In yesterday’s post I neglected to address what I think is a very important part of this story. After John’s hard words, the crowds respond to him in what I believe to be the perfect repentant manner. They ask, “what then should we do?” We pastors and preachers love to speak in lofty platitudes about “repentance”, and “transformation”, and “discipleship”, and “following Jesus”, and the like. That’s what John is doing here. And what we need is exactly what the crowds give John here: “What then should we do?” One, this calls us to whittle our platitudes down to actual practical ways of being in the world. It holds us accountable. We need it. Two, that question speaks to a truly repentant heart. Repentance is a “turning” in our direction, in our way. It is not simply coming to church and reciting some prayer or coming forward in some response. Those kinds of rituals can help us in making a decision to repent, but real repentance is a change in our way of being in our actual lives.
And John gives them practical actions to take: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none… whoever has food must do likewise… collect no more than the amount prescribed for you… Do not extort money from anyone by threats…” All of it comes back to yesterday’s post’s overall point of “be a blessing for the world”. In other words, “use what you have to be a blessing.” John answers the crowd and answers them well.
And then the people come “filled with expectation”, wondering if he is the one, the Messiah. And John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” There is a key component to repentance buried in here: True repentance does not come from the influential words of a preacher or religious leader- to comes from the conviction of the Spirit at work in our lives. The Spirit might use the words of a preacher, but it ultimately starts with God’s Spirit in our lives. John’s words here about Jesus having a “winnowing fork in his hand” and burning the chaff, sound really harsh, and they are, but perhaps not as much as they sound.
I do not believe John is talking about people here as much as he is our own sin. I think John is saying that Jesus is going to come, and through him we will be immersed in God’s Spirit and presence, and because of that, we will then see the parts of us that need to change. In the presence of Christ, a light will shine on our whole hearts, and we will see the beauty and the beast within us. He says he will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. That is, those parts of us that are doing no good for ourselves or anyone around us (the chaff) will be burned away. Greed, slander, extortion, hate, malice? These God will burn away. This is what God does. But it doesn’t happen in an instant. This is the lifelong sanctifying work of God’s presence in our lives. It’s hard, but it is good. Jesus immerses us in the Spirit. The question is, will we let the Spirit in and look at those places we’d rather not see?