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December 6, 2010

“Renovation” Matthew 3:1-12; Isaiah 10:33-11:10 Advent 2A © 12/5/10 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I don’t like axes. For one thing, I’m a little scared of them. I tend to focus on the danger, the awesome power of the tool. I’m afraid I’m going to lose control and sever a leg or the head will go flying off and hit somebody.

For another, I’ve rarely had much success in chopping wood or doing some other chore with an ax. Unlike Susan’s brother Jeff, whom I have seen split a log in one stroke. A few years ago, he and I were getting rid of some dead plum trees at my house. They were right on the street, so after we got the branches cut away and it was time to pull up the stump, he brought his truck around. Out came a heavy chain from the winch on the front bumper. Jeff wound the links around the first stump and out it came. The second one wasn’t so cooperative, though; something was keeping it from moving. I was not thrilled when Jeff assigned me to use an ax to cut through the roots that were still holding on, but one of us had to drive the truck, so I got the tool and started hacking. I was worn out after just a little chopping, and my back was sore. You can imagine, then, that I am not going to fell a tree with an ax.

My final reason for not liking the ax is its name. In a verbal form, it sounds so final. Something that is “axed” is cancelled, ended, no more. The ax is the instrument of death for the ancient warrior, the medieval executioner, and the movie psychopath.

The fearsome images associated with the ax made it a perfect symbol for John the Baptist…

as he spewed furious wrath and screamed judgment against the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. They were trees about to be cut down because they were barren and fruitless. Why should they be allowed to take up space? Their smugness and arrogance were affronts to God! Should they try to slither away, like the snakes they were, they would soon be engulfed in a sea of flames!

I don’t think I would have liked John very much, any more than I care for any sort of wild-eyed revivalist preacher. He was a crude hermit badly in need of some better personal hygiene. He shunned human company because others were corrupt and corrupting.

But maybe the crusty desert prophet rubs me the wrong way because, truth be told, I probably would have made a pretty good Pharisee. The Sadducees were much too old-fashioned and snobbish for my tastes. They were the elite, the collaborators with the oppressive Romans who played power politics and made backroom deals. They also were not open to a continuing word from God. For them, everything had been said in the first five books of what we call the Old Testament. They didn’t regard the psalms, prophets, wisdom or historical books as the word of God.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were working men with a deep spiritual sensitivity and hunger. Yes, they insisted on following rituals and rules, but only because they believed that the kingdom of God would come if all Israel could follow God’s law for only one day. They also were open to new ideas and had a broader view of Scripture. For example, they accepted the notion of resurrection, which doesn’t show up in the Hebrew scriptures until about 200 years before Jesus, in Daniel, the last book written. The Pharisees and their spirituality in fact turned out to be the future of Judaism. So, they seemed to have just the right blend of by-the-book tradition, progressive thinking, and real potential—qualities I like. When that hair-shirted bug-eater swings his ax, then, I get ready to duck!

Not everyone found John so repulsive, of course. The crowds at the Jordan kept growing larger and larger. People came because they were hungry for a change in their lives, and John preached repentance. He tapped into deep-seated longings and understood the spiritual climate in ways nobody else did. Certainly not Sadducees with their aloofness or even the Pharisees, with their focus on what ought to be instead of what people were truly needing. I think people came to John because they wanted to hear some truth, they wanted to be assured that new life was possible. Perhaps what he had to say really could make a difference. Maybe the waters of the holy river could wash you clean of the mistakes of yesterday and grant a fresh start.

John certainly thought so. Perhaps the most important thing we can say about this very odd man is that he had faith in a powerful God. He who with a word could fell a forest of trees could make a life new. The one who comes in burning judgment against the self-satisfied and holier-than-thou promises mercy to the repentant. So depending on who you were, John’s message was one of horror or of hope.

It’s no easy thing to change our lives. You know that if you’ve ever tried to kick a habit, from biting your nails to smoking to constantly being late. You know it if you’ve gotten stuck in one way of thinking or acting that’s simply not working anymore, and you know you need to get out of the rut, but you keep spinning those wheels. And when the habit, the way of acting, is something as fundamental to human nature as sin, it’s well-nigh impossible to change.

Still, John preached repentance. And that meant more than a slight improvement here, a nice word there. He demanded nothing less than a complete reorientation of life. That’s what “repent” means in both Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of the Bible. Greek: “metanoia”—a change of mind. Hebrew: “shuv”—a turnaround in a new direction.

Maybe we could think of repentance this way. A car designer wants to completely rethink a particular model of automobile, maybe an old and respected nameplate that’s not selling like it used to. Not merely the look of the grill or the number of square inches in the trunk or cabin. Really make something new. A redesigned efficient engine. Upgraded electronics and safety. A more aerodynamic shape. So radical will be the change that the only thing left of the old model will be the name. That’s repentance. It’s the redesign and rethinking of life from the foundations up.

But how can such a renovation of life happen? Again, if we try to change things ourselves, we run up against a wall spray-painted in bold red letters: “impossible.” Our willpower is not enough so often to change our habits; how much less will merely trying hard alter our basic disposition?

But thanks be to God, “the reign of God is at hand.” The Sovereign One is with us and comes in grace to make the change, to turn us around, to set us right. “A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse,” said the prophet. The dynasty of David had apparently come to the end of the line, the king carried off into exile in Babylon, the Temple in ruins. Yet the poet insists that there will arise one who will rule with justice and equity. Who would have thought it, in those dark days? Yet the promise proved true, we believe, in Jesus the Messiah, born of David’s line.

Some years ago, Gary and Mary, some friends of ours, redid a historic farm house outside of Montevallo, Alabama where I was pastor. While the place was being worked on, Gary jokingly referred to it as “under destruction.” Sometimes grace is like that. It threatens to destroy us in order to build something new. It comes through an experience that makes us feel like we have been chopped down. How unfortunate it is that sometimes it is only when we are cut down and nearly destroyed that we are shaken from complacency or ask the hard questions about our lives. Does God send such difficulties to make us change? Some may think so. But I don’t believe in such a sadistic, cruel God; that’s not who we know revealed in Jesus. But even if God does not wield the ax, in hindsight we can see how the times we felt like a felled oak were used by him to turn us around.

The failure of the Davidic dynasty spurred reflection on what an ideal king would be like. In his thinking, the prophet was driven back to the root principles, the things that mattered most about kings. So it can be for us when a relationship is in trouble or our friends desert us or the job stinks. When the kids aren’t what we hoped they would be or our parents are not exactly what we would have chosen. When we wake up every morning depressed, wondering what hurt the day will bring. When sickness debilitates us or we are tied down by caring for a loved one. When we have lost and lost again, until we feel battered and beaten. That’s when we may be sent back to the root of our existence and ask again what it means to be faithful, to be human, to be alive.

But let’s not wait till the ax falls and we’re no more than a stump before the reflection on values and commitments begins. Why not periodically go back to the beginning, where we are bare and vulnerable before God, and where we ask for his help? Tom Ehrich, a devotional writer, says: “Repentance…isn’t an argument won—a powerful preacher breaking through the ice—but control lost. Repentance isn’t God beating us about the head, until we collapse, dazed, into some new piety. Repentance is a story that unblocks one’s own story, or a song that melts the frozen self, or a glimpse of a new king whose coming near makes everything seem different” (“Repentance,” On a Journey, November 30, 2007).

We in fact go back to our roots, get unblocked, lose control, every Lord’s Day, as we confess our sins. That is, if we take the prayer to heart and seriously and not just as a rote exercise. And in our personal times with God or through some unexpected turn of events today or tomorrow or the next day, we can be converted, turned around, made new. A change of mind and heart keeps happening; it’s a process of growth and renewal and re-formation. And it’s as basic to our spiritual lives as breathing is to our physical bodies.

Advent is the time of year to sort out what really matters, if for a while we can quiet the din of the TV ads and the Christmas Muzak blaring from store speakers. Being changed inside, though, is only the beginning of repentance. The Gospel call is to demonstrate the change with acts of reconciliation, justice, and peace; to shun self-centeredness and greed in favor of sharing; to do what we can to prepare the way for the Lord. Steps like these make the difference between mere religion and real response to God, between being a church member and being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

True, deep, and abiding repentance is God’s gift to us this season. He wants to give it. He can give it. He will give it. Will we open our hearts to accept it or in smug self-assurance refuse new life? There’s good news here for those who have ears to listen: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”


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