2022-12-04 Advent 2
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
I’ve lived in British Columbia twice. And both times BC stood for Bring Cash! If you want the sunshine, you’re gonna pay the sunshine tax and that’s the way it is. You also get the luxury of living near an abundant supply of evergreen trees. On my vicarage in Kitimat in North West BC, it was encouraged that you go up into the wilds where the power line swath had been made and cut down your own organic Christmas tree from the little ones that were re-growing in the swath. It was a lot of fun searching for that perfect tree, cutting it down, strapping it to the roof of your car and going home to decorate and celebrate Christmas! In Kitimat though, the boys are a little bit more unconventional. They truly buck the BC hippy image in the north. There was the story of some good ol’ Lutherans who went walking through the woods, looking for a Christmas tree. When they found the perfect Tannenbaum and went to cut it down, they realized they left the axe back home in the shed. Not wanting to drive all the way back to town, they remembered that they had a shotgun in the truck with some slugs in case they met a bear or a cougar. So they looked at each other and did what any self-respecting resident of Mortlach would do. They grabbed the gun, and proceeded to shoot down the Christmas tree slug by slug! And from that day on, the tradition of harvesting the family Christmas tree with a shotgun instead of an axe was born!
On this second Sunday in Advent, we’re talking about trees. More specifically, chopping them down. St. John the Baptist says “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10). Right away you get the drift that this isn’t about Christmas trees. O Tannenbaum isn’t on the horizon here. Nope, this tree is all about judgment and wrath. And not the wrath of some tree hugging BC hippy, mad about you hacking down an evergreen. We’re talking the judgment and wrath of almighty God. And it is directed to a specific group of people.
Trees have always played a strong role in the Christian faith. From the very beginning in the Garden of Eden there was the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The one commandment God gave centred around not eating the fruit from that second tree. And we know what happened as a result. Sin and death came rushing into our world and have been plaguing everything since. But I did recently see a scientific study that showed that no man on planet earth would refuse fruit from a naked woman! So can we really blame Adam?! Guilty as charged! And we know that people then tumbled out of that perfect communion they had with God in paradise. And to fix this problem, it would take another tree. The life giving tree of the Cross where our Lord would pay the ultimate sacrifice and die that death might die. So we are used to trees being a central part of our faith. But the tree that John the Baptist is talking about is the “stump of Jesse” that Isaiah was talking about. It was the Hebrew family tree.
Now we all know how it goes with family trees. There are certain branches we wish weren’t attached to the rest! We often think it might be high time to trim some of those branches away! And then, there are some of us whose family trees more resemble a ‘family twig.’ But that’s another story. For now we will talk about the Hebrew family tree, because that is what the Baptizer is talking about. He’s out in the Judean wilderness, dressed in a prophet’s clothing of choice. No Armani suits for this guy, only the finest Camel hair robe will do with accessory leather belt. And, he’s as organic as a BC Christmas tree too, eating pasture raised locusts and wild honey. And he’s preachin’ up a storm. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (MT 3:2). And people were coming out in droves to see just what the heck was going on out in the desert.
Not only common folk were flocking out there to check him out either. The mucky mucks were also coming out. The Sadducees and the Pharisees. We hear about them a lot in the Gospels. And we know that they were the “God-guys” but what else did they do? The Sadducees were members of the high-priestly and landowning class who controlled the temple and the politics of the Jews. They denied that there would be a resurrection from the dead and had no hope for a Messiah beyond this life. The Pharisees, on the other hand, formed more of a lay religious movement centred on the study of the Law and on strict observance of its regulations. They were like modern day Rabbis. They did believe in a resurrection of the dead and had a Messianic hope past the grave. However, they also believed and taught that righteousness is attained through the strength and power of one’s own works. John the Baptizer calls them all a “brood of vipers” because of this false doctrine and deception they bring under the influence of the devil.
If you’ve ever travelled in BC at all, especially in the north or the interior, you get a really eye opening view. The scenery is gorgeous! But there is a dark spot and smudge mark on the beauty. The pine beetle. It has destroyed zillions of acres of forest, turning what was once green and lush and thriving into a landscape of death and depressing grey and brown. This same kind of rot is what John was preaching about out in the desert. But of course it wasn’t pine beetles he had in mind. Instead it was the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were just like the pine pests bringing spiritual death and destruction and rot to God’s family tree. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John said. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (MT 3:7-10).
See these “God-guys” thought they were perfectly fine because of their family tree. “We’re Hebrews, sons of Abraham, blue bloods” you can hear them say. “We don’t need repentance!” And that is where the Jews – and Lutherans - are dead wrong. If we fall into the same trap and think because we were baptized once upon a time in a Lutheran church somewhere and never darkened the door of a church since and yet we’re magically gonna go to heaven some day, we’ve got another thing coming – just like the Pharisees did. And that other thing is the axe! It’s at the root of all fruitless, non-producing, non-repentant, deadwood trees. And it is followed ever so quickly with fire.
The Lord calls us by the gospel to life. Not following long lists of legalism and rules like the Pharisees and not following the ways of the world being a spiritual slacker and never attending church. No way! Both of those extreme paths lead to destruction and death. Instead, God gives us life by faith in His Messiah. We certainly trust that God has given us this life in our Baptism by the Holy Spirit. But we can’t become Pharisees or slackers about it. Both of these paths put us at odds with God and His Kingdom rather than at peace with Him. Peace with God only comes about through repentance. Confessing our sins, turning away from the ways of the world and turning our hearts and mind towards our Lord. This is the way of the cross. This is the way of the prince of peace.
On this second Sunday in Advent, this is what we are reminded of. The peace of God comes through Christ, the promised Messiah. And this peace allows us to prepare to greet our coming King again. So watch! Prepare! Be ready. Our Lord asks all of us “when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” Will He find a people who are awake and waiting for Him, ready to greet Him in peace and repentance, serving and loving their neighbours or will He find a people whose hearts have grown cold, sleepy and apathetic, consumed by the spiritual rot of the world? For a “shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots” has born fruit. The fruit of the cross is our peace now and forever more. Amen. Come Lord Jesus!