Somewhere in this Sunday’s gospel lesson is good news. I’m sure of it, but I’m having a hard time finding it. The part of this passage that sticks out to me is the “burn with unquenchable fire” part, but there’s got to be some hope in here. The baptism of Jesus is a life-giving event. So why do these to get paired together?
John baptism was one purely of repentance. Using water as a symbol of cleansing, he invited penitent sinners to come to the river’s edge and be washed of their iniquities. And that was it. Turn your back on your sins. Leave behind your evil ways. The end.
As John talks about the messiah who was coming, he uses his own image of repentance as the basis for separating out wheat and chaff. Those who repent are gathered into the granary, and those who refuse repentance are burned with fire. And, for John, that’s where the story stopped. He knew something else was coming—“he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”—but it wasn’t there yet.
Jesus’ baptism (actually we don’t have a record of him baptizing anyone—only those baptized in Jesus’ name) isn’t just one of repentance. As John puts it, the symbols of Christian baptism are Holy Spirit and fire. That’s not just a washing off; it’s a new, energetic, powerful life. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into something. John’s was purely a baptism from something. With John there was only a looking-back, but, with Jesus and the fire of the Holy Spirit that dwells within his followers, there is always a looking forward.
It might take repentance to get there, but that’s not where it stops. For Jesus, turning away from sin is only the first step. As Christians, we leave behind our old way, but we also embrace the new.