For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. - M. Luther, Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article III, Repentance.
There are ever so many matters to be observed in today’s text. (I follow John Pilch in many of them) First, who is this who is calling in the wilderness? It is John Zechariah-son. He is the son of a provincial priest, Zechariah, and therefore he himself is of priestly blood.
Second, he is living a Nazirite existence. Exegesis of the birth narrative of John often compares it to he birth narrative of Samuel who is, in utero, dedicated as a Nazirite by his mother, something that a parent could do though the child could refuse to accept the designation. John is likewise consecrated a Nazirite by the command of the angel to Zachariah. (Lk 1:15)
Jesus makes note of John’s Nazirite tendencies when he notes that John is ridiculed for being austere and not drinking while he himself was accused of being at glut and drunk. Yet, at the last supper, Jesus makes a cryptic Nazirite type vow: “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God.” (The Nazirite vow was to abstain from all grape products)
That in turn ties to the obligation that the Nazirite make a sin offering at the end of his time as a Nazirite or at prescribed times for a permanent Nazirite. Why does one who lives a devout life make sin offering? Because everyone has to. But, in the case of the Nazirite, according Talmud, he or she must make offering for named sins. The Nazirite cannot just make a “brief order of confession” so to speak, a proclamation of sin is required at the time of the sacrifice. John is therefore no stranger to the confessing of sin.
Third, Look who it is that comes to him: The people of Jerusalem and Judea; the people who live around the power center of religious life in Israel. Galilee is not mentioned here. It is the people who live closest to the temple and the High Priests who ran it. When those factions of Jerusalem show up, John has no kind words for them. Being from a priestly family, being from the Judean hill country (Lk 1:39), these people were not strangers to him. His insult of them and his refusal to accept their repentance and therefore their self consecration by baptism seems to suggest that John questions their sincerity in confessing their sins.
Fourth, “Who did you go into the desert to see? A Prophet?” That is really the only excuse for going on a trip to nowhere: To see a prophet or to be a holy man oneself. The descriptions of John have led us often to compare him with Elijah and Samuel, both of whom deserve the title of “Prophetic troubler of Israel” though only Elijah has it bestowed on him by Ahab. (1Kgs 18:17) John’s interactions with Herod reinforces this Samuel/ Elijah comparison. John is not one to respect or fear political or religious authority. He carries on the Elijah / Samuel tradition of singleminded and even revolutionary resistance to injustice or deviance from the Lord’s command.
Fifth, both water and fire have refining or purifying qualities. The nugget of gold is separated from the dirt that surrounds it by tedious washing. It is further purified by melting it and skimming the remaining “impurities” (sometimes the impurity is silver, in itself not trash but unwanted when refining gold - hence the scary quotes).
The wind is the prime agent in winnowing. Like the refining of gold, getting to the grain is a progressive enterprise. The same mix of wheat kernel and wheat chaff has to be tossed into the wind multiple times. It is the wind and chaff equivalent of panning for gold.
Both wind and fire have the second meaning of Holy Spirit in biblical lore and the usage here is probably not accidental.
With St. John the Baptist it is ever so easy to get amazed with the person himself. Some of that is really unavoidable. He is a consecrated holy man, accustomed to recalling and remembering his sin and to making amends to God for those sins. He is inviting others to join a consecrated life that seems to have the character of a continuous sifting and refining by the Holy Spirit. In other words, John is inviting those who would consecrate themselves to Sanctification. For the Advent season, this might be the nugget to take away. As you wait for the return of Christ, be consecrated to God and live an examined life.
If the Lutheran Confessions have a prime spiritual discipline contained within them it might well be confession; the fearless recalling to ones own mind of ones sin in the hearing of God and of the voice of the Gospel: the ordained minister who will recall to the penitent the work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. In a way, all Christians are consecrated and like the Nazirites dare to recall their sins aloud before a righteous God at a time of reckoning but trusting that the sacrifice made by the High Priest avails for them at the time of that confession. Jesus Christ, says the Book of Hebrews, is that Hight Priest. The Holy Spirit still does the winnowing and refining work that St. John proclaims.
When most people hear of “consecrated life” they will think of cloisters, habits, excessive amounts of prayer, and clouds of incense. Thick clouds of incense at that. Perhaps they allow it to be merely the life of a pastor whose spiritual life they assume exists but that they do not ask about lest they get answers they did not want or find a challenge to do more than they are willing to do. But there is a consecrated life in every Christian if the Holy Spirit is still active in that life. As the high level seekers from Jerusalem might say: “But we have Abraham for our father . . . surely this ritual of John’s is just a formality - and add on, not really necessary but nice to look back on and contemplate.”
A consecrated life really is more than anything a life lived with intention. Its opposite is an unexamined life, a life that awakes in the morning and has the but one goal: To make it to tonight, to make it to payday, to make it to Friday evening ‘round quitting time. By comparison, a consecrated life rises and gets dressed in prayer to be allowed to be dressed with the life of Christ and not merely its daily clothes. (St. John Eudes) It is a life intentionally lived and frequently examined in order to give thanks for God’s graces received and realized and in order to repent and confess when it has not been on the side of life. That type life requires no incense or gregorian chant as it is both incense and music all by itself. But then, who would live it?