Advent is a season of hope, a season of the stars peeping through even on the darkest night. It is a season in which we fervently anticipate that day when Jesus will return to replace all earthly power structures and systems with his own gentle reign of justice and peace. This week we hear that in God’s kingdom, even non-human parts of creation will come to a more peaceful way of existing. Lions and lambs will co-exist, bears won’t attack calves, and snakes won’t bite children. All of creation will find harmony and joy in the light of God’s reconciling love.
It is what we hope for, because it is not the world we see. The world we know is broken, violent, and full of fear. We simultaneously suffer from its damage, and contribute to it. We anguish at the inconsistency between what we live and what we know is the heart of the Gospel—summed up concisely in St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians: “Welcome one another, then, as God in Christ has welcomed you.” This little phrase is a perfect summary of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and all that God longs for on our planet. Everyone and everything appreciated as the holy, beautiful, precious entities God designed it all to be. All of God’s handiwork treated with reverence and delight.
So why, since welcoming one another as God in Christ welcomes us is perfect description of what it means to live out our faith, are we so unwilling or unable to do that—on a small personal scale, or on a large global scale? Racism, greed, homophobia, classism, ageism, sexism, nationalism, religious exclusivity … call it whatever you want, we are surrounded by variations on the theme, which is this world’s refusal to welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed us.
That’s what John the Baptist is railing against in today’s Gospel lesson. He urges the people to repent for not welcoming one another as God has welcomed them. He offers them the opportunity to be baptized, to immerse themselves in a symbolic gesture of their need to be cleansed and renewed. John goes on to say that he just baptizing with water, but The Messiah is coming soon, and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah a little the way we see the Grim Reaper often depicted—a winnowing fork in his hand, gathering up the wheat but burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. John warns that non-productive trees, the ones who aren’t identifiable by their fruits because they don’t have fruits worth noticing, will be cut down. Not just cut back, trimmed a little around the edges, the way you do with a rose bush at the end of its blooming season. No. The axe lies at the very root of the tree.
So I guess the question is, “Are we chaff or are we grain?” Is our tree bearing good fruit or not?” The impression seems to be that if we are chaff or a tree that doesn’t bear fruit, Advent is a time for us to get our acts together before Christ comes again. But if we see ourselves as grain, not chaff—or as a good tree, not the fruitless one—have we committed the sin of pride, leaving it to others to be the chaff or the rotten tree? Should we be worried or eager to see the scythe coming near? Seems like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation to me.
But it’s never that black and white, is it? There wasn’t anyone in that crowd, nor is there anyone in this in this room today, who isn’t a combination of some chaff and some grain. We are all simultaneously saints and sinners. We all have some great attributes, some wonderful qualities, and we all have some dead limbs, some extraneous junk that gets in the way of our relationships with God and our neighbors and the earth. We all have some stuff that ought to be purged away. Chopped off. Burned with unquenchable fire. I would like to offer up my greed and selfishness and hypocrisy on such a chopping block. At the same time, having any part of me cut off or burned up sounds kind of scary and violent—the opposite of Isaiah’s picture of the peaceable kingdom, where everyone and everything is at peace.
But really, as you gardeners know well, sometimes in order for new life to grow and thrive, serious measures need to be taken. After a harvest, farmers burn away old vegetation, preparing the soil for the next crop. Cutting the dead or diseased limbs off a tree can be exactly what permits it to thrive. A garden flourishes after the weeds are ripped out by their roots. Could it be, then, that the axe lying at the root of the tree is a promise, not a threat?
I visited Yellowstone National Park in 1991. Just two years before, hundreds of acres had been burned in an out-of-control forest fire. As I drove through the park, there were miles of blackened, charred stumps where towering trees had once stood. It was like a moonscape—nothing living for as far as I could see. But that was just an initial impression, when I looked closely at the blackened landscape, I could see little yellow daisies springing up. And thumb-sized saplings in the ground. The park was not barren. It was starting to grow anew. Forest fires, as you probably know, are one of the ways that nature renews itself. Fire clears away the weeds and debris and other gunk that crowds out the healthy environment of the trees and animals. And the carbon that fire creates nourishes the soil, making it more fertile.
In nature, new life springs up in places where fires have burned, and it is usually quite healthy life. Perhaps we ought to picture ourselves as part of the vast landscape of life. Then maybe we could take some comfort in the promise of a baptism of fire. It may reassure us that the extraneous stuff that has found its way into our lives will be dramatically removed, making way for the richer, deeper parts of our lives to flourish. Maybe some fire, some cutting, even if it’s a bit painful and scary, would allow us to produce fruits worthy of repentance.
Maybe just the longing for the cleansing power of the fire is the beginning of that kind of fruit—the repentant kind. But of course, recognizing our sinfulness and apologizing for it are entirely different thing from actually changing, reforming! Acknowledging our flaws and saying we are sorry is sometimes hard all by itself, but really addressing the problem or problems, as we all know, is harder still. And yet, until what is old is removed, the new cannot grow. Any child who resists having a tooth pulled has faced that conundrum.
God sees our struggle, and does not leave us alone in the midst of our brokenness. We do not have to chop off the diseased limbs all by ourselves, or set fire to our own extraneous brush. Instead, Jesus comes to us, burning and cutting away all that gets in the way of our living true, authentic lives. And God provides companionship and comfort as we are healing. Every week we come here, and in the presence of God and one another, we confess how we have participated in the fracturing and dishonoring of God’s dream for wholeness and reconciliation. And every week we hear the words of absolution, of God’s forgiveness and the promise that we can try again. Our God is a God not only of second chances, but third and twelfth and eightieth chances too.
We see in all God’s wondrous creation the need for healing, and at the same time, we receive healing from it. In spite of our own sinfulness, we can be instruments of grace to one another. We have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and in spite of our warts and flaws, we have been granted the spirit of wisdom and might, the Spirit of knowledge and reverence for the Lord. We have been granted the authority to minister to one another, to purge away what hampers growth, and to nurture what is valuable. We are empowered to urge God’s peace in each other’s struggles, knowing that everyone here is fighting a great battle. We minister to one another with hearts and hands and voices. While the old, familiar, accustomed way of being is burned away, we sit side by side and see how the light of the fire brightens the darkness. In spite of the chaff that is still in us, we are given God’s gift of grain. Christ’s own blood is in our veins, and Christ’s own body is absorbed into our cells.
In spite of everything, we cling to the promised day when the lion and the lamb will coexist in harmony. Our Advent lesson is to never give up hope. On behalf of the whole world, let us fervently pray for fire and the Holy Spirit to come and reshape the face of the earth. Let us strive always to welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed us. Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider