Year C, The Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2013
By Thomas L. Truby
The New Thing John Can Point Toward but Not Imagine!
I know something about threshing. Every summer of my childhood we would thresh oats in the heat of July. (Actually, we called it thrashing. Considering that the poor oat gets a thorough thrashing, it made sense to me.)
When I was real little dad used a team of horses to pull the bundle wagon through the oat field and he would pitch it full of bundles to be hauled to the old threshing machine. The horses knew what to do and so my dad would load the wagon shock by shock and when one was loaded he would signal the horses and they would then go to the next shock. (That may be a little exaggerated but that’s how I remember it.)
Historically we were in the last days of the transition from horse power to tractor power in Nebraska. Within a few years all the farmers sold their horses and asked their sons to drive their tractors during oat harvest. I don’t remember how old I was when I started driving. It didn’t strike me as momentous at the time. I do remember I drove an “A” or “B” John Deere with a hand clutch. It was hard to engage the clutch without jerking the wagon and if I did jerk it dad would yell at me or tease me depending on his mood.
The machine that did the threshing was a huge old thing driven by a belt powered by an old tractor twenty-five feet away. The belt connected the two machines. The tractor that did not have a road gear, and still had steel wheels, belonged to Frank Herman, a bachelor, who also owned the threshing machine. He would go from farm to farm threshing oats for pay. In my teens, after he had died and left his homestead abandoned, I broke into his house and meditated on the old newspapers and piles of farm magazines from the early 50’s that I found strewn on the floor. But I digress.
The threshing machine was an awesome monster. Its mouth had teeth that sliced through each bundle and its appetite seemed insatiable. Sometimes two brawny farmers pitched bundles as fast as they could from the two sides of the roaring monsters mouth and still they could not choke it. Its exterior bristled with belts, chains and arms that rocked back and forth. Its belly shock and dust and chaff leaked from its cracks forming little drifts of oat hulls and dirt.
At the back end of the machine a giant tube formed its tail and from the tail straw blasted forth. One of my jobs was to direct the tail so that the straw would form a neat pile. Another smaller tube containing an auger swung out from one side of the machine over a wagon and from this tube oats poured forth. My other job was to level off the oats with a scoop until the wagon was full and then swing the spout over the next wagon to fill it. If I think about it, I can still feel the itchiness of the chaff sticking to my sweaty arms and neck.
Yes, I know a lot about threshing and even some of John the Baptists angry metaphors make sense to me. I know about the winnowing fork, the cleared threshing floor and the gathered wheat. And I too have wanted to burn that miserable chaff that got stuck between my shirt and chest and found places to irritate me that I could not scratch.
Somehow the old threshing machine reminds me of John the Baptist. Powerful and raw he attracted people to himself with his message of separation and burning. There was a fascination about him such that “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” But John, fierce as he was, did not leave the people wondering for long. In a voice that blends in my mind with the roar of the threshing machine he declares “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The earth shakes, the dust flies, the horses timidly approach the moving belt as John declares “His 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.” It is all quite fearful and awesome and little boys like me sensed a mystery beyond our understanding.
John the Baptist knows there is One coming whose power resides beyond his imagining. Someone approaches so outside John’s reach that he feels unworthy of touching him, unworthy even of untying his thong. John, stumbling for words, uses the language of separation and combustion because it is the only language he knows. He does not know about forgiveness and being loved toward a renewal of heart. John the Baptist only knows about repenting, self-denial and hair shirts. He eats grasshoppers and honey that he got stung getting to. He is a severe man, like our old threshing machine; gobbling up, separating and spewing out. Jesus, the One greater who is coming, will offer a different way.
Jesus does not separate. Jesus reconciles. He joins together. Jesus teaches tough forgiveness and strong compassion. For Jesus, the wheat and the tares grow together undisturbed. For Jesus the tool of choice is not the pitchfork that casts aside and clears the floor, exposing the grain. No, his tool is the cross where he becomes the chaff and allows himself to be burned in the flames of our violence. This is the thing that John can neither see nor imagine. Jesus allows our violence to consume him and then while he is being consumed he forgives us and God vindicates him by raising him from the dead. And strangely, it is Jesus’ forgiving of us that begins the process of burning away our violence. In an about face that stuns us, violence itself is discovered to be the chaff. It is the useless thing that must be destroyed and Jesus does it by allowing himself to be destroyed by it while forgiving us for it.
John predicted the one coming would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of gentleness, forgiveness, non-violence, enemy love, non-retaliation and radical inclusion. And the promised fire turns out to be Jesus’ willingness to endure our fire so that we could see what we do when we separate ourselves and cast out those we consider trash or on the opposite side of our process, the cross calms the fear and anxiety we feel when we are afraid we might be the one cast (or is it caste out) out. John’s angry and unquenchable fire, his hot burning of all chaff, turns out to be quite quenchable when doused by the water’s of God’s forgiveness poured upon us in baptism.
This is the real meaning of baptism. Baptism announces and confirms our participation in a new identity. We are children of God and nurtured by that connection. We are not rivals grasping against each other for some limited commodity that must be obtained before the other gets it. In baptism we are sealed into a new understanding of humanness. We are freed to be for each other and lose our fear of final exclusion. In baptism Jesus immerses us in his gentleness and invites us to become like him. It’s always a process of growth toward gentleness and away from violence and rivalry. Philippians 4:4 says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
John baptized with water that for him symbolized the need to remove something that he thought had contaminated us. But Jesus baptizes with the Spirit, a spirit like himself, full of gentleness and non-retaliation. It is a new thing that gets added to us and gradually changes us from the inside out. He infuses us with a love that radiates toward our enemies and evolves into an inner peace deeper than the world can know. If we are the threshing machine, and I think we are, we find ourselves transmuting into something quite different. This is the new thing John can point toward but not imagine.
In a more modern metaphor, baptism is a kind of access code, but much more, that allows us to download new software for humanness. The full meaning of the download takes a life-time to discover and leads us away from rivalry and violence and toward gentleness and peace. May we live our baptism and discover its’ astounding depth more and more as we move through our lives. Amen.