which is not really us. To help us let go of old frameworks that leave us rotting in the field and be released into the lively germinating and nourishing process that befits all grain.
What the religious environment of my upbringing got wrong was thinking that the grain and the chaff were different types of people. But that could never be good news, so it can’t be true. It could only ever amount to fearmongering, finger-pointing fake news.
Baptism is not about fire insurance, but about the beginning of refinement—of liberation from the chaff that keeps us from our essential selfhoods.
Jesus came to reveal what is really Real about us:
You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.