9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
There were probably a number of things that John didn’t like about the Pharisees and Sadducees, we kind of get that with the whole “generation of vipers” thing in the previous verses, but John cuts from generalities to specifics in these next verses pretty quickly. Entitlement seems to be at the top of his list of grievances. Entitlement is on the tip of his tongue as to why they should flee from the coming wrath, and why he is surprised they even know to be worried. It is spiritual entitlement that has blinded these religious teachers from seeing the inadequacy of their own self-righteousness and it is entitlement that keeps them from seeing their need for God’s mercy.
The effect of entitlement for the Pharisees and Sadducees is a sort of blindness to the humble yet powerful origins of being formed from the earth. John is quick to remind them that the God they profess to follow, the God they claim to worship, can still, to this very day, form children of Abraham from dust as he did in the ancient times. There is no birthright, no inheritance of righteousness, no kingdom on this Earth that we can be born into that will provide safe passage into the kingdom of Heaven that is drawing near. John knows that he and all who are gathered in the wilderness are what the Apostle Paul would later describe in his letter to the Corinthians as choikos, a Greek word meaning “made of earth.” Is is the humility of understanding that he was created from dust that allows John both to grasp as well as preach God’s revealed plan of transforming dust into good soil for receiving the Kingdom of Heaven. It is this theme of good soil that Jesus will continually refer to in His ministry as well.
47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man,so shall we[g] bear the image of the heavenly man.
I Corinthians 15: 47-49
In the warning that follows to the Pharisees and Sadducees John is not vague when describing the coming wrath of God. He speaks of an ax which is poised to strike at the root of all who do not produce good fruit. This analogy is interesting on many layers. John is in the wilderness to announce the coming of the Messiah, the root of Jesse. The One whom the Gospel of John teaches that all things were made through. Paul later tells us in his letter to the Colossians that because all things were made through Christ, He holds all things in existence together. The ax will strike at this root of existence and all these things will be ultimately be undone.
For the Pharisees and Sadducees, their root is in the law and the covenant. This law will be fulfilled in their presence and a new covenant will be made within their lifetimes. The ax also cuts at the root of all who have come into the desert to hear John and all of us who read the story 2000 years later still seeking God. All the places where we find our security, all the marks we make toward an enduring legacy, all the ways we seek immortality, all the places apart from God where we find root will also be undone. What is choikos will pass away as The Son of Man and Son of God walks the earth, as He teaches and heals and speaks among us. Where soul, spirit, earth, and the Breath of God meet, that is where we will find the Living God. It is here in the new age being ushered in by the Messiah where we will “live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28.
John understands his place within God’s plan, he knows the power of repentance but also the limits of a baptism by water alone. John knows that while he has the power to challenge the systematic oppression of the Pharisees and Sadducees, there are sandals which he is unfit to tie. It is by purios, a purifying fire that the branches will be burned that are not fruitful, and it is by threshing and winnowing that God will work redemption for all of his people.
The process of winnowing is one that all the people in the wilderness listening to John would have been familiar with. Wheat when gathered must first be trodden down and pressed in order for the kernels to separate from the chaff. After this process, both the wheat and chaff are tossed into the air for the wind to separate. The wind carries the dry dead chaff away, and the kernels of wheat fall to floor to be gathered and stored in the barn. The chaff and dry grass is then burned. It is this analogy that John uses to describe the redemptive and atoning ministry of the coming Messiah. It is through this same process that each of us grows closer to God as well. As we grow more like God, we grow more completely into who we were created to be. As we shed the chaff we reveal the wheat, and when that wheat falls on good soil, it produces good fruit.
It is tempting to read this story and interpret that only some will be baptized with fire, that some people are wheat and some are chaff, but this doesn’t match the analogy. Perhaps more importantly it doesn’t match the example that Jesus will give us in the upcoming verses as He himself gets baptized, receives the Holy Spirit and the journeys into the desert to be tempted, refined, and purified by fire. If you have reached the wilderness because you have no where else to go, if this world is not your home because it is a corrupt, flawed and pale image of the One who created it, then you know that you have a lot of chaff to get rid of.
But if you are comfortable in the chaff, if the system keeping the chaff in place works in your favor, then the prospect of shedding it, of allowing it to burn, of valuing the simpleness of grain that is at the heart makes you nervous. The fact is, it takes faith to believe there is any wheat in ourselves or in others at all. The irony of entitlement is that it is rooted in fear. It is the fear of losing, fear of not being enough that causes us to keep a death grip on what is only really ours through grace. It is entitlement that robs us of the ability to extend the same grace that we ourselves have received and benefited from to others.
The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t wander into the desert to pursue God or to find freedom, they were not trying to escape, they in fact were the jailers. They were the beneficiaries of an unjust system, one that claimed supreme power, morality and justice but one that John hinted actually possessed none of those. Entitlement causes us to assume that some are saved and some are judged, but humility reveals that we are all deserving of judgement, and all in need of saving. Entitlement causes us to remain dry and lifeless as dust and chaff, but it is repentance that moves our souls toward God, and it is the waters of baptism that prepare our hearts of stone to be soil ready to receive the kingdom.