John answered them all, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
- Luke 3: 16-17
On a recent trip to Senegal, I enjoyed catching up with Oumar. We spent a dozen years together discipling newly baptized members in new church communities struggling to understand new life in Christ. Disinheritance, unemployment, apostasy and many more crises could throw us so high in the air we couldn’t see the ground. There was a powerful feeling of falling. If only we had the power to work miracles to solve our problems, what would we, like Simon the Sorcerer, have been willing to give. Oumar once said, “You know, for us, after our baptisms by water, there is a baptism by fire.”
Rituals for purification and renewal are common here. For many there is a need to put certain things behind, to purge our souls of our sins and the sins against us. John the Baptist was down by the river Jordan offering such a ritual, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But John the Baptist knew the limitations of his kind of ritual compared to the coming “unquenchable fire” of the Christ who was coming, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
The baptism of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit, means that we no longer rely on our own practices or our own understandings to change our lives. Human recidivism, (as in the example of Simon the sorcerer) renders religious ritual ineffective, even when coupled with a sincere desire to change. For Oumar the fire of their tribulations was not a reference to the pain but to the refiner’s fire. In Christ, as we fell together, like grains to the threshing floor, the Holy Spirit blew through our very souls to purify us and gather us into Christ’s granary. Life’s problems can be so big we make mistakes, but the Holy Spirit winnows from us, every time we fall, whatever is restraining the new life promised inside the grain that God Himself created.