"Even now the ax 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.” (Matthew 3:10)
I don’t know about you, but the above quote is pretty scary stuff to me. Old John the Baptist is giving us a pretty stern warning that we better get our act together or else..! In 2019 no fewer than three congregations in my deanery have gone belly up at the top of the ecclesiastical fish tank. The ranks are thinning, and I have to wonder if my little parish will be the next one to get chopped down.
I keep asking, “Are we bearing fruit?” I mean, in the voice of John the Baptist from the gospel appointed for Advent 2 this year (Matthew 3:1-12) I can just hear that ax grinding on the wheel. John’s voice is full of judgment. It’s telling me something better get done in a pretty quick hurry or that blade is coming down. I can’t lean on my good Lutheran theology for help because God could make Lutherans out of rocks if God wanted to (and I sometimes think God did!).
But once I get over my initial panic at the prophet’s message, I have to notice two important things about this text. First, John is calling for repentance. Second, John is promising that God will send a savior. This is actually pretty good news if you stop and think about it. Why would God want us to turn around if there were no place to turn? And why would God send a savior to a world which is beyond hope? The answer, of course, is that God wouldn’t. John’s warning voice is really a voice of hope. God has just packaged this hope in the guise of a scary, bug-eating, wilderness dude to get our attention.
Before we get too hopeful, however, we’d be wise to consider there’s plenty to be alarmed about. Besides our vanishing congregations, the life expectancy of Americans is getting shorter due to stress, gun violence, depression, suicide, drugs, and a bunch of other factors[i]. The world is getting wetter and warmer and climate disasters are becoming commonplace. We face a growing inequality between the haves and have-nots.
I know you’ve heard all of this noise before, and you probably don’t want to be reading about it from me when you’re getting ready for Santa. But the bad news might actually be good news in disguise if it can wake us up, turn us to Christ, and move us to action which is pleasing to God. We have already witnessed God’s desire to set us free and to give us life and healing when we have chosen to honor and obey.
For instance: In the 1970’s the US passed the Clean Air Act which banned lead in gasoline. Since that time the mean lead level in the bloodstreams of Americans plunged by several points while our average IQ scores increased[ii]. Similarly, when we began to get religion over the hole in Earth’s ozone layer, we made the decision to ban halocarbons. Guess what? The ozone hole has started to close back up![iii]
Some things just aren’t “fruitful” enough, and they need to get the ax. But the good news is that God’s will for us is always life—and abundant life at that. The Hebrew scripture passage appointed for Advent 2 (Isaiah 11:1-10) provides us with that really cool image of the shoot rising out of the stump. Yeah, something was cut down, but something new is growing from its remains.
Martin Luther believed that the Church has a duty to speak to the society. In a sense, we are always cast in the role of John the Baptist, calling out the world to stop screwing around and get with God’s program. This always means an uncomfortable and—usually—resisted demand for change. But when that change is made, stuff gets better.
But we’re called to take a look at our own personal stuff, too. For example, I recently had a wonderful encounter with one of my older parishioners (and I hope I don’t get in trouble for using her story in this context) who has made the rather dramatic decision to go into a nursing home. For a lot of us, the Old Folks’ Home is the end of the line, and we want to put it off as long as we can. But my parishioner realized that going to live in a retirement home—even though it meant restrictions and cutting off constant interaction with her family—also meant security, regular physical therapy, group activities, weekly chapel, and the possibility of becoming part of a new social community. She does not dwell on what she’s lost, but on what she’s now gaining. She’s happier than I’ve seen her in years.
I guess the challenge for us in hearing these Advent texts is a willingness to heed the warning without freaking out. The Bible is asking us to take a hard, serious look at our sinful state as a society and as individuals and to be willing to let the ax fall on the things which are inhibiting our growth. At the same time, we are to look toward Isaiah’s beautiful image of God’s intended kingdom and commit ourselves to making it a reality.
A blessed Advent Season, Dear Reader. Thanks for visiting!
[i] For real. You can read about this at https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2019/11/27/why-are-americans-lives-getting-shorter
[iii] Don’t take my word for it. Read the article at https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-ozone-hole-is-smallest-ever-recorded