The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah, John answered them all, 'I baptize 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 baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear away the 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.'
But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son whom I love, with you I am well pleased."
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.
How many times have I overlooked this. Every time I have read this before, my assumption was blanketed with my religious tradition. I took it for granted that John the Baptist took the holy sea shell and scooped the Jordan River water onto Jesus' head while his sponsors stood by his side ready to receive the obligatory candle and a version of the small catechism.
Read again closely. It doesn't seem that John the Baptist could have baptized Jesus. According to the gospel writer Luke, John was already in prison so Jesus was baptized by someone not even mentioned in a biblical footnote. I think that's strange - both Mark and Matthew have included that it was John who did the ceremony, but Luke seems confused. So confused that he doesn't even seem to know who Jesus' father was. What does this say? Are the gospel writers unsure? What does this say about biblical unity? What is really going on here?
We know that Luke has a different audience and, because of our historical understanding of him as a doctor, he is writing to a different demographic. Addressed to 'Most Excellent Theophilus', it seems that Luke is giving an account to a Gentile who needs to know the 'reason for the season' if you will, and, moving quickly through Jesus' early years, through his baptism and right into his ministry, Luke is intensely interested in Jesus' ministry; the details of the baptism are relatively vague, which doesn't bother me at all. Does it really matter who baptized Jesus? Do not John the Baptist's pre-incarceration words give us an understanding of Jesus' role? John is not even worthy to untie his sandals and the baptism he is providing sounds a lot more gentle than the baptism of fire that's coming with the one whose sandals need to be untied.
Jesus is coming to clean out the threshing floor, prepare the barn and set fire to the chaff. Of course he is speaking metaphorically - biblical authors and speakers are given that opportunity; Jesus does it all the time, which means that not everything in the Bible is always to be taken literally. Is John speaking about people as the chaff? Or, is he speaking about the sin that so easily entangles that is the chaff that needs to be burned away with an unquenchable fire? It seems like the latter would be the 'good news' which John needed so many words to use, otherwise, if people are the chaff that are to be burned with unquenchable fire, there are a couple of things that need to be clarified:
1. How do I know when I've reached non-chaff-worthy status? If this is about people who are to be swept from the floor into the fire, how do I know that I'm not amidst the dross? There are too many things in my life that could possibly make me worthy of the fire, and I vacillate between sinner and saint so often that the world spins. What if I die while I'm caught on the sinner side? What if I haven't confessed all of those sins? Am I destined for the fire?
2. How is this good news for people who don't even know that they are chaff? I'm sure they've been told ad nauseum by preachers and prayers alike that they are 'a poor and miserable sinner deserving of rejection by God' that it would be easy to toss up one's hands and say, what hope do we have?
But if Luke is writing about Jesus' ability to sweep out the sin in our lives, to burn it in a fire so hot that it is cinder, we are given something greater. Isn't this the good news?
Meanwhile, back at the baptism...
It seems that John is in prison, and Jesus is hanging out with the multitudes being baptized. In Luke's gospel, we aren't given a location (it doesn't seem important), we aren't told who is doing the service (that, too, doesn't seem important) but what is deemed noteworthy is the fact that Jesus is not incising himself from the general populace for a private baptismal ceremony. Certainly, we don't even know why he is being baptized in the first place because it has nothing to do with forgiveness of sins, but it seems like an opening of a new chapter in his life: a consecration for his ministry, and it is blessed by the attendance of the Holy Spirit - the Trinity shows up: God, the voice, the one who speaks all creation into time; Jesus, the physical form, God's voice wearing clothes of flesh and the Holy Spirit, strangest of all, looks like a bird - the same bird that announces that the flood is over. The destruction of humankind is over.
In other words... It is finished. All this tomfoolery about questions like: Am I good enough? Am I acting good enough? Am I doing enough good? That's all odiophera. Small potatoes. God is finishing the power of sin, death and the devil in one fell swoop beginning at the baptism of Jesus, in the midst of his people.
He is always in community with people. That's the beauty of Jesus; there is no selfish bone in his body - no addiction to selfies; only a constant sense that people are the most important thing in the world, and he's coming to cleanse the world with the Holy Spirit and with fire - the same fire that is about to purify the world of chaff and dross and the power of sin (there is still sin, unfortunately). All is burned with unquenchable fire and by fire we are left with only one thing.
It is by two opposing forces which we are saved: water and fire. Water drowns our old self and all its needless addictions to selfishness. Fire burns our innermost thoughts of how we despise God and hate our neighbor.
It is in this baptism that Jesus brings us freedom.
There's the good news.