The Ax and the Tree: Good News

A Homily for the Second Sunday in Advent

Text: Isaiah 11:1-10; St. Matthew 3:1-12


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus the Lord, who stands, ax in hand, to cut down that which does not bear good fruit. Amen.

Three years ago – just days before this text was last read in the lectionary – I sat at the bar of the Holiday Inn in downtown Athens. My parents, my sister and her husband, Suzanne, and I had gathered from across the US for my grandmother’s funeral, but as we sipped our beers, our attention was trained on the TV. CNN was covering the wildfires ripping through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and devastating Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Stories of wildfires are always gut-wrenching, but this one was especially so because my family, like so many in this part of the country, have strong emotional ties to those mountains: my parents spent their honeymoon in Gatlinburg and Cades Cove, my brother-in-law and his family spend an annual vacations in Sevier County, and I had spent an entire summer during seminary working in Gatlinburg, exploring the hundreds of miles of hiking trails through the park, and leading worship services in the Elkmont and Cades Cove campgrounds. News coverage takes on an extra emotional weight when you know the hotel that they’re filming from, have driven the roads now covered by emergency crews, have spent hours hiking the mountain now engulfed in flame, when you know how things should be and how horrible the destruction is.

We know something of how the world should look: that children should not die in government detention centers, that mass shootings should not be daily occurrences, that the earth should not be destroyed in search of higher profit margins, that poverty, hunger, and disease should not exist.

We are certainly called to act, to administer our laws with mercy, to beat weapons of war into tools of creation, to care for this world as stewards, to feed the hungry. We may, even, on occasion, succeed.

But this world is fallen beyond our human ability to save it, as mostly we watch, helplessly, as the world around us continues to burn.

“Even now,” says John the Baptist, “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.”

The Church has, over the past few decades, dressed up the four weeks of Advent in cheerful themes: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace – fine topics to contemplate as we wait for Christmas Day and the Nativity. But the medieval Church, looking as much to Christ’s return at the end of the age as to his birth in Bethlehem, focused instead on “the four last things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. And truth be told, as central as divine love is to Christian theology, Judgment certainly resonates better with this week’s readings: calls to repentance, dead trees and chaff being tossed into unquenchable fire, and that oh-so-stinging insult “You Brood of Vipers!” are not exactly what we would call loving images.

No, they align more closely with those dreadful images we saw pouring forth from the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains three years ago, full of fire and fury, leading us not to hope but to hopelessness, that the judgment promised on the last day means only doom and condemnation. (In fact, “doom” originally meant “judgment,” and came to be associated only with punishment and condemnation.)

If this is how we read John’s message, that we are all trees that better be productive, bringing forth a bountiful harvest lest we get chopped down and burned, then this is wretched news. This is precisely what so many of us grew up hearing: that an angry God is prepared to chop us down and lay us upon the pyre if we don’t mend our ways. How quickly will we vanish into dust and ash, dead wood that we are.

But dear ones, there is a difference between judgment and condemnation. We await the Righteous Judge to arrive at the end of the age, but he comes not bearing condemnation. Instead, our Lord is coming to make all things right and has blessed us with the grace to repent, to turn around.

A year and a half ago, just after our first Easter together, I took a short vacation to camp and hike in the Smokies. I wasn’t sure what to expect – they had been ravaged by fire only eighteen months earlier. And yes, there were parts of the park where the mountains were barren, charred stumps standing among the rocks. There were hiking trails that had been closed. But this was not the first time that these forests and mountains had faced destruction. They had been clear cut seventy-five years earlier as over-zealous logging companies and farmers exploited the land; set aside, though, life rebounded and lush greenery returned even to the most desolate summits and valleys. These mountains with their roaring cascades and soaring timbers, are a symbol of resilience and resurrection, and even after the inferno, green life emerges from the ash.

Consider again John’s metaphor: the ax at the root of the tree. A careful farmer doesn’t chop down the tree out of anger or condemnation but to foster a healthier orchard, to prepare the way for that which will bring forth good things. Just so, those who fight forest fires might wield ax and flame to chop, dig, and burn away underbrush – not to destroy the forest but to preserve it, to rid the woods of that which would only serve to hasten their destruction. Even something as dreadful fire, when wielded with tender care by one who is righteous, can bring about health.

Our Lord is not coming to destroy us but to weed out the sin which threatens to destroy us, to prune away those parts of our life dead in sin that we might flourish more fully, to make us righteous even in the midst of a sinful world. Our Savior took on a body like ours, made of ash and dust and the elements of the earth, to redeem our bodies and even the dust of the earth; and in the end, when Christ returns in glory to judge the world, all of creation will be set to right.

This age threatens to consume us like raging and unchecked fire, to leave us fruitless and bare. But when the Judge returns and lobs off that dead material, pruning away that which is unproductive and feeding it into the purifying flames, even from the stumps green new growth will emerge. A green shoot is coming forth, bringing new life where once there was only death and rot, and it will overwhelm the deathly powers of this age. This new tree is growing, consuming all into the reborn world, uprooting what was dead, bringing even the ash heaps to life, making all things new. Violence will give way to peace as even wolves and bears lay down beside cattle and lambs. We shall live in the righteous glory of God in the new creation. On the mountain of the Lord, new life is springing forth even now.

Dear ones, we who were once dead in sin are being brought back to life by the majesty of Christ the Righteous Judge, baptized into a death like Christ’s that we might, through the fiery power of the Holy Spirit, join Christ in a new and everlasting life. And even now, with the ax at the root of the trees, we pray that our Lord may come again in glory to make this work complete.

Amen.

 

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