Saturday, December 8, 2007

Advent 2: The Ax at the Root

I think of Matthew as the great storyteller among the evangelists. In my imagination, Mark's action packed gospel makes him God's screen writer, while Luke's chronicles of the life of Christ and the early church remind me of Homer's epic poetry. Mystical John stands outside the narrative tradition of the other three - his story is one of cosmic forces colliding. Together, they form the Gospels - and at the beginning of Matthew, just after the story of Jesus' birth, we meet John the Baptizer. Like a Shakespearian prologue, John sets the scene for the drama that is to come. His appearance, illustrated in this 6th century Byzantine icon, is as memorable as any Greek chorus could ever be.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Matthew 3:1-12

In the quiet Advent season of waiting, I was startled to hear John's warning about the ax at the root. There are roots in my life's tree that have grown long and deep. I am comfortable with them. They define me. I don't mind lining up to be washed in the Christmas river like the pharisees at John's riverside revival meeting, but I am not so excited about having parts of me chopped away and thrown into unquenchable fire.

Just when I'm starting to get cozy with hot chocolate evenings in my big chair, Mrs P across the room reading quietly, Sniffy the cat snoozing on my chest, visions of sugar plumbs and all that -that's when the crazy man in the camel hair coat and the honey breath reminds me that the Gospel isn't just about salvation, it is also about change. I can wade in the water of John's baptism if I wish, but I have to be prepared for the consequences of that bath. Advent is more than just a way to "holy-up" the weeks before Christmas. Advent is time to let go. A child is coming who will gather up the dry husks and chaff -the dead, useless by-products of my life - and throw them into the fire.

I can choose to let go of the useless things that comfort me.

Or I can choose to be destroyed with them.

That's straight talk from a wild man in the desert. Not exactly the stuff holiday TV specials are made of, but it is an important part of the Christmas story. Whoever encounters the Baptizer in the Jordan or the Babe in the manger is confronted with a choice - live as if these stories were fables, or as if they were true.

Confronting the implications of Christ's incarnation for my life may begin with a sprinkle, a splash, or a dunk in the river - but discipleship does not end there.

God, grant me the vision to recognize the chaff in my own life, and the grace to accept your judgment as you cast it away to make me your more perfect servant.


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