As a progressive Christian, especially one raised in an Adventist style church which preached fiery sermons about the second coming and as one who found faith first among Pentecostals who preached pretty equally of the fire of the Spirit and the fearful flames of hell, I have to admit there is a part of me that gets pretty uncomfortable in my own skin when I read the words of John the Baptizer, threatening a coming fire. He too is a preacher of judgment, warning that fire is coming to burn away all who cling to sin and unrighteousness. He pulls no punches, calling the people comfortable with religion as a way of hiding and excusing their own selfishness a “brood of vipers”.
As I read his words, I have to remind myself that I read into John’s words modern, Christian ideas of hell-fire and a judgment coming as Christ rides the clouds back with saints armed for battle when I hear John’s words. John is not a Christian, nor certainly either an Adventist or Pentecostal. He is the last great Jewish prophet in the Christian Scriptures, though certainly not the last prophetic voice of the Jewish faith in history. He is joining the example of prophets like Jeremiah and Malachi who used fierce fiery images of God’s judgment. And like them, his goal is not to frighten people into false acclamations of faith. Like them, this image of fire is less about an end of the world scenario or the afterlife. Rather, like Malachi’s talk of the fire that cleanses the temple and the people of God from all impurity, John is focused on events in his own life-time which will forever transform his community and world. We can’t know exactly what those events were but we can imagine – many prophetic voices saw a coming upheaval in the Jewish community; and many both Jewish and Christian saw these trends as coming to a head in the destruction of the Jewish temple which forever changed both Jewish and Christian faith from traditions centered on rituals often run by the wealthy elite priest caste into traditions centered on here-and-now living in accordance to torah or Gospel respectively. The Gospel writer seems to connect this time with fiery judgment by interpreting some of Jesus’ remembered warnings of judgment as if they were about this time of national crisis which was in Jesus’ future but is in the Gospel writer’s past.
Also the Gospel writer frames John the Baptizer’s word so that they suggest that Jesus, too, is also a manifestation of this coming of God to prepare, to cleanse, to judge. Whether John the Baptizer really saw Jesus as one fulfillment of this cleansing fire of judgment we cannot know, since he like Jesus left no writings of his own, but clearly the Gospel writer understands Jesus’ life as one fulfillment of John’s words. In Jesus’ life the fire that is judgment comes not by plagues and curses or torture chamber fires like Revelation later pictures and which inspire the images of second coming judgment I heard in my Adventist childhood, as well as the images of hell depicted in many Pentecostal sermons I heard in my early years of walking in faith. Rather, it comes through Jesus living a life set on fire by the Holy Spirit, one that sets people free from oppression, brings healing to sickness, lifts up the pushed down, brings hope to the poor, and invites all to participate here and now in the work of making God’s kingdom present in this world through making their circle of influence more as it is in heaven. This work of Jesus necessarily sorts others out, drawing some to become participants in this work of the Spirit, while also repelling those whose life is too invested in the status quo.
Though when I read John’s words a part of me cries out, “But honey attracts more flies than vinegar”, it is clear that the sour and dire preaching of John has effect. Many come, are baptized, and turn their lives around. This reminds me that I need to be careful not to judge those whose way of speaking or teaching is more direct and confrontational than I am comfortable with, if what they speak is truth about the injustice in life and the danger of accommodating to it. Ultimately sometimes we need vinegar – which in the ancient world was an antiseptic, used to kill germs in wounds at risk of becoming infected. We need not just Martin Luther King’s who speak peace but also brother Malcolm’s who cry out against racism. Knowing which you are called to be and when each is appropriate is a work of discernment between you and the Holy Spirit. And I truly believe a part of it is just knowing who you are, what sort of person God has made you to be, for not everyone can be a Martin and not everybody can be a Malcolm.
Finally, I notice what the Baptizer describes repentance as. It is not described here in turns of coming to a theological point of view. It is not confessing a particular thing about Jesus. It is not any creed. It is also not obedience to this or that law of Scripture.
Instead it is living out true justice. Not ripping off those you serve, especially the poor. If you have more than you need, giving some of your excess to those in need. It is doing in small and big ways actions that remove you more and more from complicity with the systems of injustice that hold sway in your live and in small and big ways working to level the playing field so all can be included.
In many ways this is exactly what Jesus later says when he says “the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe”. The kingdom is God being manifest in the world so that swords are beaten into plowshares, deserts turned to fertile gardens, the poor being brought up from poverty, and a beloved community of justice and peace reigning. We are called by both John and Jesus to realize this is breaking forth around us, and to participate in it. How? Gandhi put it best, by being the change we are hoping to see in the world. Or, perhaps, being part of the change God has already begun in the world.
Let’s be those workers of change today.