Friday, December 6

John the Forerunner’s Hope Is Our Hope: Awaiting Ax and Fire.

The Scriptures are for the Second Sunday of advent Pastor Larry accidentally used the Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent on the First

Our Scriptures on this First Advent are in a string of metaphors, images, and proclamations and a series of interpretations and reinterpretations.  We this evening are called into this as we wait to hear God’s word to us in these images, interpretations and reinterpretations.
 We begin with Isaiah’s proclamation of hope: from what seems to be a dead stump, root systems survives and from those roots and stump a new shoot will come.  Paul (and other writers of the New Testament, and the Christian Tradition) identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the branch that grows out of the Root of Jesse.  This image from the life of trees is an image of hope.  Hope that even though the kingdom of Israel and Judah had ceased to be, even though the Hebrews were an exiled and occupied people, someday they would once again be the center of God’s transformative work, from the root of Jesse would come the rebirth of the nation and transformation of the world, giving not only hope to the people of Israel, but this was the hope of all nations, of the peoples, the gentiles. 
St. Paul sees the fulfilment of this passage to be Jesus of Nazareth.  God’s promise that the Gentiles would find their way to Zion, that they would look to Israel for the wisdom of God, becomes in the Apostles reading of those promises, that one particular Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, holds all the hopes of both Jew and Gentile. 
Then we have the proclamation of the odd and fiery John the Baptist.  At the beginning of Advent we hear of the Forerunner (as he is known among Orthodox Christians) who prepares the way of the Lord.  The decedents of the Israelites living in the area of Judea flock to him, they were waiting, they were anticipating a time when things would be restored, and John gave them hope that the time was now.  John the Baptist/Forerunner’s message of hope seems a little harsh, a bit like “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”.  John takes up Isaiah’s tree metaphor but in a different way.  God comes and will lay an ax at the root, won’t just cut down the tree but will go for the root of the tree that does not bear fruit.  John even proclaims that this is the state of affairs as he proclaims the coming, the advent of the one foretold.  Axes and fire are John’s words for anticipation and hope. 
For John God’s coming is a little bit frightening.  The transformation that must come to bring about lion and lamb, and the end of all violence and death requires slash and burn.  Granted burning of chaff, that part of a grain of wheat that is useless inedible without nutrition, and removing the root of trees that will not bear fruit and new branches.  It’s not enough to rely on life that once was, there must be sign of life now, without it there’s the ax and there’s fire to burn up what is dead and worthless. 
But all this is in the past, even Paul’s words.  What are we to make of this now, what life is in these words for us in the early 21st century?  What are we anticipating, and hoping for now?   Why come to this point again, to wait, to anticipate? Why sing of a coming that has already come, to wait for a hope that is both fulfilled in Christ and yet not quite finished, and not quite what was originally hoped for?
What if we don’t listen to John the Forerunner as 1st century Jews, but as 21st century post-Christians?  What does John have to say to us?  What might it mean to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand?  What if what we long for is just in reach, and what if it isn’t other people that keep us from reaching it but ourselves?  What if we all are the brood of vipers, who chase after any and all possible signs of life and hope but do so wishing to cling to our dead lifeless lives as if they were full of life and hope?  What if in our roots there is much hope, but little sign of life above the surface?  Do we have some weight to our being, or are we light like chaff, easily blown in the wind and quickly burnt up?  What might it mean to turn around, to seek to have a change of attitude and orientation?  Perhaps we need to stop and wait, to turn and look and anticipate with hope the fire of transformation.
We post-Christians of the early Twenty-first Century have a problem.  Christendom, or the various Christendoms of Europe and the Middle East were seen as these great achievements. They themselves at certain moments in history were seen as part of the fulfilment of this hope that we are called to on this first Sunday in Advent.  While many still cling to this idea that Christendom or America as a Christian Nation (one of the many Christendoms of Europe) is or was the hope we longed for.  Some  wish to preserve the place of Christians in an old order being convinced that only by preserving Christendom can the Kingdom of God come, only through Christendom can we ever hope to have the lion lay down with the Lamb.  I hope that at least those of us here may see in a new light this error (that I think we already recognize as such).  But there is another form of this clinging to a form of Christendom: Some think that only if the human race progresses beyond prejudice, beyond its past failings, only if all could only not be racist, patriarchal, misogynist, if only all prejudice could be eradicated from human beings through activism and the Rule of Law could bring about what that for which we hope: the peace and the lion laying down with the lamb.  Only through human effort and just governments and laws will all wars will cease and we will have the Kingdom of heaven (though possibly without God).   What is it about these ways of thinking that is the same? Both say that some human condition or effort will make it possible for God to transform the world or for the world to be transformed.  You brood of vipers why do you seek out the coming of God, when you believe human effort or human status or moral standing can bring about the transformation you seek?
Johns hope and anticipation, call for repentance, and his warning about axes and fire says that what God is going to bring about is  going to come not by our repentance, but is going to come with our without our repentance. Christ came without anyone’s permission, what God began in Christ is continuing regardless of Christendom or no Christendom. What God began in Christ, our hope as Jew and Gentile together, whether or not there are any Christians, God will accomplish that for which we hope and long.  This is why Paul is so insistent that Gentiles need only to look to Christ and not first to the Jews and the traditions of the Israelites.  No people of God, no nation, will fulfil God’s work, one who comes from the root of the nation of the people of Israel, this one who is also God, for whom John still calls out in warning and hope, prepare the way of the Lord, turn and look to the only one who is our hope, the icon of God, Jesus Christ.  Let go, open up to life in side you, let go of your flighty lightness of being and be joined to the life giving bread.  Become heavy.  Let the shoot of Jesse spring up from your stump of a life, let the fire consume all that has no meaning in you, let ax and fire pass over you and wait for the transformation that follows.

God is transforming the world it began in the one who is the shoot from the root of Jesse, and it has spread from person to person who has found in themselves this same shoot shooting up from places within themselves where no life seemed to have been.  God’s transforming work comes as Christ comes with fire to burn away what has no weight or meaning or value, so that we may find our weight of being, our substance and value as persons in Christ.  Repent and let the ax and fire come, for there is our hope, to be freed through ax and fire from death and nothingness. Amen.