The Triune God is pruning us in order that Christ, our root, might bring forth new life from us.
Vicar Emily Beckering; Second Sunday of Advent, year A; texts: Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
My home congregation had a tradition of performing a play every year that told the story of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion. One of the most memorable scenes featured John the Baptist: he marched down the aisle of the nave in a wild wig and a hairy costume, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Prepare the way of the Lord, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” I must confess to you that one of my childhood dreams was to play the part of John the Baptist. Little did I know that that was too lofty a dream for a child, and the part would not be given to a girl. So I never got to see the view from the aisle, but I know well what it felt like to be part of the crowd. And really, that was the proper place for me, for all of us: we are part of the crowd, for we need to hear John the Baptist each year calling us to change how we have been living.
So here we are again, along the banks of the river, listening along with the Pharisees and the Sadducees to John the Baptist’s call to us. “Repent” he tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is near!” In other words, “there is no time to waste! No more excuses to make.” As we heard last week, the time is nearer than we think and this is our wake-up call. It is time to wake up, time to repent, time to turn around and turn away from the harmful ways that we have been living and time to turn back towards God and God’s purposes.
Through John’s warning, we like the people of Judea, are told to stop putting our trust in presidential pledges and party platforms, and instead to turn around and to trust God and God’s promises.
We, like those who journeyed from Jerusalem, are told to put an end to meeting our own needs at the expense of those who live in our home, in our city, across the ocean.
We are called to stop strolling along through Advent, content to busy ourselves with baking and buying and all of our responsibilities without a thought for those who struggle to keep their families fed and warm.
John the Baptist calls us back from the dark path of belittling ourselves when we feel that we lack what is needed, and ridiculing others when we feel threatened by them.
Along with the Sadducees and the Pharisees, we are called away from any sense of entitlement or security based on who we think we are or what we have done.
We are to stop staring at ourselves. We are to look up at Jesus and look out into the world where he leads us.
God loves us, and God also loves those whom we have hurt. We cannot continue to live in these ways: too many people have been hurt, too many relationships broken, too many needs have been ignored, too many times have we trampled on others to get our way, too many times have we hidden our God-given light or snuffed others’ out, too many opportunities to listen or to witness have been avoided, and too many times have we placed our trust in people, in things other than in the Triune God. We are trees who have not borne as much fruit as we could have. And this cannot continue. And there is no time to waste. We must be stopped. We must be changed.
This change requires more than an external makeover because the problem goes deep within us; this change, we are told, requires fire and an ax. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees to cut out and to chop off all of the harmful beliefs and patterns, all of the pieces of us that cause us to hurt ourselves and those around us.
This is what we need to understand about John the Baptist’s words: we are already the tree stump, and these words today are good news for a tree cut down.
The Triune God has already been at work in us since our Baptism, cutting out our old sinful selves, and God continues to do that day after day. Even the news of being cut down is good news because we actually need God to remove the diseased branches so that we might heal, to rip away the vines that choke the life out of us, to prune off the branches that take so much of our energy but bear no good fruit. We cannot be Christ if we are turned inward, and so though it is at times painful, the thorns and the thistles and yes maybe even the parts of ourselves that we would name as our trunk—our ego and the value that we place on our accomplishments and our reputation and how loved we are by others—even these things need to be cut away, down to the very tree stump.
But an amazing thing happens to tree stumps in the wild. On the surface—the part of the stump that we can see—the tree may look dead, lifeless, even decaying. But that is not the whole story. There is life yet within the tree: a whole root system beneath it, which anchors it deep and gives the stump what it needs to grow again. Without these roots, the stump would surely die. But it does not, for from the roots shoot new sprouts which will grow into a new tree, a tree without the disease of the old trunk, a healed tree, a healthy tree.
We, too, have secure roots. We are told today both by Paul and the prophet Isaiah, that the root of Jesse is Jesus: the one promised to Israel, the hope for the Gentiles—the hope for us. We are rooted to Christ: at our very core, we belong to the Lord. It is not us who live, but Christ within us: Christ the root, the anchor who keeps us from being torn up by the storms that may rage through our lives, the one who holds us secure in all seasons of the year, and when the winter passes and the flooding around us ceases, and all of our harmful ways of living have been cut away, Christ, our root, will bring forth new life from us.
Without Christ, we, like the tree stump without its roots, would simply die and decay. If left to our own devices, we would continue to trample over others to get our way, we would continue to cling to our money, to choose the easiest path rather than the path that God calls us down, to try to make people into who we would have them be instead of celebrate who God has made them, and we would continue to turn our back on God. But God has found a way to bring lasting change by choosing to forever be bound—to be rooted—to us through Christ. In this binding, we have been set free. The change within us comes from God, and the One who has claimed us and began a good work in us will bring it to completion. Christ will continue to work in us until we are no longer hurting others or destroying or turning our backs on God.
All of this is to say that when we look in the mirror and we see all of our shortcomings, how far we are from who we want to be, or when we look at each other and only see disappointment, or when we look at a world where sexism, racism, classism, slavery, abuse and poverty still hold power, and all that we can see is an ugly, hopeless, dead tree stump, we are told that God isn’t finished with us yet. God refuses to leave us there as the tree stump. “Wait,” God says, “Just you wait, a shoot shall come out from you and a branch shall grow out of your roots.”
This word of God is our life-giving sap because it gives us hope: real, true, hope that the kingdom has come near, and that we are not to give up on ourselves or one another because Christ is still at work in us. When we look at ourselves honestly and we realize that we can’t live how we have been living, the Triune God is cutting away our dead branches. And when we are reminded what is really important in this life, love of God and of one another, and that all the rest can be left behind, the Triune God is pruning us. And when we find ourselves listening in order to understand the concerns and values of others rather than immediately reacting out of fear or anger, the Triune God makes a new shoot burst forth. And when we give our money out of joy rather than cling to it, the Triune God is at work and a sprout springs up. When we take a second look at one another, and we see each other’s roots—each other’s worth—the Triune God is at work and a new bud flowers. And when we entrust ourselves—not just the parts that we are proudest of or the parts that we think maybe we can do without—but our whole selves to God, a branch grows tall and strong.
We might not always feel it, and this change that Christ is bringing about in us may not immediately be evident. So how do we know that we are being made new? How do we know that we are still rooted to God? We know because Christ has promised it: that he will never leave us or forsake us: that he will be with us always until the end of the age. Until he comes again. Until the very end of our sin, and our hurting, and all suffering. This is the promise and the hope for us, for the Church, the whole world, and for anyone who feels like a tree cut down. It won’t be long now; even now a shoot springs forth.