Saturday, 7 December 2013

Advent 2: The ax lies ready!

“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.”

As I read the readings for this day I wondered whether of all the phrases this one was the one that echoed most strongly for you. 

The axe lying at the base of the tree sounds a warning of impending doom and it is!  It is for the Sadducees and the Pharisees and it is for us.

We need to look realistically at ourselves a small group of people who gather most Sundays in this place: many of you have a strong sense of your own mortality.  On a personal level and as community it would easy to hear John’s words to our little community “the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”

In fact given the size and age of our congregation you could almost feel that the ax has already been wielded and that all that is left here in this place is a remnant: a stump.  But is this really the way we are to think?  I would like to say not.

The metaphor that John used in reference to the Pharisees and Sadducees is a metaphor that traces its way back into the prophecy from Isaiah: the prophecy that we heard this morning.

God decimates the people of Israel; he wields the axe so to speak.  Listen to the words of the last two verses of Isaiah 10.

33      Look, the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts,
          will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
          the tallest trees will be cut down,
          and the lofty will be brought low.
34      He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an axe,
          and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.

Israel’s fall was prophesied by Isaiah.  Israel would be reduced from a mighty nation, from a mighty forest, but in the midst of this destruction – hope!

Isaiah 11 begins with those words of hope:

1        A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
          and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

Even though God destroys the glory of Israel God does not abandon it totally.  In fact God declares a time of peace and restoration that will be brought about in the coming of this righteous branch: Jesus.

These pictures from Isaiah that John draws upon give hope to us who feel as if the axe is ready to be wielded or even already had been.  Even though God might tear down what is, new life will come forth from the old, a shoot from the stump of Jesse.

John’s word to the Sadducees and Pharisees was a word of hope as much as it was a dire warning for them to repent.  It is a warning that we hear as the invitation to baptism and life in Christ, to follow him.

As individuals and as a community we are constantly being called to account, to face up to who we are. We are people who are limited in our response to what God wills for us and through our inadequacy we limit each other from the response that God desires of them.  Baptism is an act that admits our failure in this and binds us to the new future of peace and righteousness promised by Jesus.

The Scriptures clearly indicate that baptism does not turn us into perfect people who no longer get it wrong.  What baptism does is celebrate and join us to the new direction that Jesus takes for our sake.  It is a pathway that leads to God not away from him.

The guidance for how we might live as people of God’s promise is drawn from the Scriptures as we reflect on the dynamics of what it means to be in this new relationship with God.  Faith is a growing thing, a journey and the landscape in which we live our faith is constantly changing.  

Holding on to old ways of doing and believing, as the Sadducees and Pharisees, puts as in line to meet with the axe but the Spirit draws us on into the new.  The new hope that we are given as we live in Christ and are constantly transformed by him to understand that each of us is tied to the other and to God.

This is why Paul wrote to the Romans exhorting them with the words:

5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And earlier in the chapter:

1We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. 3For Christ did not please himself.

If there are any words that I would say lie central to how we live our faith these last ones seem to be the most important but the least lived.  “Christ did not please himself”. 

Being a Christian is not meant to be about the benefits we receive, even though there may be benefits.  Our faith leads us into a deeper sense of others and of God: living in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ.

Again and again we hear this theme of life in harmony with other people, with God and with the creation in the world around us.  It is the theme of discussion about politics, the environment and religion. 

Yet how do we live in the harmony that God calls us to in this place.  How do we focus on pleasing our neighbour and building them up?

I want to invite you to take a moment and look at each other.  In what ways do you build up the people you sit beside week by week?  What have you done for him or her?  What are you being called to do?  Who irritates you here?  And why?  How can you see beyond your differences into the harmony we are called to?

Living with others means being accepting and understanding and loving and when you feel disappointed or hurt remembering Paul’s words that there times we need to put up with the failings of the weak and I would add to Paul the recognition that we are all weak sometimes.

Doing this takes great spiritual maturity and the honesty to deal with our problems with one another appropriately, not speaking behind each other’s backs, or whinging whilst not addressing the issue but seeking to listen and learn and love one another as we make room for each other and live in harmony.

If you have issues with something I say to speak to me about it; if there is an issue with rosters to talk to those who look after the rosters; if you would like more involvement or less involvement in the activities of the congregation to tell someone; if you are feeling lost or lonely or discriminated against to speak to someone so that healing can occur.

If we put each other first then we would not guard jealously the positions or roles that we have been given nor resent others for doing things that we would like to do.  We would speak openly and lovingly about our desires and our concern for others and as we grow in love and maturity in faith the shoot from Jesse’s stump, Jesus himself, would become better witnessed to in our midst. 

This is what it means to repent – not simply thinking that I have turned back to God, but knowing that in turning to God we also urn towards one another.

Paul’s exhortations are so that ‘together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’.  Our faith does not remove our individuality but honours it as we are drawn into a community of knowing and being known so that with one voice we can glorify God. 

I began with suggesting that we can think of ourselves as people living as if the axe lies ready, or has already been wielded.  For me what makes the difference is not the size and age of our congregation but what will be in our hearts.  If we bicker and hurt and gossip and compete then maybe the axe will lie ready but if we build each other up, if we live in harmony, if we love and do no put our own needs first then maybe we are living as people joined to the new shoot of Jesse’s stump: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. 

Take a moment to consider what God’s word to you this day might be.

1        A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
          and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2        The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
          the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
          the spirit of counsel and might,
          the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

3        His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

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