Tuesday, December 18, 2012
The graceful ax of God
TO LISTEN ONLINE
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
So, today’s Gospel’s a little scary. You know it’s never a good sign when the first thing that comes to mind when you read the Gospel you plan to preach on is a scene from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. Because – it’s easy to think that today’s Gospel is claiming that the Advent of Jesus is similar to the Advent of Santa, only a lot more sadistic. I mean is that what John the Baptist is saying? That –
You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Jesus Christ is coming to town
And then the verse that I wrote:
He sees you when you're sinning,
So I think it’s time you learned;
The wheat he will be gathering in,
But the bad trees he will burn.
So here’s the first thing I want to say about today’s Gospel – the point is not to scare us into a changed life. Right? Because – how does Luke sum up John’s speech? “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Jesus’ arrival is good news, as is every single word that John speaks in today’s Gospel.
And so what I’d have us consider is that today’s Gospel isn’t a picture of Judgment Day, where the sheep and goats are divided, but rather a spiritual formation text where John gives us a clear picture of what Jesus Christ longs to do in our lives: “The ax,” John says, “is lying at the root of the trees; and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Now, what does this mean? Well, in the backdrop of John’s speech is Psalm 1. And when you get home today I’d encourage you to read Psalm 1, where the righteous person is compared to a tree – a tree that’s planted by streams of water so that it yields fruit in its season. And so psalm one’s metaphor for the spiritual live is that each and every one of us is a tree, which makes us ask the question – where it is exactly that we’re planted. In other words, what do the roots of our soul rely on to find nourishment?
Because – when it comes to life there’s a really big difference between being a tree planted by a riverbank and one that depends on the outside rain to find nourishment and life. And what I think psalm 1 is saying is that there’s a difference between a person whose roots descend deep into God to find nourishment in His goodness and grace, and someone that depends on “outside factors” to make them feel like a worthwhile human being.
And that’s why our great spiritual problem isn’t so much that we’re rebels or misfits but, in the tradition of psalm 1, trees – trees that have been planted somewhere East of Eden and therefore trees that bear the wrong kind of fruit. You see, even though God tells us that we are the object of His love – His very own beloved – we still live our lives frantically searching for someone else to tell us we’re beloved. You see like a tree that depends on the outside rain to stay alive we too rely on outside factors – our I.Q., our sense of humor, what other people think, our portfolio, the feedback we’re getting at work, our own piety and religious observance, our religious tradition (you, know the claim that we have Abraham as our ancestor and that’s what makes us special!). And that’s why John reminds the crowds in today’s Gospel that God can make more children of Abraham from a pile of rocks – that it’s not our heritage or anything else that makes us worthy, but rather God’s commitment to save us, and purify us, refine us with the fire of His Holy Spirit, all to make us more like Himself – that is what makes us worthy.
And it’s this acknowledgement, I believe, that captures the nature of true repentance, which is any shift of the mind that moves us a bit closer to finding our worth and significance in Jesus. And that’s why God’s desire isn’t to polish us up or to work out the kinks in our character, but rather to take his graceful ax, chop us down, burn the chaff, safeguard the wheat, and to slowly but surely uproot us so that we might be replanted in His Son Jesus Christ.
And so while today’s Gospel may not be scary, it is unsettling. Because – nothing inside of us wants to be cut down, and replanted. And yet, for those of us who have already drowned in the waters of baptism, I think it’s good to be reminded that Jesus has no intention of leaving us alone until we are completely and utterly transformed. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:
Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money … I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, I’ve come to kill it. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. [And so] hand over your whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
And so, let me give you a quick example of how this is playing out in my life. There’s a young man I visit weekly in prison by the name of Gerardo. He’s 15 and already Gerardo’s accrued a handful of felony charges. And even though the state will give him a chance to change his life before he turns 18, after two months of walking alongside him I’m not sure that’ll happen, or if Gerardo even wants it to happen. And I tell you this because I began this ministry thinking my call was to get through to him. And what I’m finding is that the person God’s chiseling away at is me. One of the things I’m learning is how scared I am. Truth be told, at this point in life I would never have Gerardo into my home. I’m also learning I have a hard time “wasting” time. If the guard lets me out at 7:04 and not 7 PM sharp I get angry, and if Gerardo’s not happy to see me I’m the one that feels like the victim. “You little jerk,” I think, “do you not appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?” In other words, what God’s showing me is that there’s still so much chaff in my heart that Jesus wants to burn, weeds he needs to pull, branches He intends to prune – all of which is a part of his plant to chop me down and replant me in the goodness and grace of God.
And so here’s the word I’d like to leave you with this morning. As Christmas approaches, when you experience pain – when a relationship breaks down or when a comment breaks your spirit; when your impatience frustrates you or when your anger boils over – stop. Pray. Think about what it is you’re being denied that you’ve been relying on day in and day out to nourish you. Draw an X on that aspect of your soul. And then, invite Jesus to pick up his ax, to bring the baptism of his fire, because something may need to be chopped down and some chaff may need to be burned.
Because – there is no path to spiritual maturity that doesn’t involve pain. Apparently when Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he apparently replied, “Well, I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.” In the same way, Jesus longs to carve away those bits of us that are not really “us” at all. Because – as badly as we want to plant ourselves where our souls can find nourishment in the things of this world, it is good news that Jesus comes to uproot us and replant us in a different world all together, which He calls the Kingdom of God.
And so take heart. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. The ax is lying at the root of the trees; Even now the Master Artist is chiseling, and in His mind, the masterpiece, who you are and who He is fashioning you to be, is finished.
God asks us not to worry,
His wrath we will not face
It’s His goodness that uproots us,
And replants us in His grace.