Have you ever seen sidewalk chalk illusions? I’m talking about the realistic, 3D pictures that look like a real deep cavern has opened up in the road coming up. Or maybe the picture is a monster lurking in a cave. The dog in the picture above seems like it is not fooled at all. In life, though, we humans are often fooled, believing we have something figured, only to find out that we were wrong. That’s precisely what happens to John the Baptist, as we’ll discover this week in our Advent 2022 series on John’s preaching in Matthew 3.
In this Advent series, Daymarr Jackson began with Week 1, teaching us John’s vision for hope in the Kingdom of God. Last week, we looked at how John describes how peace with God and others comes through repentance. This week John is about to get a surprise. Look at what John says in Matthew chapter 3, verse 11. John is still preaching to and baptizing people by the Jordan River, but in Matthew 3, verse 11, John makes a shift in his preaching. Here’s what he says:
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
Someone more powerful than him? Someone who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire? That alone is intriguing. It also sounds rather dangerous.
Fire is a regular part of life at my house, mostly because we burn wood in a wood stove for our primary heat throughout the cold months. It’s astounding how hot that stove gets. The door has brass and glass, and one small touch will melt you. So this year, now that my wife Michelle is watching our grandson on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we bought a heat screen to protect him. He’s one year old and wonderfully curious, but whenever he goes near the stove or even looks at it, we say in a stern voice, “Hot!” and we move him away.
Could you imagine being baptized with fire? We’re not talking about a sauna or a suntan bed. What is John talking about? How is a person baptized with fire? Or with the Holy Spirit for that matter? At least the idea of being baptized with the Holy Spirit doesn’t sound like it will burn you up. But that Holy Spirit baptism might fill you up with the Spirit, and that too might seem a bit scary. So far, though, John doesn’t explain anything.
He also doesn’t identify who he is talking about. John goes on in verse 12 to give a few more details about what this more powerful fire and Spirit baptizer will do.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
What are winnowing forks, threshing floors and chaff? In the American culture in which I live, with its industrial farms and mega-equipment, we don’t harvest grain like they did in ancient days. My backyard is adjacent to corn fields. Each year at harvest, the farmer uses combines, tractors and trailers to harvest the fields. If it were a wheat field, they’d do pretty much the same thing. Big machines can harvest massive acreages fast. You hop in your combine, plug in the coordinates of the GPS, and let artificial intelligence drive and harvest away. You can monitor it on your smart phone. Maybe you’re sitting in the combine’s driver’s seat just in case, but no worry…its climate controlled, and you have data on your cell phone, so you can check your email and social media, while listening to music online.
In the culture of the first century Roman Empire, there in Palestine, however, harvesting wheat was a very labor-intensive process. You brought piles of wheat to a threshing floor which was a flat piece of hard ground or stone on which you would slam the wheat to separate the wheat kernel from its shell. Then you would use a winnowing fork, kind of like a pitchfork, to throw the wheat stalks up in the air. The slightly heavier kernels of wheat would then fall to the ground, while the light shell, now called chaff, would float away in the breeze. What you are left with is wheat kernels. You’d do that over and over and over with more and more bundles of wheat. That’s a lot of work. But it was worth it because you wanted to be able to use and sell wheat. You needed to get rid of the chaff. You don’t make bread out of chaff. You make bread out of wheat.
What do you do with the chaff? The stalks of wheat? You don’t need that anymore, so you burn it. John is saying that this Spirit and fire baptizer person is going to do that work too. Threshing. Winnowing. Separating. Burning. But John is not talking about farming anymore. We know that because he uses the word “unquenchable” to describe the fire. It’s an eternal flame. It cannot be quenched.
We have eternal flames too. There’s an eternal flame at the grave of JFK in Arlington cemetery. But is that really an eternal flame? No. In fact, it has been extinguished three times in the past 50+ years. Once in 1963 by Catholic schoolchildren when they were blessing it with holy water. Once in 1967 when a heavy rainstorm not only extinguished the flame, but also flooded the transformer that provides electric current to the site, so that the auto-reigniter malfunctioned. Then in 2013, renovations forced a temporary extinguishing.
But there is another eternal flame, the one John is referring to. The flame of judgment. I’m not sure if John is referring to judgment in the afterlife. He might be. He might also be speaking symbolically, using a metaphor, saying that there is someone coming, someone more powerful than John who will baptize with Spirit and fire, and that person will separate people, just like a farmer separates wheat from chaff. People will be separated either to blessing or to judgment.
And then John’s sermon stops. No more details. If you were in the crowd that day, and John stopped his sermon right there, you might be thinking, “What??? That’s it??? What do you mean, John? Baptism by fire? Separating wheat from chaff? How do I know if I’m a wheat or a chaff? And this person is greater than you? He doesn’t sound greater than you. He sounds super dangerous. You need to tell us more!”
Maybe John did tell them more. We don’t know. What is important is that when this book came out decades later, people read the book. Just like you and I can still today. We can find out what happens next. That means our questions about this Spirit and fire baptizer person can be answered. For those answers, check back to the next post.
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