“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.” These words from John the Baptist remind me of the work done around this Church a short time ago, axes, pruning shearers, chainsaws, and the memorial garden was cleared and tress were taken down so we can complete the fence at the playground. It was wild kingdom out there and a good cleaning, pruning and cutting was needed.
But of course, John is talking about our lives and that symbol of an ax before us makes us uncomfortable. John wants us to repent, to turn away from the sin that holds us back and to prepare for our Lord.
I read that when the people of Wolverhampton learned that Queen Victoria would be coming to their town in late 1866 , the town went into a flurry of activity, as “every man who could handle a pick, saw a board or drive a nail found employment”. Everything stopped to prepare for the Queen: “Galleries were put on the house-fronts, and then bedecked with flags and wreaths. As well as gas-lit illuminations, arches depicting local industries were constructed along the way, including a three-ton coal arch. If you’d been away from Wolverhampton for the week, you’d not have recognized the town on your return. Only the best will do for the Queen’s visit and that is what the town tried to do. There was much excitement and they wanted everything just right…
It is John the Baptist who heralds the news that our monarch, our Lord is coming and we, the people are called to make urgent preparations, not only in the outward display of faith and life, but in inner renewal. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near! To prepare is to repent and as the author Frederick Buechner put it, “to repent is to come to your senses. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m, sorry,” than to the future and saying, “wow!””
When I hear John’s words, “repent for the kingdom of God has come near,” I don’t sit fearful of what is to come, I hear an invitation to become more than who I am today. That’s Good News. That’s the wow that Buechner talks about. To look toward the future, having made changes in our lives that we believe God calls us to do. That is bearing fruit!
However, its when we feel that we have it all made, that we like everything about ourselves and our lives, that we grow forgetful about our own self-examination. We forget the need for repentance. We become like the Pharisees and Saducees who come before John the Baptist. Too assured of their righteousness because of the rituals they practiced and knowing that Abraham was their ancestor, they did not come seeking repentance, to make any changes…
No wonder John yells at them. John the Baptist makes it clear to them and to us, that our blood lines, our rituals, all of who we are will not grant us salvation. That is God’s domain. But it is up to us to bear good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance. It is to come to our senses, knowing we don’t always live like we know we should or the way we want. We want to be better, to live more like God wants us to live.
That is the preparation we do in Advent, preparing for God coming among us in the babe of Bethlehem and when he comes again in glory; the preparation to become more human, more of whom God has called us to be, which John calls us to do through repentance, is to make those changes in our lives, not looking in sorrow, but in hope for the future.
What will the tree of our lives look like?
-will we have pruned it right?
-what seeds will come from our pruning?
-will it bring life to others?
I think of a work by Maya Angelou in a 1993 book of hers. In it she writes: (Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (New York: Random House, 1993))
“There is an immutable life principle with which many people will quarrel. Although nature has proven season in and season out that if the thing that is planted bears fruit at all, it will yield more of itself, there are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvestime they can reap onions.
Too many times for comfort I have expected to reap good when I know I have sown evil. My lame excuse is that I have not always known that actions can only reproduce themselves, or rather, I have not always allowed myself to be aware of that knowledge. Now, after years of observation, and enough courage to admit what I have observed, I try to plant peace if I do not want discord; to plant loyalty and honesty if I want to avoid betrayal and lies.
Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations" (pp. 91-92).
I find her words helpful in our understanding of repentance. If we fail to see that what we plant, is what we sow, that our lives if barren of repentance, will sow seeds barren of repentance. Or if we dare repent, knowing Christ is coming and wanting to be prepared, then we have the opportunity to have lives bearing fruit worthy of that repentance and fruit that will give seeds that bear the hope, love and peace we seek and wish to give to others. Which may or may not grow, but is what we offer.
If we live lives that have no room for repentance, then we live lives that are not everything that they could be. I think of the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. I think that is true of our lives if we do not repent, if we do not come to our senses from time to time and stop those things that give no life to us or the world about us, then our lives are not worth as much. And isn’t that what John the Baptist is getting at in today’s Gospel. Our lives could be much more…
The ax is lying at the root of our trees. Do we dare pick it up and prune ourselves and decide on a better life…or do we leave the ax, praying it will pass.
Today, hear John’s words : Repent! Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Lives worthy of what God has given to us.
For repentance helps us come to our senses, to see the future full of hope, full of life and love, full of wow because Christ is coming. Amen.