Molded by God

by Taylor Poindexter, Seminarian

This John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah, the son of Elizabeth, the baby who lept in his mother’s womb when she was near her cousin Mary carrying the Christ-child, is now a grown man.

He is called out of the desert by God to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, and he does so with vigor. He is so dynamic, and so wild, and you can imagine, so frantic and haggard from his desert experience, that people wondered if he might be the Messiah himself.

He assures them that he is not, and that his baptism is by water, but that the coming one, the Christ will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.

Baptism was a Jewish practice in the first century, it was ritually cleansing, and it was used when a gentile wanted to convert to Judaism. John calls for people to prepare themselves, to repent and turn to God with them whole selves, in order to be ready for the one who was coming. He demands that they be baptized as a part of this converting and readying for the coming of the Christ.

John is frantic and he talks about hatchets and fire and winnowing. He is clear that the time has come to be ready to meet God in a new way, in a saving way.

Farmers in the first century used a winnowing fork, like a big wooden pitchfork, to process their wheat products from the field. They would take the crop to their barn and they would throw the crop into the air. The wheat grains are heavy, so they would fall to one side, and the chaff, the outer coating on the grain, would fall to the other.

This separating of the inside from the outside, was part of the process to make a good product. To get the grain ready to mill and share and sell.

In the same way, John is saying the Christ will act. When the Messiah comes he will call for lives to be transformed, and will be rid of the parts of us that hold us back from God. The Christ will take all of who we are and mold us and shape us into who we are meant to be.

This winnowing of the people of God is not destructive, but refining. It’s not pushing some good people to one side and some bad people to the other, it is a refining process, to get that good product God is looking for. It is in baptism that the spirit of fire and the living water of Christ shapes us and molds us, and calls us to the daily vocation of baptized living.

John the Baptist calls to the tax-collectors and the soldiers, the ones who were taking a skim off the top and profiting from a shifting social order where the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, and he calls them to be baptized. He says this opportunity is for you too. This demand is for you too. Do your job, he says, but don’t take extra, don’t harm those among you. Even the least of these, even the disgraced are called to turn to God in repentance, with the understanding that even they can be redeemed. This baptized living requires letting go of those means of control, and letting God have it.

In the same way, John calls us in our modern lives to repent and to turn to God, over and over. He is preparing the generation to encounter God in Christ, and his prophecy is preparing us too, to encounter the God who is here among us and yet coming still, the God who desires our repentance and focus, our hope and our trust.

This baptism that Christ is soon to offer, the fire that comes with the water of baptism is that refining fire, that work of the Holy Spirit on our lives.

This is a God who is willing and ready to reach out and shape us, refine us, and to make us whole.

Thanksgiving might have been a nice reminder of how those we love, those we are closest to, can be the refining fire that changes us and causes us to grow. From what I understand, marriage calls you to be more than you ever thought you could be, parenthood knocks off rough edges, and caring for parents or siblings separates the selfish parts of ourselves and calls us to give more than we thought we could.

In a similar way, our relationship with the God shapes us and molds us, by fire and water and God’s spirit. Repentance is a joyful thing to seek, it is a way of trusting the God in whom we trust our salvation. When we offer our whole selves, our wheat and our chaff, this is our sacrifice. God can work with that, and we are exhorted to do that this advent season.

As we wait for the coming of Christ, we wait for the God who we trust to make us who we are meant to be.

The Nicene Creed that we recite together says “We believe in one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins” and when we live that, we live the daily vocation of the Christian life, the daily hope in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We trust in the God who can forgive, who wants our wheat and chaff, our blessings and our burdens.

This rebirth of baptism and at this time of year is not about destruction, but about God’s molding and shaping.

So how do we allow ourselves to be molded? What hard edges is the holy spirit knocking off in our communal life? The Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians and exhorts them to rejoice! And to “let their gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” What’s going on with the Philippians? Were they feeling as low as we are?

Were they in the midst of strife like we are in our context? Wondering about climate talks, ISIS, fear of neighbor, a presidential election?   Paul continues, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” If Paul exhorted this community to rejoice, to live in thanksgiving as the Lord is near, and to pray what would we do? What would we do if we got that letter?

How is this molding spirit shaping us to make way for God in the world? They will know we are Christians by our love. They will know we are Christians by our gentleness. They will know we are Christians by our trust and thanksgiving.

These grounding beliefs that teach us to repent to make way for the Lord, do bring us to rejoicing. Repentance begets joy which begets forbearance. By returning to God and to our vocation as baptized Christians, we realize we are coming back to a loving and merciful God, who equips us with the forbearance we need to take on the tasks that so demand our attention in this life.

The demands to love God and our neighbor and ourselves, to demands to seek justice and peace and to seek Christ in all. John the Baptist calls to all the people gathered, encouraging them to examine their lives, and we too are called to examine our lives and the spirit of God may be leading us to.

Part of finding this peace is repentance to God, turning to God, making room for God, making the path straight for God. John the Baptist and Paul are asking their people to live in ways that are brave, simple and honest, because they really believe that Christ is coming. They implore their communities to live like Christ will be back, any moment. John demands this repentance and hope from us because he is excited. He desires everyone to know that the great one is coming, that it’s time to prepare the way.

If God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones, then surely God can raise up children from us and from our neighbors. Through faithfulness and repentance, we can join in this raising up.  I pray that we will follow John’s exhortation, that we will listen to his demand.

I pray that we are not children of snakes, takers, thieves, but instead that we will be thanks-givers, rejoicers, and children of light, ready for the savior.