In Luke 3:7-18, we read about a reasonable John the Baptizer, who warns people to remember who they are and to whom they belong. He calls them a brood of vipers to link them to a story of the Exodus. When the refugees hungered and thirsted, God gave them water to drink and manna to eat. But eventually they were unsatisfied. Then poisonous snakes came and bit them. Sadly the poisonous snakes of doubt, of fear and of self protection came again in the first century to divide the people from each other and from their God.
To survive an occupying force requires some compliance, but John reminds them that that compliance cannot involve them turning on each other. The God of Israel requires them to be faithful, to be righteous with each other, to be generous, and to trust in God’s presence to save and to liberate. In other words, living through an occupation does not abrogate or diminish the communal demands of Torah. John’s expectations are modest. As the people recognize their need to cooperate, to take care of each other, to maintain community despite the external pressure of different gods and different laws, so they can receive the baptism of awareness.
John, however, points to the coming of another one whose words and actions will winnow the souls, to leave them holy and healthy. Chaff is the result of beating or tossing grain in the air to blow off the outer husk. What is left is the edible part, the source of bread, of nourishment.
The baptism of Jesus is like fire because it is passionate. It asks an honesty of us, and a vulnerability that shields others while exposing ourselves to the elements of a violent, selfish world. This passage is not about judgement but freedom to fully embrace our humanity, that looks exactly like the humanity of Jesus. Time to let the vipers of suspicion, of resentment, and of fire, go. It is time to walk into the healing stream that is the tough love of Jesus and the tough task he has set for all time. We are the bearers of hope in a dry land, abundance in what appears to be scarcity, joy in the face of rage. We celebrate this task because we understand that we will be liberated and reborn in the spirit of justice and truth, wisdom and love. Bread for the world, promise for the poor and healing for all.