Perhaps you were once the new kid at camp where the more experienced campers took you out at night on a snipe hunt. If so, equipped with a light (to attract the bird) and a bag (to catch it) you were left figuratively and literally holding the bag while the other kids had a laugh at your expense. But you can get the last laugh because snipes are real. They are marsh birds whose courtship displays are more often heard than seen since they tend to display at dusk and dawn. Part of the display flight involves a steep dive with tail feathers spread stiffly at a right angle from the body. As a result, the wind through the feathers produces an eerie huhuhu sound.
For a long time these spooky night sounds were attributed to spirits. In the ancient world, many thought it was the bleating of goats. In more recent centuries, the sound has been described as winnowing, no doubt because of a similarity to sounds made by winnowing fans.
In this week’s reading we hear John the Baptist call the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers who should be prepared to get threshed! He portrays Jesus with a winnowing fan in hand prepared to separate the wheat from the chaff. In this method of threshing everything is tossed in the air. The heavier grain falls to the floor while the lighter husks are carried away on the wind. John makes the coming Spirit sound rather threatening; burning fruitless trees and ridding the world of useless chaff. So I am guessing he felt that he was left holding the bag when the Spirit descended like a dove accompanied by the voice of God filled with parental love.
By coming to John to be baptized, Jesus does appear to be on a bit of a snipe hunt. Following after unearthly calls in places where it is hard to see will lead anyone into the wilderness, both literally and figuratively. On the edge of the wilderness, Jesus finds John preaching repentance as the entrance price for the kingdom of heaven that was arriving. John preached the need to be rid of the obstacles. To John’s repentance Jesus added transformation. Membership in this heavenly realm involves claiming right relationship with God. It means knowing that you are loved beyond your wildest imagination. It also means being willing to go on a Holy Spirit snipe hunt into places you may not be willing to go yourself.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of Old South United Church of Christ, Kirtland, Ohio where Darkwood Brew is used as part of an effort to be the church beyond walls. He also has a YouTube channel of two-minute videos called Bible Bytes.