Scripture for this Sunday (celebration of the Baptism of Christ):
Isaiah 43.1–7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14–17; Luke 3.15–17, 21–22
Luke’s account of Christ’s baptism is preceded by words from John the Baptist: “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.”
Wait a minute – what’s all this about fire? We don’t toast babies!
Some denominations have come to interpret this as an anticipation of the fiery death of martyrs, but John’s language does not necessarily imply that.
He goes on to talk about a “winnowing” fork – and this in turn can conjure up a sort of mediaeval artist’s impression of God tossing human beings up to fall into either safety or a purging fire. However, perhaps we can look to the landscape of Menorca, and the big threshing circles that dot the countryside, as an interpretive aid. They are for winnowing. Anyone who has actually seen wheat thrown in the air and watched the chaff blow away will understand wind to be a vital part of the winnowing process.
John speaks of “Holy Spirit and fire,” and the Spirit is often associated with wind (it’s the same word in the Greek of the New Testament). Let’s look within ourselves, and consider whether the Holy Spirit can blow upon us, trying to separate the chaff within us from the good grain.
God gives us opportunities to be transformed, for the chaff of our lives to be blown away and burned. Sometimes we don’t take advantage of the transformation – like those of the people of Israel who chose not to return to Judea after exile, but instead unwittingly became agents of moving awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures to distant places. Perhaps even to Persia, where disturbances in the heavens became understood as tied to Israel’s destiny, and inspired Magi to search for the Messiah. God can move in mysterious ways, and even use our imperfections to fulfil God’s will. (So let’s be cautious about judging those who seem to be going astray – including ourselves – God can deal with them!)
How we fulfil our baptismal potential, our baptismal covenant, is – or should be – the subject of a life-long journey of discernment and discovery. It’s a journey of opening ourselves to the winnowing of the Holy Spirit’s transformation. It’s a journey in which the water of baptism should not quench the baptism of fire through which God can rid us of the chaff of our lives – if we will let go of it!