John preaches repentance and pruning as a present reality oriented to the future, to God’s future, that we live our truth as Christ for the world, bearing fruit for the healing of all things.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday of Advent, cycle A
Texts: Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 11:1-10
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
John the Baptist isn’t someone you’d want at a dinner party.
Really, he’s not someone we’d want to speak to us here. His yearly arrival on Second Advent is a shock of harsh critique, threats of axes chopping and fires burning. He’s not good for polite society.
But he is God’s messenger preparing the way for the coming of Christ into the world. John is the one asked to get the people ready, to get us ready for Christ in our lives. For John, that means repentance is needed, literally a changing of our minds, a redirection of our lives. What’s hard is he delivers that message with such threatening language and tone.
But why must we hear John as all or nothing? If some are all good and fruit-bearing and others are all bad and must be cut down, where’s the hope for repentance? There’s no hope for fruit at all if the tree is gone.
But the whole tree doesn’t need to be cut down if it isn’t bearing fruit. Not if fruit is God’s goal. Rather than deforestation of fruitless trees, we might better hear John as preaching a repentance of pruning.
Careful pruning is critical to the plant’s life, to bearing fruit.
John’s axe threatened leaders of the people he thought were hypocritically seeking baptism. Maybe that’s why he was so harsh. Seeing John’s tool more as a pruning knife gives us a vision of preparation where all need trimming, all have dead branches preventing fruit from growing.
Pruning is the gardener’s way of keeping plants healthy and productive. Branches that don’t produce need to be trimmed away so they don’t drain resources from the rest of the plant, so fruit-bearing branches will thrive. Many plants also need the old, dead heads of fruits or flowers cut away after the season, so new buds may come.
Pruning often looks harsh. It leaves a pile of branches and leaves that need to be burned, or composted, in our modern metaphor. Sometimes pruning almost looks like an ax was used, that the plant was reduced to a stump. Our spirea at home need to be pruned almost to nothing for them to come back in the spring bushy and floral. It seems impossible when such pruning is done that new life could return. But that’s how it can.
Which suggests we’ve been looking at repentance in the wrong direction.
Pruning removes the dead parts, the unfruitful branches, the past life of the plant that no longer gives life, so the plant can thrive and grow and bear fruit. Pruning is actually all about the future.
So is repentance. Too often we’re focused only on the past when we consider confession and repentance. We feel regret for past actions, frustration at our continued difficulty at stopping doing things, sadness at pain we’ve caused. We seek forgiveness, and go on our way.
But repentance is not just about the past. The turning of our minds toward God is a present movement oriented to the future. The whole point is turning, shaping, for what is to come. Our future, bearing fruit for God. God’s future, where the world is whole and healed, and enemies live peaceably together.
Grace is also all about what is to come. It’s not just forgiveness that takes away past sin and that’s the end of it. Grace is all about God readying us for a new future, a new life of blessing for this world.
And even if the pruning we need feels as if we’re reduced to a stump, God promises to bring a shoot of new life from the deadest of stumps. That’s grace. God will raise up in us, from what looks dead, a new branch that will become a blessing of life for the world.
But wait. Are we saying that Isaiah’s not just talking about Jesus, the shoot from the dead stump of David’s family tree?
Are we claiming this Messianic prophecy applies not just to Christ Jesus but to us?
Yes, we are. In our baptismal rite we claim for each whom we wash in God’s waters the same seven-fold gifts of the Spirit Isaiah promises the Messiah, the Christ, will have. We lay hands on the head of God’s child and pray for the Spirit of God to come: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the Spirit of delight, of joy, in God’s presence. In baptism, we audaciously claim the anointing of Christ as our own anointing, our own Christ-ing.
This isn’t a new claim. John just said Jesus would bring a baptism with the Holy Spirit. As far back as St. Ambrose we have evidence that this prayer was part of the laying on of hands at baptism, and many of the early Church teachers assumed the seven gifts of the Spirit promised about Christ Jesus in Isaiah are also promised to us.
That means we also are the shoot from the stump, the righteous branch bringing life, not just Jesus. We are God’s Christ life growing up out of what seems dead and gone. We are the ones to help bring in a peaceable reign of God where even enemies delight in each other as dear friends.
So what are we to do about this today, tomorrow? How shall we respond to John?
We begin by claiming our true identity as God’s Christ. You are Christ, so be Christ. Live that truth in your place, in your life. The Spirit of God intended to bring God’s anointing is now laid upon you, upon me, upon the whole Church throughout the world. We begin our response to John by realizing that the coming of Christ for which we are preparing is happening in us.
Knowing this, we can face the pruning knife with much less fear. There are things in us that need removal if we are to be God’s Christ-branch bearing fruit in this world. Things that maybe used to be helpful but now are dead, useless, or worse, taking our energy away from life-giving things. There are sins to which we are tied that trap us, that need to be removed, not for fear of punishment, but because they are pulling us down and keeping us from growing and deepening in our Christ-life.
Letting God’s Spirit prune away these things will hurt. Some of these dead things are familiar and comfortable; some are deeply rooted.
But the Pruner always has the good of the tree in mind, even if the cut is deep. Christ Jesus, who died and rose for our life and the life of the world, sees the true Christ in each of us and rejoices in that life-giving plant. So the cutting away of the deadheads and the useless branches is all to free us to grow and live as the Christ we are.
John might not be great dinner company, but listen to him anyway.
Harsh and loud as he can be, John is God’s chosen messenger to prepare us for the coming of Christ into the world. Much to our surprise, he proclaims that we need to be reshaped and pruned because we are that coming of Christ into the world. Shouting John is the one God needs to wake us up so God’s people begin to bear fruit in this world for the life of the world.
Because this pruning, this repentance, this turning of our minds and lives and hearts to God, is a present truth oriented always to the future, to God’s future. That God’s future might become present reality, a whole, healed, blessed, peaceable world where all bear fruits of love and peace and righteousness and gentleness and grace to each other, to the creation, to God.
This future is coming. Christ is coming. We only just realized Christ is coming in us, too. It’s time we lived that way.
In the name of Jesus. Amen