John the Baptist figures prominently in our Advent worship; he’s part of the Advent furniture. He is featured in not a few Advent hymns as the “voice,” the forerunner, the herald. He is Isaiah’s voice of one crying in the wilderness; he’s got Elijah’s fashion sense (Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8); he prepares the way of the Lord or, rather, enjoins us to. Selflessly, he recuses himself from the limelight, he disclaims any messianic pretense, he only dresses like Elijah, and he was just about to alert us to the “Lamb of God who takes away this sins of the world,” if we had only read further into the chapter assigned for a recent Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 1:6–8, 19–28; Advent IIIB). We come to like this quirky fellow, that is, from a distance — kind of like that guy from the reality TV show, Dirty Jobs. Somebody has to do it, we suppose.
But in some of the Advent readings for years “A” and “C” in the lectionary (namely, Matt. 3:1–12 and Luke 3.7–18), we meet a Baptist not only charmingly eccentric, but, well, unpleasant, if not perilously unbalanced. Was it really necessary to call religious inquirers “snake spawn”? And in one of the more ambiguous episodes in the New Testament, the take-no-prisoners prophet portends a brook-no-sinners messiah, who has a “winnowing fork in his hand” and is ready to clear the threshing floor of chaff into fire. I say ambiguous, because, although he is preparing the way of the Lord, it is not really clear that John is preparing the way of this Lord. As it turns out, the translation “winnowing fork” is probably misleading. This is not a fork, but a shovel (ptuon), and the Lord for whom John prepares the way is not to separate wheat from chaff, but rather to send each to their chosen destination, the latter unto fire. In other words, if this is a living metaphor for John, it can only mean that the winnowing is already done, that he already did that. It remains for the Lord of vengeance to bring that inaugurated judgment to its fitting and awful conclusion. No wonder he can say, “Already the axe is laid at the foot of the trees.” No wonder the urgency with which he calls a wayward people to repentance in the wilderness.
If John’s picture was proved too austere by the actual ministry of Jesus, it was not because John was entertaining a fantasy of his own making. He was rather telling the story as it should go, though by interposing his offer of amnesty, he tells a more gracious version. But while he prepared the way of the Lord, he was not prepared for the ways of the Lord Jesus. There was nothing about Jesus’ early ministry that fit John’s picture. The chaff seemed to love Jesus, and he them. The threshing floor that John had so dutifully sorted out had seemingly overnight become a mess — wheat and chaff mixed together again, though now harder to identify which was which. In one of the more egregious breaches of John’s scenario, Jesus does favors for Roman centurions. It seems that Jesus did not get John’s memo. At best, Jesus seems to have taken John’s threshing fork into the Galilean villages and left his shovel behind in the granary.
It should come as little surprise then — though this episode is less famous — that the Baptist, now imprisoned for (what he thought was) his faithful testimony, should have a few questions for his “baptisand”: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3; cf. Luke 7:19). That is actually, from John’s perspective, a rather apt question. And as we can tell from his response, Jesus takes no offense, while he rewrites the messianic job description, beseeching John to take no offense. Sometimes this is referred to as an episode of John’s doubt, and in some sense that may be so. But it trivializes John and actually it trivializes the unexpected messianism of Jesus of Nazareth to lay the confusion at John’s feet rather than at its actual cause, the profligate ministry of Jesus to sinners. John’s fault is not unbelief but disbelief, nor was he was an eccentric crank who had it all wrong all along. John was no “reed shaking in the wind,” and John’s question, his imprisonment, and his soon beheading were not the failures and shame of an uncertain man, but signs and prefigurations of the grace of a certain Man, who came not into the world to judge the world but that the world might be saved through him.
The features image is “St John the Baptist icon” (2013) by the Flickr user Ted. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 This point is made convincingly by Robert L Webb, “The Activity of John the Baptist’s Expected Figure at the Threshing Floor (Matthew 3.12 = Luke 3.17),” JSNT 43 (1991): 103–11.