“The ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water, but one is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Last Sunday we heard these words from John the Baptist. They constitute what he believes to be the job description of the Messiah. How he longed to see the day when God’s Anointed One bursts onto the scene to blow up and burn down everything wrong with the world around him. But well over a year has passed since John baptized Jesus. John himself is now a political prisoner, incarcerated for publicly criticizing the king’s adulterous, incestuous marriage.
And what of Jesus? John lived sparsely off the land in the wilderness, eating locus and wild honey. Jesus enjoys going to parties, especially those hosted by known ‘sinners.’ His critics say Jesus is a drunkard and a glutton. He invites little children to sit on his lap and teaches the kingdom of God belongs to them. Where is the ax? Where is the winnowing fork? Where is the fire?
Think about the lowest, darkest moment in your life. It might have involved a health crisis, some form of rejection, or a business failure. Do you remember how it felt, how it colored every other aspect of your existence? Did it rock your faith to the very core? Did it make you question yourself, your abilities, and your judgment? This is what John experiences as he sits in the king’s prison. He is discouraged. He is depressed. He is disillusioned. Most of all he is disappointed by what he does not see Jesus doing.
John wonders if maybe he anointed the wrong person. Perhaps, if he gets out of jail, he should return to the wilderness and begin the search anew. Deploying some of his followers as a go between, John asks Jesus if he is the one sent from God or not. Are you going to pick up the ax, take hold of the winnowing fork, and strike up the fire?
Well, this may be what John christened Jesus to do, but it is not the work Jesus himself intends to do. He sends word back to John, “This is what I am doing: I am giving sight to the blind, helping the lame to walk, cleansing lepers, restoring hearing to the deaf, raising the dead, and bringing good news to the poor.” Rather than taking down the corrupt and the powerful, Jesus is giving hope to the lost, the last, and the least. It is a very different ministry from what John expected and not at all a mandate he envisioned. It is not Jesus who must change. John must rethink his understanding of God’s reign in this world.
Here, as I see it, is the primary difference between Jesus and John. It revolves around this question: Is the kingdom of God an external reality the presence of which changes you internally or is it an internal reality which, as you live it out, begins to the change the world around you?
John believes God’s kingdom first will be manifested externally. A person will come with power from God to sweep away all wrongs and oppressions. Our participation in this moment will be mostly passive, except we must repent. Our work is to make ourselves worthy of the blessing the Anointed One will bring. From John’s perspective, it is God’s job to clean up this world. It is our job to clean up ourselves in order to merit a place in God’s new order.
Jesus takes an entirely different approach. To him, humanity is hurting and lost. He comes to heal and to renew us. His power, his life, working in us restores us to our proper place and life. We are created to be God’s stewards of this world, but have become blind and lame and deaf and distorted. Our Advent liturgy names it as “broken, bent.” What we long for – want we badly need – is someone who can heal us and show us what it means to be truly human. If God could give us such a person, then our dignity would be restored and we would be empowered to begin anew the work God has given us to do. This is Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God.
An outer kingdom changing us verses an inner kingdom energizing us us to change the world. Which would you prefer?
John had it both right and wrong. He oversubscribed to the idea the Messiah would come with fire, with an ax, and with a fork to wreak havoc on the outer world. He undersubscribed to the possibility the Messiah would baptize with the Spirit who would manifest the power of God to work in and through us.
Here is an Advent question to ponder: which is more powerful in your life: your affect on the world around you, or the ability of the world around you to affect you? It is another way of asking if you are hoping for a Savior to change the world to make your life better, or do you long for a Savior who will heal and restore you so that you can begin to change the world?
What is your prayer? Your Hope? That you can sit back and relax while God takes responsibility for removing everything around you making your life miserable? Or that God could give you the strength and the energy and the courage and the healing to overcome all that has defeated you and beaten you down in order to rise up again and become everything God has created you to be?
Jesus, for his part, has great respect for John’s work and passion. But given the choices between his vision and John’s, it is easy to see why Jesus ends today’s reading by saying even the least who embrace his vision of the kingdom of God is greater than John.
Every worship service ends with a prayer of commissioning. “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” Yes, we come here and pray for God to make the world a better place. But even more so, we pray for God to make us better people – healed and whole of life’s hurts and wounds – so that we can return to our lives and do for the world what God has done for us. We leave here agents of God’s healing and restoration.