John the baptizer confronted his peers like the prophets of old, with imagery drawn from the agricultural life around them—wind, fire, water, and the ax laid to the root. Nothing was more familiar than the sight of farmers winnowing their grain. First they would thresh the grain to break down the kernels into their components of wheat and chaff, which of course remained a mix in need of sorting. That step took place on a windy day, when they would heave forkfuls of grain into the air and the breeze would separate the good stuff from the useless. The lighter chaff would be blown off to the side, and the heavier wheat would drop back to the ground in a precious pile. Later, the chaff would be swept up and burned.
Thus the grain harvest was a matter of gathering and sorting with the help of wind and fire. The fact that the same word, ruach, meant both wind and spirit made it easy to use that threshing and winnowing process as a powerful metaphor for the ultimate sorting of divine judgment.
The imagery becomes multilayered when John says of the one who is to come, “He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” On the one hand, the image alludes to the sorting process of threshing, evoking the decisiveness of divine judgment. On the other hand, the words recall the promise of end-time renewal, especially as expressed in the oracles of Ezekiel and Joel. Reference to immersion in the Spirit recalls Ezekiel's words: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities. ... I will put my spirit within you, and make you live by my statutes, be careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ez 36: 25-28). Later, Joel spoke of God pouring out his spirit on all flesh—on sons and daughters, old and young, even on the male and female slaves (Ez 3:1-5).
It is possible that the historical John focused on the theme of judgment, whereas the post-Easter Church could highlight the Pentecostal fulfillment of Spirit and fire. The coming of the kingdom of God entails both renewal and judgment as aspects of the one reality of God's special intervention in the Age to Come.
In the Baptist's view, what especially deserved divine judgment was complacency in privilege: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” “Give some evidence that you mean to reform,” he tells them.
From the story of Abraham forward, the Hebrew Scriptures insist that Israel was chosen to benefit the nations. Privilege was meant for universal service. The People of God have a mission to be a light for the nations. Our Christian claim is that we take as our own that universal vocation of Israel.
Each of this Sunday's readings touches on that theme. Isaiah's vision of peace pictures the Davidic king set up as a signal for the nations which the Gentiles seek out. Psalm 72 applies the promise to Abraham to God's anointed one: “May the tribes of the earth give blessings with his name.” And Paul, addressing the human division that most challenged the Christians of Rome, urged, “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. For, I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show of God's truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”
A report I heard on the radio one morning spoke of a Harvard research project on race and hypertension. The data show that black people, as they age, suffer more from hypertension than whites. The hypothesis of the researchers is that, given the genetic diversity of African Americans, the likeliest common factor to account for this statistic is the stress that black people experience due to racism. Ironically, as biological science discovers the category of race to be increasingly meaningless, social science shows that the mental construction of race is very real indeed, especially in its negative expression as racism.
If we who claim the privilege of being the People of God, a signal to the nations, wonder how the Baptist's wake-up call might apply to us, we might ask whether we have fully addressed racism still, even within the community of the Church. The God of all nations, the one whose spirit sorts the wheat from the chaff, is also the one who offers the spirit and fire of renewal.