Getting Ready For Christmas: The Ax And The Tree
Luke 1:13-15; 3:1-18
One of my favorite Christmas memories is of going for the tree. I don't recall precisely how old I was when my father began letting me accompany him on this sacred quest, but I remember the excitement of it. My father was an agricultural agent, and I am sure he had scouted out the right tree while visiting farmers throughout the year. But he always gave it the air of a great search, as if we might look for hours before finding the perfect tree. Then, when we finally came upon it, we carefully surveyed it from all sides, being certain that any bare spot might be easily hidden by turning it to the wall, and assessed its height, to be sure, once it was fastened in its stand, it would just touch the ceiling, without an inch too little or an inch too much. At last, when all the qualifications were satisfied and there was no doubt in our minds that this was the tree that had waited for us since the day of its planting, we bared the ax from the gunny sack in which we had carried it, felled the tree, and lashed it to the top of the car for the trip home. If I ever felt like Caesar marching into Rome or Charles Lindbergh riding down the avenues of New York in a shower of confetti, it was on these occasions when we drove home with the Christmas tree on the top of the car.
The ax and the tree.
There's a different allusion to the ax and the tree in our text today, isn't there? Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. John the Baptist and the judgment that goes along with Christmas.
Did you know that, that there's a judgment that goes along with Christmas? There is. John was the forerunner of Jesus. Luke says they were cousins. And John saw the coming of Jesus as a judgment on the people of Israel. Jesus may have come as a little baby, with angels singing "Glory to God in the highest," but his coming was a judgment.
Think how it was a Judgment: A gang of teenage hoodlums roams the streets of a certain city. They are vile in thought and wicked in deed. They terrorize the young and old alike. They live selfishly and ruthlessly, without regard for law or decency. One day a beautiful young man walks into their midst. He is kind and good, and sincerity radiates from his eyes. His speech is trustworthy, and he befriends everyone he meets. He is as unselfish and gentle as the others are selfish and ruthless. His very presence is a judgment on them, isn't it? It makes obvious the low and treacherous level of their existence.
This is what John saw in the coming of Jesus: it made obvious the deficiencies of others. It reminded people of the corruption, materialism, and hostility into which the world had fallen--even the world of religion. The ax is at the root of the trees, said John; God is going to come down hard on this civilization that doesn't measure up to the nature of his kingdom
How do you feel about judgment? I don't like it much, do you? Especially when it reflects on me, when it makes me look bad. And I confess I don't like judgmental people very much. I remember the glee I felt when one of the most pietistic, judgmental ministerial students I knew in college was trapped one night in the local cemetery with a girl of questionable reputation. His explanation was that they had gone there to pray, and the gatekeeper looked the great iron gates at sundown, enclosing them until a passing motorist saw them waving a white handkerchief through the bars. The motorist happened to be a fellow student who wasted no time in spreading the news. For a while, at least, it took some wind out of our friend's sails.
But there are those whose judgment I respect. Norman Cousins, for example, the former editor of "Saturday Review," whose book Anatomy of an Illness described his return to health through laughter and joy. Cousin's editorials always seemed to be the product of a sound and honest mind, deeply in love with humanity. The same is true of the political editorialist James "Scotty" Reston. I heard Mr. Reston say once that his favorite verse of scripture is Luke 9:3, about short little Zacchaeus's not being able to see Jesus "for the press" (KJV). If Mr. Reston ever writes anything with which I disagree, I begin immediately to reexamine my position, for I have so much faith in his judgments that they call my own into question. Dr. James McCord of Princeton is another whose opinions I respect. I have known him for more than a quarter of a century now, and have always found him to be shrewd and sagacious in his judgments.
Jesus, our Lord, obviously respected the judgment of John the Baptist. He spoke very highly of him. He said, in fact, that "among those born of women none is greater than John" (Luke 7:28). Even more tellingly, Jesus' own language and vision of the kingdom, especially in the early part of his ministry, reflected the language and vision of John. John was clearly his mentor in the beginning of his ministry.
Now, Christmas is coming and we are thinking once again of John and Jesus. Shouldn't we consider John's message about corruption and materialism and hostility, and measure our own times against it? We are always willing to remember the little baby born in a stable in Bethlehem; it is a beautiful, warm picture of God's good will toward all humanity. But can we honestly come to that lovely scene without remembering what led up to it--without reflecting on God's judgment against the world?
Maybe we don't want to think about Judgment because we know how bad the situation is.
We more or less expect it in Rome and Moscow and New York, don't we? We aren't surprised when it appears in the Mafia and big government and certain shyster corporations. But we don't like to think how it exists in schools and churches and nonprofit institutions. We don't like to remember that the seeds of corruption are in all of us, and that this is why the federal government must monitor our IRS returns and why the shop owners and movie houses must check our children's ID's and why the police must set up speed checks in our neighborhoods. As much as we dislike him for it, John Calvin was right to insist that there is depravity in all of us, and that we are all kin to the criminal and the pervert, despite the way we like to represent ourselves.
Materialism. if you don't think we're materialistic, watch the way we observe Christmas, with the biggest buying spree of the year. How many merchants among us will think we have had Christmas if business is not up thirty percent over the last quarter? And look at our children's want lists. Some of them are larger than the inventories of stores I know as a child. I heard of a child who got mad at his parents last Christmas because the three pairs of jeans he received were not designer jeans, and of another child who didn't speak to her parents for four days because she didn't like the color of the seat covers in the now sports car they gave her.
Has there ever been a time when there was more anger and resentment in the world than there is right now? I don't mean just the terrorists and the nuclear arsenals and the tensions in the Middle East. I mean the sense of powerlessness that workers feel before management, and that management feels before competition. I mean the sense of anonymity and non-appeal the average citizen feels before bureaucracy and stupidity in government. I mean the fear and reaction that people on fixed incomes experience in the face of inflationary medical and banking and housing costs. People are insecure and pressured and put upon, and when people are insecure and pressured and put upon they become hostile and angry and resentful. They lash out at each other in "preventive retaliation"--as Sgt. Yablonski used to say on before some editor realized it didn't sound right coming from one of New York's finest, "Let's do it to them before they do it to us!"
Christ's coming is a judgment, isn't it? Christmas to make us think about all these things. Our world is in need of redemption. We are in need of redemption. Oh, we can draw our robes of self-righteousness around us and pretend that everything is all right with us, the way some of the Pharisees did under the preaching of John the Baptist. But that doesn't make it so in the eyes of God, and if it isn't so in the eyes of God it just isn't so.
How much better and richer we will be if we can hear the word of Judgment and then ask, as many did of John, "What then shall we do?" You remember? They asked, "What then hall we do?" And John replied, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Take care of the poor around you. The public officials, asked, "Teacher, what then shall we do?" And John said, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Be honest with people. They asked, "And we, what shall we do?" And John said, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." Treat people decently and don't take what belongs to others in order to improve your own financial situation.
John had the same message for all of them: "Straighten up and obey the laws of God, and then you will be ready for the coming of the Messiah. Get your life in order. Stop thinking of yourselves so much and start thinking of others. Learn to be thankful for what you already have, and stop worrying all the time about what you don't have. Let God be God in your life, and stop worshipping idols."
The ax and the tree. The ax is at the root of the tree that is diseased and nonproductive, isn't it? God's judgment is forever present in life. One can no more avoid it than one can avoid breathing or feeling. It is how we respond that matters. The tree can be saved. That is the good news of Christmas. God doesn't want to destroy, God wants to save. But we have to receive the judgment before we can understand the grace.