Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Advent Two: Trust the Man With the Axe

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to
preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation:
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our
Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

When we were looking at the apocalyptic language of our gospel reading last week, we asked ourselves the question: why in the world does the church calendar ask us to enter into the jolting and somewhat disturbing imagery of the apocalyptic on our way to cozy Christmas and the baby in the manger? We noted a couple of things last week. 1. The church has always wanted us to think about the fact that we live in between Christ’s two advents. In the in-between-time we must learn to read our present in light of God’s promised future. 2. The vivid and startling imagery of the apocalyptic genre in Scripture is meant to jar us, to wake us up to God’s promises, encouraging us to take hold of them.

Our readings this morning on the 2nd Sunday of Advent invite us to think of our great hope again. In the reading from Romans, Paul explains that all of Scripture is given that we might have hope (15:4). But what sort of hope and hope for what? I fear that we like to hope for the future in ways that don’t get in the way too much with our agenda for the present. We like to hear that our suffering is temporary and so when the preacher talks about hope for redemption we take heart. But the Apostle Paul thinks that gospel shaped hope should get in the way of our agendas if our agenda is getting in the way of God’s. In our reading from Romans today Paul looks into the future and he sees one humanity singing with one voice. (“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But he looks at the church at Rome and he sees Gentiles snubbing Jews. (If you look carefully at his words to the Gentiles in Romans 11 it is not hard to imagine that Paul is seeing the seeds of Christian anti-semitism at work even in this early period of Christian history (e.g. 11:18).

So, he says, in so many words, to the church: “make room at the table for everyone. Gentiles, recognize that your table is not the Lord’s table unless there is room for the Jew; Jews, see in God’s grace to the Gentiles the progress of God’s promise to redeem all people and don’t resent them for being grafted onto your tree.

But how about you and me? Is our hope in the future a private hope that we pull out of our pockets to make ourselves feel better when we are suffering, or is it the public hope of the gospel that shapes our agenda of how we spend our time and money and teaches us to whom we are to be hospitable? Have we allowed our own feelings of superiority to cause us to remove chairs from our tables? No room for you! You offended me once and did not ask for forgiveness. No room for you. I am this sort of person and you are that sort of person; no room for you at my table, for you are not my kind. Or, perhaps we have just allowed laziness and apathy to keep us from allowing gospel shaped hope to empower us to offer hospitality to those in great need. Whatever the case, I suspect that each of us could use reminding that our hoped for future as Christians is a future prepared for our enemies as well as our friends and that it is that hope which should shape our way of being in the world right now in the present. But as with every reminder of the need to repent there is a promise that God’s grace is sufficient to forgive and empower us to live more faithfully tomorrow. The Lord’s table which embraces us each week at communion represents the future: one humanity singing in one voice. Come now and be filled with that hope!


Well, if it was not unsettling enough to have apocalyptic imagery last week, the first Sunday of Advent, and then to be reminded just a few minutes ago that we get terribly stingy and self-centered about what and whom we hope for, now we meet John in the desert. He is a disturbing figure who looks and smells funny. He is deliberately calling forth in his dress, his message, and his style, an image that reminds God’s people of the warnings of the OT prophets - the kinds of prophetic warnings to God’s people to not take God for granted but to repent and ask for refreshing. So, even though during Advent we want to get to the coziness of Christmas, God is always messing with us (messing with us in a good way), because he knows that left to our own devices we will not want what is best for us or what is best for our neighbor. So God says, so to speak, all roads to the manger pass through the desert (phrase borrowed from Fred Craddock). (Remember, Israel was in the desert for 40 years; that tidbit would not be lost on Matthew’s readers and hearers. The desert is the place where God wants you to get know him in a deep and life-giving way. In the desert we meet John and hear his preaching.

There is much that can and should be said of this text but in the time that remains I want to look at just one idea with you and here it is: the image of Jesus with an axe and a winnowing fork is meant to give you hope. These images of Jesus are sobering but hopeful. What John the Baptist is saying, in so many words, is that his call for repentance will come to fruition only after the work of Jesus’ relentless and purging love. Talk about relentless - his love is pictured in these powerful agricultural images that are quite vivid and fast moving, images of a farmer who means business! Jesus’ refining and relentless love is like a farmer that goes through his orchard and chops down the dying trees in order to have more room for healthy growth; Jesus’ relentless love is like the farmer who vigorously throw the wheat up in the air over and over again until the good wheat is separated from the chaff. This is how John the Baptist previews the work of Christ. Jesus’ mission is this: he is ready to go to work in the depths of our hearts - but are you and I desiring that this morning? God wants you to know that he longs for your heart to be laid bare before him. He wants your heart that loves, your heart that hates, your heart that is afraid, your heart that manipulates and desires to manipulate even more. He wants us to put everything before him and ask him to work in our lives to make us more like Jesus in the way we live in this world. For us, this will always involve repentance. But in order to repent like we need to we must put away our fear of the future and our fear of future failure, for we can only be faithful in the present moment. We must eave the future to God. We must put away our desire to be in charge of our lives and actively ask Jesus to lay us bare before him. In order to repent like we need to we need to desire to repent like we need to and this comes only through our cooperation with the work of God’s spirit. We must actively call upon God’s spirit to open us up to the one who “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until he divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow..... the one who is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, before whom no creature is hidden, before whom all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account (paraphrase of Hebrews 4:12)

The imagery of the passage from Matthew - the purging of the orchard and the separation of the wheat from the chaff - is a picture that is meant to jar us into realizing that God is seriously at work in Christ to bring about his kingdom. Everything that does not make for human flourishing in the kingdom will be purged away. The images are meant to sober us and call us to repentance because the man with the axe love us very much.

1. Do you ever feel like your hope for the future, based on the promises of God’s redemption, is too self-centered? Can you give an example? What can you do in practical every-day ways to resist/avoid that temptation?

2. Do you feel that God’s love is what motivates him to lay us bare before him? Can you think of an example from the Scriptures, Old or New Testaments, where God says that his discipline of us is a sure mark of his love for us?

3. Do you treat others with love and embrace when you encounter them in what you consider to be sinful behavior on their part? If not, why not? Do you sometimes need boundaries in order to love someone with Christian love? How do you know when you need boundaries and/or when you may be hiding behind boundaries when you really need to embrace and just be patient with a person’s growth?