Today John calls us to make way for the one who comes. We should do so by being prayerful and repenting, preparing ourselves, as we do during Lent, for the Lord. Conflict between the material and the spiritual worlds reaches a climax during Advent. Carols are jingling, we need to get the tree, better get those Christmas cards done and presents purchased. I certainly failed to think about the Lord on Cyber Monday when I tried to work on this sermon but kept shopping online instead! God took a back seat to the promise of thirty percent off. I needed to listen to Pope Francis as he recently denounced consumerism as a poison that threatens true happiness.
John calls us to repent, not only to change our ways but to turn ourselves in the right direction. John calls us to see beyond the stores, the lights, the carols; to see that we must turn our heads toward God instead, turn our heads toward the star over Bethlehem, to await the coming of our savior. But we are not to be passive. We must take action, action inside of ourselves to prepare the way. It is as if we are clearing a road of obstructions for the coming of Jesus.
What obstructions are on your road to the Lord? Is your path clear and straight or have you got some work to do? My personal question: am I even facing in the right direction?
We read in Isaiah that a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots. In this logging community, this is a good image. Haven’t we all cut down trees only to have shoots rise out of the stump to become new trees? We look back to this image from the Hebrew scripture to see a foretelling of the coming of Christ, who shall rise from the line of Jesse, the line of David.
Look at the link between our readings today: Isaiah writes of stumps and John the Baptist gives us what we need to get to the stump; “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” John has come to cut down that tree, to call us to chop down our sins and bad habits, to make way for the fragile shoots of faith to grow.
Now think about this; these shoots are spindly and fragile, rising out of a dying stump. Not a very poetic image to link to our Lord, is it? God sent his son to us as a weak, vulnerable baby. This is one of the most beautiful truths in the Christ story. The humility, the humanity of the all powerful contained in a defenseless, bawling babe.
I want to share with you something from the Reverend Whitney Rice. “Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.
The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger.”
The tree only grows strong because of the storms it weathers. Perhaps the fierce storms we weather are what make us strong. John the Baptist comes at us like a fierce storm today with locusts, vipers, axes and fire. Yet Isaiah promises us beautiful peace. How do we balance these two readings?
We trust in the God of hope. Isaiah wrote of wolves living with lambs, leopards lying with kids; beautiful, peaceful images he captured while he looked out his window at horrible wars.
We trust in the God of hope. We trust that no matter what storms we weather, God WILL gather us up in his arms and hold us close and safe.
We trust in the God of hope. We trust that something better, someone better is coming. We must do our part to clear the way, to turn our heads, to straighten the path. But he is coming. A little baby is coming.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.