The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
John’s words and actions are having an impact. They stir up questions as to his identity. Could he be the one they have been waiting for – the victorious Messiah come to free his people? John’s answer is suggestive – suggestive because he doesn’t simply say ‘nope, sorry, that’s not me’. Instead he makes a comparison between himself, and what he is doing, and someone else, and what that person will do.
To me the images of water and fire conjure up different feelings. Water cleanses; fire purifies. There is something about fire that evokes a feeling of power – power to refine, to burn up completely…it goes deeper than water. And the Holy Spirit – God’s own breath – that someone should have the authority to baptise with the Spirit, is unimaginable.
Apparently untying the thongs of someone’s sandals was one of the lowest jobs of all. Disciples couldn’t even do it for their rabbis – it was left to the servants. But John here says he is not even worthy to do that, such is the worth of the person who wears them. This someone…is something else. Something far, far bigger.
In our over familiarity with the words, are we under-familiar with their meaning? Do we realise how jaw dropping Jesus really is?