Third Sunday in Advent

by Crossings

Luke 3:7-18
(Third Sunday in Advent)
Analysis by Mike Hoy

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has good must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

DIAGNOSIS: Our Deadly Roots

Step 1–Initial Diagnosis: Only a Trim, Please
John the Baptist charges that those who come out to receive his baptism are a “brood of vipers.” These are hardly hospitable words that would make it into the annals of good pastoral greetings. Nevertheless, what John exercises is good pastoral perception. The “crowds” are willing to partake of some ritual cleansing. Using the tree analogies in the text, they may be willing to have their leaves pruned a little bit; but they are not expecting to have their whole inner trunk and roots cross-examined. People today may be willing to try anything once. But that does not mean that they intend to give up their way of life, or that they are willing to change their way of life for a different way of life. The “crowds” are seekers of new things; but they are not committed to a change. Essentially, their (our) act wants to minimize the need for a real cleansing–certainly not to allow for any confession so radical as to acknowledge that there might be something wrong with our whole being.

Step 2–Advanced Diagnosis: Rotten Roots
This half-hearted participation in the rituals of cleansing is a sure sign of misguided trust. The crowds are convinced that their past record is enough. Mind you, these crowds might have a pretty impressive case to make of their own beginnings: “We have Abraham as our ancestor.” Never mind the fact that their roots have long ago grown in a direction away from the roots of the faithful Abraham. So might we have roots that grow a different path from that of faithfulness. When the pride is placed in some prestigious church history, or some prestigious life history, the roots are rotting in bad soil. John is not impressed with beginnings and histories. Even with the noblest beginnings, people can lose their way. Even with the richest blood, the arteries can become hardened. The roots of the “crowd” that comes out to John are not reaching for renewal. These people are too proud, seeking to sustain their old heritage. As to how decayed the tree has become and how rotted-through their roots are, the crowds have become oblivious. So have we.

Step 3–Final Diagnosis: Axed Roots
Whenever a tree has become so decayed that it cannot sustain life, there is only one thing to do: chop it down, pull out its roots, and discard it or burn it. This is what John the Baptist predicts for the Abrahamic-trunk-trusters. That goes for our own versions of proud-trunk-trusting. No tree is spared from the fire. No roots are spared the sharpness of death. God is the axe-bearer whose own ultimate pruning doesn’t miss. We can be certain that there will be much more than a trim in that “wrath to come.” Even John the Baptist holds out no hope that his own life tree is enough to escape that fiery ordeal.

PROGNOSIS: Replanted, Replenished

Step 4–Initial Prognosis: The Root of the “One Who Is More Powerful”
John the Baptist does not point to his own tree trunks. He points instead to the “One who is more powerful than I.” This new blossoming Root is capable of withstanding the ultimate pruning that comes at the hand of the Axe-bearer. That does not mean that the Root somehow is exempted from the fiery wrath. What makes this Root powerful is precisely how he bears the fiery ordeal–and not for his own sake, but for the sake of all of us rotten roots who are deservedly cut to the quick. Still, in enduring this ordeal which is our own, this new Root takes us into his powerful tree and replenishes us from his soil. Thus, we become re-rooted in his vitality that lives beyond the sharpness of the Axe’s blade.

Step 5–Advanced Prognosis: Filled with Expectation
Such new beginnings in this Root leads us to become a people who are filled with the expectation of hope. We discard the older, rotten roots of our past, and take on instead the new roots that grow out of this life-giving Messiah. And in hoping, our whole being is transformed in the expectations that we can count on from our Lord. We do not boast in our pride or our past. That is what laid dead in this Root on the cross. Rather, we boast with expectation in this living Root that has emerged from the decay of death to see us beyond the axe-ing experiences of life. We boast in that we are a people who are forever re-rooting in our Lord, forever emerging from the decaying pathways into the fresh ground where our Root takes us.

Step 6–Final Prognosis: Bearing Good Fruit
We have become a tree bearing good fruit not by living in half-heartedness or in trepidation, but in going all the way with our new Root-ed lifestyle. That new lifestyle reflects also the good Root that we do indeed have by faith: sharing with those who have nothing; living in the honesty and the integrity of our re-rooted resourcefulness; being satisfied that our roots are replenished and that our needs are fulfilled. Good fruit-bearing is cleansing because it denies the ground of self-seeking, seeking instead the ground of love for others. This is not a simple pruning. On the contrary, let the axe take its best shot at our pride. We will, through our Root, bear the fruit of a changed way of life that brings wholeness to the world.


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