A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho, December 8, 2013
These passages have had me thinking about tree chopping this week. Sometimes it sounds like bad news. Threatening. We think about ancient beautiful redwoods chopped down in the middle of the night.
We conjure up images of clear cutting forests.
But sometimes, things need to come down.
I wonder if the “axe against the tree” that John mentions is a promise and not the threat it sounds like it is.
Back when I was doing youth ministry, I took a group of desert dwelling kids from Albuquerque up to Sitka, Alaska to work at Sheldon Jackson College for a week. It was a great week.
But one of the jobs the college had for our group was to take down a bunch of trees that were encroaching on the campus. It was a reasonable request.
But the kids from New Mexico wouldn’t do it. They lived in a place where trees were rare and valuable. The shade from cottonwoods made a real difference in the heat of an Albuquerque summer. They treasured trees and didn’t want to participate in their destruction.
So we talked about the difference in location, and about how there really were too many trees invading the campus. And how Sitka had different issues than Albuquerque. And they went to clear the trees.
They weren’t exactly like John the Baptizer, yelling at the trees, “Repent, pine forest! Even now the axe is lying at your roots! Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be CUT DOWN! Don’t make me cut you down! Because I will!”
Although, on reflection, perhaps I would have had more volunteers if I had given them the option to be an old school prophet, raining down hellfire and damnation on unrepentant trees.
Sometimes, things need to come down. Sometimes the axe against the tree is a promise and not a threat.
I know John the Baptist is not the most approachable and personable Biblical character. He could use some social skills. Calling people “broods of vipers” or is not, perhaps, the conventional way to win hearts and minds.
But people flocked to hear him. Despite his appearance. Despite his rhetoric. They flocked from All of Judea, All of Jerusalem, to the wilderness, to be baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Even the Sadducees and the Pharisees, people who could have easily had their baptisms of repentance handled from the comfort of the religious structures which they oversaw, even they went to the wilderness.
John is a reminder that when it comes right down to it, people would rather hear an inconvenient truth than platitudes. We seek authenticity even when we wish we could find meaning in hollow happiness.
And we know he’s right when we hear his lectures.
We hear the admonishment that the axe is against the tree, and we think of what needs to be chopped down.
Or maybe we don’t.
Maybe we prefer the forest we know, even if it is getting a little crowded, and the dead wood makes it difficult to walk under the canopy as we used to.
Maybe, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we hide behind the trees and say “we might be deadwood that isn’t bearing fruit, but we’re trees that Abraham planted, you can’t get rid of us.”
John tells them that God is able to turn the rocks lying in the riverbed into children of Abraham. The traditions that matter so much, the connection to Abraham, to the past, to our ancestors, is good and real and important.
But if we think our connection to the tradition is more important than bearing good fruit so we can carry that tradition into the future, John reminds us of our folly.
Because the stakes are high.
God has work for us to do in the world. We need to be trees bearing the fruits of the spirit. And if we’re not willing to do that, God will plant a new crop of trees.
We’re all gathered here, in the midst of this busy holiday season, in a weekend full of snow and cold temperatures, because I think we are still drawn to John’s message. We want to be trees that bear good fruit.
And we know we don’t always do that.
We are people who make mistakes.
We are people who lose focus.
We get our priorities in the wrong order.
We mistake privilege for divine right.
Each week in worship, we pray a prayer of confession. We lift our voices together to acknowledge we have not lived as God has called us to live. And we repent of our mistakes. And together, we announce our forgiveness, and we pass the peace to each other, celebrating for the gift of community that allows us to come together and be authentic and true about who we are.
And I know some of you wish we could ditch the confession. It can be seen as depressing.
But I would come to worship each week just for that moment. There is something freeing about being honest about my failures and it is liberating to raise our voices together, to know I’m not alone, and to receive God’s grace and mercy together.
We are called to repentance—to acknowledging that we haven’t lived as we have been called to live.
But this isn’t about guilt or wanting people to feel unworthy. This repentance is actually an act of Hope. By repenting, we—as individuals and as a community—come before God and each other and acknowledge that we believe in God’s kingdom. We believe that there is a better and more just way of being, of treating each other, and of living together than we can make happen on our own.
And I see the act of confession and the assurance of pardon in John the Baptist’s role in the Advent journey.
Because if all we had was John, yelling at us in the desert, how depressing would that be? If all we had was confession with no assurance of pardon, where would our hope be?
This is how I see the axe against the tree as a promise and not the threat it seems to be. Because John goes on from the chopping and starts talking about Jesus.
And that’s why we turn to John the Baptist each Advent season.
He recognized something new was happening in the person of Jesus. And he knew we needed to get ready for it.
Because the redemption of the world that happened in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is really good news. And it turned the world upside down.
It showed us that the God who created the universe is still active in the act of creating now.
And this is why the axe is a good thing.
As Isaiah describes his vision of a new world, he starts with this line. “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
This particular language makes us think about a family tree, and not just any family tree. But the royal line of King David, the son of Jesse. But David’s reign didn’t work out so well. His line lived on, but his family’s reign was short lived. While Jesus’ genealogy connects him back to David, Isaiah likens the family tree to a stump.
Tree stumps are not where we seek new life. Tree stumps are where we see what was, what used to be, what we’ve lost.
But Isaiah invites us to consider stumps in a new way. Hear his prophecy beginning at the end of chapter 10, before our verses pick up for today.
“Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low. God will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe. And Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
But from the stump, from the dead end, from the ruined forest, will grow up a leader with a spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the world.
Isaiah didn’t know anything about Jesus of Nazareth. He wasn’t a fortune teller who was predicting the future in a magical way. He was a prophet of God, a person called by God to proclaim news of God’s judgment, God’s promise, and God’s hope for a future that is better than we can imagine in our wildest dreams.
The people who met Jesus, who heard him speak, who saw him heal, who watched him stand up and speak truth to power, and who heard him preach a message of repentance and of God’s grace, all of these people heard Jesus and thought of Isaiah. Jesus embodied for them the message of hope they heard in Isaiah’s writing.
And John recognized it too.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.
And so, at this second week of Advent, we are here to prepare. To repent. To prepare for the redemption of the world that we know will come in Jesus.
And the images of stumps and ruined forests and dead ends are just a point in the journey we’re on.
They aren’t an ending when God is telling the story.
And so I invite you, on the journey to Christmas, to notice the stumps, to recognize the axe against the tree may not be a bad thing. Because where we see ending, God creates new beginnings.
We’re invited to join in the work of the kingdom, bearing good fruit for the world. And so we prepare, we chop away the things that no longer give us life, that hold us back from where God is calling us, and we prepare the way.
In Advent, we prepare to share with the world the incredible news that God is still at work in the world, creating life where we see only stumps.
May it be so. Amen
And here’s the video from the start of worship this morning: