“I will baptise you with water”
“He will baptise you with wind and fire” – said John, thinking of the newly threshed grain tossed into the air, the wind-blown husks swept into a corner and burned. God’s judgement is a great sifting, a great separation of substance from appearance; of solid worth from emptiness. John saw little substance. He saw an all but hopeless case: People confident of their standing, sure of their salvation, good religious people – but where was the evidence? God’s people were like a worn-out orchard, fit only for the fire.
Renewal comes with repentance – and not otherwise. Repentance is the pre-condition of faith. A change of heart alone produces the fruit to show that faith is genuine. So John demands the evidence – rigorous evidence. The sharing of food and clothing is demanding, when those who have none are many and those who have scarcely better off. What would John say to our Christmas preparations in a world of increasing need? For tax collectors to collect no more than the assessment is fair enough, unless the tax collector himself is without land, employment or source of income. For soldiers to forego blackmail and extortion is fine – provided they’ve been paid. John demands a repentance that is costly, sacrificial even: the committed consequence of a change of heart.
But what John demands are the necessities of a civilised society. That tax collectors collect only what is due is no more than justice. That soldiers refrain from blackmail and extortion means freedom from violence. Un-corrupt justice and freedom from violence are essential to a civilised society – but insufficient. We compete, and where theme is competition, for some to win, others must lose. The losers outnumber the winners. Bad luck causes – accident, ill-health, hard times and old age. People are laid off: technology changes: and money begets money anyway. So inequality multiplies. Inequality becomes endemic, with all the consequences for personal misery and social upheaval – useless there is some form of redistributive justice, some narrowing of our collective well-being, some compensatory flow from the wealthy to the poor. John’s demand to share food and clothing works out today as progressive taxation; fair prices, fair wages, fair trade; social welfare, and a health service – the sort of things we prized until money made us mad.
But this is not the Kingdom of God. It is a pre-condition. The Kingdom of God cannot coexist with injustice; where violence, economic or social conditions offend against God’s love for us all. The Kingdom of God requires the fruit of repentance in just, truthful and peaceful living. But the Kingdom involves our knowing God, our being subject to his just and gentle rule. The Kingdom of God comes with the Spirit of God – which is why He to whom John witnesses baptises with Holy Spirit and with fire – and why John is unworthy to untie his sandals. The Kingdom of God is life grounded in a different order; life lived in the Presence of God; life lived in grace; life in which gentleness and wisdom, generosity and compassion flow from a heart in which God is at home. The Kingdom comes when the Presence of God is a possession shared.
If this seems utterly beyond us – and it is – it is for us that the Coming one endured the fire to baptise with Holy Spirit. He lives, he reigns and he comes as the Presence of God in him in the Kingdom. He is received and known in the means that he gave us, in the sharing together of the bread of his body, broken, and the wine of his blood. In this, in the fact of his dying for us, and in his enduring presence, is the peace that passes all understanding. In this is manifest the kingdom. It is this that makes possible repentance – and entry to the life of grace.
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