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 food 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.
This has to be the most tongue in cheek ending to a scathing prophetic proclamation, “…with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”! John has just made it clear that God is not a nepotist, that he axes trees of tradition, and that he burns all that is not fruitful from his presence, and Luke suggests that is good news?
Surely this must be wry Middle-eastern wit? Either that or Luke knows something that we don’t.
The secret to understanding that these purifying and pruning practices could be good news, the gospel, comes from moving their reference from outer collective religious practice to the internal and personal realm of divine development.
It was Richard Rohr who woke me up to understanding that one of Jesus’ greatest contributions to our understanding of God was that he moved our location for God’s presence from the outer to the inner. From temple to heart, from observance to lifestyle. And, Rohr concludes, when I am the temple where God resides then the only sacrifice required is myself.
So Jesus, says John the Baptiser, does not disrespect culture, tradition, lineage, or any social register that is so important in our outer lives. Jesus doesn’t disrespect them, he ignores them. They are irrelevant.
Who of us has not smarted or winced at some moment of humiliation in our journey. Just when we had made it. Right after the ordained us, or called us Reverend (what the heck does that title mean anyway?) Just after we became Senior Pastor, or Superintendent, or wait for it Bishop; along came Jesus and called us by our birth name. He called us what our parents and siblings called us, and then he told us to leave it all behind and follow him.
That is the axing, winnowing and burning John is talking about. It is the threshing of our pride and ego. It is the burning of our BS. (Yes, you KNOW what that stands for and I meant to use it like that)
There is just no escape from the confrontation with pride and arrogance if we are to follow the King of Love.
That great Lebanese soul Kahlil Gibran got it spot on when he wrote in The Prophet.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself. He threshes you to make you naked. He sifts you to free you from your husks. He grinds you to whiteness. He kneads you until you are pliant; And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast. All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart. But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”
Advent is not for the arrogant and powerful. You and your ego, have to stoop low to enter the stall.
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