John the Baptist, too, has been reading the prophecy of Isaiah and – like the Prophet – he expects the Messiah to wreak powerful vengeance on wrong doers. He pictures God's special agent and new ruler arriving on Earth with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready – in the days before combine harvesters or threshing machines – to begin the laborious task of separating the nourishing wheat from the inedible chaff. The chaff, he observes ominously, will be burned with unquenchable fire.
Hundreds of years before, Isaiah had warned that God would be compelled to chop down the decaying nation of Israel so that righteous new growth could spring from its roots. Once again, warns John, the axe is at the root of the tree. And this time the Jewish nation may not be so fortunate, for God may cause those new shoots of righteousness and spiritual vigour to grow up among Gentile peoples instead of giving Israel another chance.
Once again, too, snakes feature in the story. This time they are not friends or foes as such, just inevitable bit-part players in this End Time drama – vipers fleeing the wrath to come, eager to learn new tricks and give up their poisonous ways to save themselves. John is taken aback. He had obviously intended his message to appeal only to the common people, not to Pharisees and Sadducees. But who is he to judge?
Recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded Radio 4 listeners that God, as we see Him in Jesus, is remarkably unfussy and inclusive. Far from flaying about him with a winnowing fork, in a desperate bid to cleanse the Earth with fire, he welcomes sinners and eats with them, gladly calling himself their friend. The wolf shall indeed live with the lamb, but that is because the Lamb of God is willing even to welcome the wicked wolf – if the wolf will mend its ways.