In today’s gospel John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
The first thing I’d like to say is about Scripture. John was a prophet. Jesus even said that to this point there was no greater prophet than John. He was a New Testament prophet. He was a prophet whose mission it was to get people ready for Jesus.
And yet, even John’s prophetic words were incomplete. John seems to assume that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit instead of water. John also assumed that when the Messiah came, there wouldn’t be any more chances to repent: the Messiah would gather his wheat (righteous people) into his barn (kingdom) and burn the chaff (everyone else) with fire (hell). The baptism of the Holy Spirit would be for the good guys and the fire of judgment for the bad guys.
Of course, what actually happened looked very different. Jesus and his disciples also baptized with water. Jesus hung out with sinners and even invited them to become his students. He said he didn’t come to judge but to save.
Instead of burning sinners he died for them.
So even though John was given the assignment of preparing people for Jesus, there was very little about Jesus as Messiah that he understood. (In fact, later he would ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?”)
So no biblical passage or prophet gives the whole or final word about…anything – whether it’s about Jesus, or the cross, or baptism, or the “baptism of the Spirit,” or the Lord’s Supper, or slavery, or the sabbath, or food laws, or predestination, or circumcision (the hot button in the New Testament church) or military service (the hot-button issue in the post-New Testament church, along with whether people who had folded under persecution could repent and be reinstated), or divorce (the hot button issue 50 years ago) or same-sex marriage (the hot button issue that’s dividing congregations and denominations today).
Being baptized with the Holy Spirit doesn’t guarantee our always getting it right either. John was filled with the Holy Spirit back when he was in the womb. It was Holy Spirit baptized Christians who disagreed about food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and burping in public (just making sure you’re still paying attention).
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that none of these are supposed to be deal breakers.
So this is what I’m wondering. I’m wondering if the fire John says is going to accompany the Holy Spirit is ultimately meant to get rid of the chaff inside each of us, the chaff that often surfaces when I’m talking about whatever issue is making me feel “hot” inside. I wonder if many of the things I think and feel when talking about same-sex marriage or abortion or politics is actually the stuff that has to be burned with fire.
Maybe the reason I’ve been baptized with the “Holy” Spirit isn’t so that I’ll always be right, but so I’ll gradually become more holy, which includes becoming more humble and loving.
“Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2).