It's not an easy text, you see. I don't have to preach on it this Sunday -- and I don't think I'm really made for the pulpit anyway. But difficult texts like this make me itch, and I scratch away at them.
It's a bit of a hellfire sandwich, this passage. The middle bit is alright, really.
And the crowds asked him [John the Baptist], ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’
That's not so bad, really. I don't measure up to that (I have at least three coats) but I can see the principle behind it, I can accept that I should act that way. I think maybe I do a little better with the food. John's response to the tax-collectors and the soldiers is similar: act justly. That seems pretty plain to me, even if it isn't always easy to do faithfully.
But look at what comes before: those parts of the tree that do not bear good fruit will be cut off, thrown into the fire. Look at what comes later: a baptism of fire, the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire. Scary stuff.
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.This is good news? Getting burned in unquenchable fire? Being cut off from the tree?
So I read back a bit. Just before this passage we have some information that gives time context, and then this:
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
It's that last bit I'm interested in. Isaiah says all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Not just the people who manage to be good. Not just the people who manage to follow the commandments. Not just the people who believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah, the Son of God, God's incarnation on earth... all flesh.
That doesn't seem very consistent, does it?
But if Isaiah can be a poet, surely John the Baptist can, too. Maybe these texts aren't as contradictory as they seem. Maybe the tree which will be cut and tossed into the fire is not one of flesh, but one of actions. Maybe the winnowing of the grain, the chaff which will be consumed doesn't refer to people who miss the mark, but to their thoughts and deeds.
What happens to a piece of paper if you put it into a fire? It gives off some light and some heat, goes up in smoke and dissipates. Is this imagery about the erasure of our mistakes? The generosity of God in overlooking our sins, in taking all that we think and say and do and saying the screw-ups don't count? A selection process, a purification process, pruning all that which is not good in the eyes of God and leaving only love?
Perhaps. But then where do the "bad bits" go? Eternal, unquenchable fire? Is this what salvation looks like?
Modern science tells us that if you burn a piece of paper it doesn't cease to exist, not really. It doesn't exist in a form we'd identify as paper, any more, but each atom still has to go somewhere. They still exist, they've just been re-configured, re-arranged, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle taken apart and scattered on a table.
Maybe this baptism of unquenchable fire is not a process of erasure or purification but one of transformation. Even our mistakes, through God's grace, can be transformed into good. Our thoughts, words, deeds; our relationships, our projects, our dreams; our bodies, scarred and hurting or hale (whole!) and healthy: all will be changed, all will be forged into God's loving purpose, all will be made anew. We are not cut off. We are not rejected. We are transformed. That's how strong God's love is.
And all flesh shall see his salvation.