December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

“The Axe at the Root of the Trees”

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” This verse brings to mind memories of walking through the woods in places like BC where the forests are very mature. Big, old trees have been cut or more often have died and long since fallen to the ground. And from their stumps, often moss-covered and starting to rot, new trees are beginning to grow. Shoots are coming up from these stumps of old dead trees. Whole new trees are growing out of some of them, nourished by the remnants of the old ones, but growing new and strong, with the potential to bear fruit, provide shade, and become a home for the little animals and birds of the forest.

When the prophet Isaiah wrote these words, they were words of hope, and promise, and possibility for a new ruler for Israel who would emerge from the tragedies and disappointments of the present and recent past, and who would bring peace and security to God’s people. In the context of Israel having been conquered by Assyria, the prophet’s words inspire hope that at least a remnant will survive (like a shoot growing out from a dead stump) and that one day peace and tranquility will be the reality for all of creation.

Of course, when Christians read this text, we recognize Jesus the Christ as the one on whom the spirit of God rested. Jesus is the hopeful shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse, a branch growing out of those roots. The story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River makes it abundantly clear that God’s Spirit came to rest on him. As the prophet describes it, it is “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…”

But today’s Gospel text comes before the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s about John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness, and his call to “prepare the way of the Lord.” John is out in the wilderness of Judea, and the people of Jerusalem and Judea are going out to him. He is telling them to repent, to turn their lives in a new direction. They are confessing their sins, and being baptized – a sign of their full commitment, their being cleansed and made new. John is telling them that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and that a more powerful one is coming, the Lord himself, who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.

It’s amazing to imagine this scene in the wilderness by the River, with all the people coming out to be baptized by John, wanting to change their ways and live as God intends. But like any such revival, there are some people who honestly want to repent and change, and there are others who are just going along with the crowd. There are some who truly want to let God transform their lives, and there are others who just enjoy the religious ceremony, but will return to their normal patterns when it’s over.

John sees many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, and he challenges their sincerity. He calls them a “brood of vipers,” and tells them that they must bear fruit worthy of repentance. They must walk the walk, not just talk to the talk. They must take this religious act of baptism seriously, and live it out in their lives.

Once again, we have the image of a tree. And a tree must bear fruit, John warns. He says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These are strong words of judgment, especially if we think about our own lives as trees that are intended to bear good fruit. They challenge us to examine what fruit our Christian lives are producing. Do we live for ourselves and our own goals and priorities? Or do our lives bring love, care, peace, and joy into the lives of our friends, neighbours, and even our enemies? When we look back at the impact of our existence, can we honestly say that we have made this world a better place, or are our accomplishments more about our own needs and desires?

The fact is, that the axe is at the root of the trees – not to destroy our lives, but ready to cut down and cut out all that is negative, or self-serving, or hurtful in our lives so that a new shoot may have the opportunity to grow, and flourish, and bear good fruit.

I got started in thinking about repentance this week when I had the opportunity to be the listener for a Step 5 for someone in the Alcoholics Anonymous program. I’ve known about AA for a long time, since my uncle was in the program through most of his adult life, and I grew up hearing him talk about “going to a meeting” or working on a particular step of the 12 step program. But this was the first time that I was asked to participate in some way.

In Step 4, individuals in AA have the task of examining their lives and identifying all the ways that they have hurt others. There is a long set of questions that they use that guide them through an examination of their lives and relationships, and help them to honestly name their negative impact on others.

And in Step 5, they sit down with another human being and tell the person what they have done. And that’s the part that I was asked to help with. I went to listen to this person’s Step 5. What a privilege it was do be a part of that process… to listen as someone honestly examined her whole life, and essentially confessed her sins. What a gift it was to witness that kind of vulnerability and courage.

And I’m not talking about a five, or ten, or twenty minute confession. I’m talking about a person engaging in several weeks of self-examination and reflection, and then spending a whole afternoon sharing that work with another person. At one point the analogy of a journey came up in our conversation. It was like she had been on one road, and now she was choosing a different way – turning in a new direction. Well, that’s pretty much the definition of “repentance”… it means to turn in a new direction.

But later, as I reflected on it some more, I thought that the analogy of the tree was just perfect for what I had witnessed. You see, the axe was lying at the root of the tree. And this person was ready to say to God, “Yes, cut me down! Cut out my selfishness, my jealousy, my fear… cut out my cruelty, my indifference, my bitterness… cut out my sin. Cut me down like an axe chopping down a dead and fruitless tree!”

And that’s exactly what God did, as this individual laid out her life before God and in my presence. The dead tree was removed, and a lightness filled her heart. And by God’s grace – from the stump – there is the possibility for a shoot to grow up, for a fruit-bearing tree to spring up, and grow strong, and bless the world.

I must admit that I’ve always thought of that image of the axe lying at the root of the trees as a terrible warning. We must change, or God is going to destroy us! But this week I realized that the axe is actually a promise. The axe is actually a blessing. Because God has the power to cut all that negative stuff out of our lives so that we can become the beautiful fruit-bearing trees that God intends us to be. God has the power to do it… whenever we are ready to let him.

I don’t think that John the Baptist was telling the Pharisees and the Sadducees that they couldn’t be baptized with the others who were confessing their sins and being baptized. But he was telling them that this was a life-changing thing that they were going to do. It wasn’t just a religious ceremony that they would experience one day and then go back to their lives as normal. It was as radical a decision as cutting down a tree.

Our theology of baptism includes the idea that when we are baptized we are dying with Christ and rising with Christ. Baptism by immersion makes the symbolism very clear: As we go down under the water, our old self dies, and as we come up from the water, we are made alive – a new life in Christ. It’s not just a religious ceremony that took place when most of us were infants, but it’s as radical as chopping down a tree and trusting that a new shoot will spring up and grow into a good, strong, fruit-bearing one.

“Living Faith: A statement of Christian belief” is a subordinate standard of our church, and it includes these words in its description of baptism:
Baptism is also an act of discipleship
that requires commitment
and looks towards growth in Christ.
Those baptized in infancy
are called in later years
to make personal profession of Christ.
What is born may die.
What is grafted may wither.
Congregations and those baptized
must strive to nurture life in Christ.

This morning, we have an opportunity to reaffirm our faith in God, our commitment to Christ, and the promises made at our baptisms. Four people will be coming forward specifically to reaffirm their faith this morning, and to be received into the membership of this congregation. And with them, we are all invited to reaffirm our faith.

Especially during this season of Advent, we are called to examine our lives, to repent, and to turn towards God and God’s ways once again. We are called to the kind of humility and courage that allows God to cut out those things in our lives that are keeping us from fruitfulness. And we are called to trust that God has the power to do it, and to bring new life, love, peace, and joy into the world through us.

After all, did you notice that line about stones in the Gospel text? John the Baptist is telling the Pharisees and Sadducees that they can’t rely on their lineage as children of Abraham for God’s approval; they actually have to live fruitful lives of love and peace themselves. But then John declares that, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” From the stones! Not just from dead tree stumps, but from the stones! Stones that seemingly have absolutely no capacity for life!

That is the power of our loving God to make us into children of God, into disciples of Christ, into trees that bear good fruit for the world. And for this, we give thanks and praise to God. Amen.