Second Sunday in Advent (December 9, 2007)
“Making Room for New Growth” (Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12)
Old growth forests are magnificent. Ancient trees rise above the earth, creating a thick canopy that filters out the sunlight above. The towering Redwoods and the giant Sequoias of California are old growth trees. It would be disheartening to see them disappear.
If you take a closer look at these magnificent old growth forests, you might see some trees that don’t appear very healthy. Scattered among the live trees are also dead trees, called “snags.” Some trees are afflicted with disease. Others are eaten up by harmful insects. There are also dead logs and other decaying material on the forest floor.
Environmentalists criticize the logging industry for clear-cutting sections of old growth forest. But natural events such as fires can also wipe out old growth forests. And nature seems to do a pretty good job of regenerating itself. After all, look what happened after Mt. St. Helens blew its top. Ecologists were surprised at how fast the surrounding area began to produce new growth.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the tearing down of old growth forests. But sometimes, getting rid of the old growth is not always a bad thing. It can make way for new things to sprout up and rejuvenate the land.
Cutting down the old growth
John the Baptist’s message was about cutting down the old growth ... not in forests, but in human hearts. He came as the prophet who would prepare the people of Israel for the promised Messiah. His message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Turn from your unbelief to belief in the Messiah whose appearance is just around the corner. In him, God’s rule and reign will break into history. He will usher in the Messianic Era, the blessed End Times that God had promised. He will bring the peace and wholeness and healing that Isaiah described: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
But John the Baptist also preached that the Messiah will judge those who cling to their old ways ... the old growth in their hearts. And there was a lot of old growth in the hearts of the people of Israel in John’s day. There was the “dry leaves” of legalism...thinking that you can appease God by somehow keeping his Law perfectly. There was the “disease” of clinging to tradition for tradition’s sake, without any concern for the meaning behind those traditions, or equating man-made traditions with divine revelations. There was the “rotting wood” of relying on your bloodline, and so John cried out, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” In other words, “Don’t think that just because you were born a Jew that you are in good standing with God. Don’t think to yourself, like many of you do, ‘As long as I haven’t done anything real bad, I’ll be okay, I’ll be saved from the wrath to come. As long as I obey God, do good works, and offer the proper sacrifices for my sins in the temple, I’ll be fine. That’s they way God has set it up, right?’”
That was not the way God had set it up. And so John declares that unless you “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” then the old growth is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The axe is laid to the root of the trees ... every Israelite, that is, who lacks true repentance. If you do not bear good fruit – that is, a life of faith and good works that flow from a heart of faith – then you will be cut down and thrown away as so much useless, rotten lumber.
John’s message was for the people of Israel, to prepare them for the appearance of the Messiah. But his words apply to us in Advent as we prepare for the Second Coming of the Messiah. You and I have old growth in our hearts, too. The Old Man in each of us – our sinful nature – is a born legalist and makes us think that we have a hand in saving ourselves by trying hard to be good. You and I go through the motions of our traditions without thinking about their meaning. We, too, are tempted to rely on our “bloodline” ... “My grandfather was a good Lutheran, my mother was a good Lutheran, and that makes me a good Lutheran” ... but what does it really mean to be a Lutheran? What is it about being a Lutheran that is important, besides the coffee after church and the occasional potluck? Don’t think to yourself, “As long as I haven’t done anything real bad, I’ll be okay. I’ll be saved from the wrath to come. I was confirmed. As long as I come to church, say the creeds, put a few bucks in the offering plate, I’ll be fine.”
That’s not the way it works. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If you do not bear good fruit – that is, a life of faith and good works that flow from a heart of faith – then you, too, will be cut down and thrown away as so much useless, rotten lumber.
Making room for new growth
But the prophet Isaiah had some words to say about another tree that was cut down. And from the stump of this tree, a branch rose up and bore fruit. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” (Is. 11:1) The stump that was cut down was the royal line of the Son of Jesse, the House of David. For close to 600 years, there had been no descendant of David sitting upon the royal throne. But the shoot that rose up from that stump was Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of King David in the flesh ... the Son of God by conception of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin’s womb. And this New Growth bore the fruit of a righteous and holy life, faithful to his Father’s will in all that he did and said and thought. Moreoever, from the tree of the cross this New Growth bore the saving fruit of his body from which his blood was spilled for the forgiveness of sins. And he did all of this for you, so that by trusting in this Branch of David and his saving work at the tree of the cross, the fruit of his righteous and holy life is credited to you. Your sins are forgiven and the gift of eternal life is yours. You are grafted into that Branch who said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
At the First Advent of Jesus, the Messianic Era – the blessed End Times – had begun. God entered into history to act decisively in Christ. Jesus healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, cast out demons, forgave sins. These are all things that the Old Testament prophets said the Messiah would do. About that Branch of Jesse, Isaiah said, “And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Is. 11:2) Jesus himself claimed to be that Branch, when he read from a similar passge in Isaiah (61:1) in his hometown synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) After reading this, he sat down and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The Kingdom of God is here in Christ Jesus. The rule and reign of God is active through the forgiveness of sins offered in Word and Sacrament.
In the meantime, we await the final consummation of Messiah’s reign on the Last Day. The peace of God rules and reigns in our hearts now. The fruit of that peace is born in our lives as we love and forgive each other. But there is still much conflict in the world. There is still sin. The wolf does not yet lie down with the lamb. And so we wait for that great and final day when this sinful world will be done away with. On that day, as John the Baptist said, Jesus will “baptize” with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This does not refer to baptism as you and I usually understand it, but to the judgment that will be poured out upon all who have hardened their hearts and have rejected the gifts of life and salvation that Christ himself earned for them.
John the Baptist’s call was a call to repent, a call to start over, a call to believe in God’s promised mercy through the Messiah. He invited the people to go back out into the wilderness, to the Jordan River. This was the place where the people of Israel first entered the Promised Land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness. John’s baptism was to be a new Exodus of sorts. As the people were baptized and confessed their sins, they came up out of the water to re-enter the Promised Land fresh and new and prepared for Messiah’s reign with a heart full of repentant trust.
Your Baptism was a new Exodus for you ... a new start ... the beginning of new growth created by the Holy Spirit. In Baptism, you were brought into the rule and reign of God. Baptism sealed God’s forgiveness to you, so that you do not have to fear the final End Time baptism of fire that Christ will pour out. Daily you can remember your Baptism. Daily you can trust in the promises of God to wash your sins away and give you new life. As you do, the old growth of sin is cut away and you are made fresh and new in the new growth of the Holy Spirit.
That’s why we prayed as we did in today’s Advent collect: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds.” Advent is a time for new growth, preparing the way for the Lord in our hearts now and when he comes again, producing the fruit that comes from a heart full of true repentance and faith in Christ our Savior and Lord.