John the Baptist tends to get a good press from Christians; he is keen on social justice and puts his life on the line by challenging the morals of loud and shabby ruler and and in two of the gospels he baptises Jesus. as we hear today He announces that there will come one whose sandal strap he is unworthy to untie; he heralds the way of Christ. Luke says ‘with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.’ But am I alone in hearing something faintly ironic in what Luke says about the Baptist’s announcement? I remind you of how he signs off today
17His 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.”
John sees the wrath of God coming; he challnges those who come: Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? And it would appear that there will be a division between those who are good wheat and those who are chaff. John would seem to suggest that Jesus will doing the judging and he will have a fork and do some winnowing.
Is this really the case? How can this be good news? First of all, Jesus does not do this. The only threshing floor He comes to is the one on which the temple is built, the threshing floor of Araunah and it is one which He will indeed purge and cleanse but that is because He does not spend out wrath and judgment.
The Baptist says that Jesus will baptise, but there is nothing about wrath. There is indeed fire, but the fire that comes down is not that fire which destroys, the fire that the disciples ask if they can bring down on a village which does not welcome Jesus on His way to the temple. It is the fire that will come on the disciples at Pentecost, a sign of the redeeming and holy making gift of God.
Jesus comes as marked by Spirit, by fire, that fire which is something powerful and purifying; something which is active and life saving; this is the fire which attends the presence of God in the ark, fire by night and light by day. Jesus is not consumed by such fire but goes the way to Jerusalem and to judgment. There is indeed wrath, but it is the wrath which is hurled at Him, the wrath which is heard when the disciples wish to call down fire on those who are not interested in the way of peace; it is the wrath which comes when the Pharisees reject a challenge to their power and it is the wrath which those who treat of Israel as a powerful nation capable of meeting others on their own terms. Wrath is the way of the world, all too human,
But it is not the way of Jesus; Jesus does not fight back, He does not see threat or violence as evils to be responded to in kind. Jesus is a violence free zone, so much so that the perverse violence of His rejection, His exposure to the wrath of sin, is met by resurrection.
In John’s gospel, Jesus refuses to judge; He says the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, adding I judge no one; 3. 19 this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Jesus has not come to judge but to love and so to redeem. That fork we heard about in the gospel is better rendered shovel or fan; it is basically what you would use for the wheat, to gather. His fire of love may be unquenchable but it does not destroy.
We may say that the way of Jesus the one who has come is coming and will come, that shows that there is no wrath in God. There is judgement but that is shown when the ways of Christ are met by rejection and violence, when their deeds are evil and they love darkness rather than light.
Those on retreat with us have been looking at some poems of RS Thomas, regarded as the world’s grumpiest poet; but he did write some short poems on Christmas, and I will conclude with such a poem, about the Christ, whose judgment comes in weakness
I choose white, but with
Red on it, like the snow
In winter with its few
Holly berries and the one
Robin, that is a fire
To warm by and like Christ
Comes to us in his weakness,
But with a sharp song.
[from H’m (1972).]