Our passage from the Good News According to Matthew this morning seems as far away from Christmas as possible. We open on huge crowds gathered on the banks of the Jordan River. And this scruffy figure named John, who eats grasshoppers and raids beehives for honey is shouting at people to repent, to turn their lives around. And he’s baptizing, dunking them in the river one after another. But then it says this gang of “Pharisees and Sadducees” the text says, get in the lineup. These guys, if you remember, are kind of the villains of the New Testament. Their problem is usually hypocrisy. Or holding others accountable in ways you yourself are not accountable. John isn’t pleased that they’ve shown up. He reams them out, calling them “a brood of vipers.” Not exactly friendly—I mean, imagine if I began each worship service by calling one third of everyone here gathered a gang of venomous snakes?
They aren’t simply jerks. But they’re spiritually unproductive you could say. “Bear fruit,” John shouts at them. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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.
The problem with these Pharisees and Sadducees is complacency. They are publicly pious, and generous. They go through the religious motions. They claim their identity as children of Abraham—they coast on their religious laurels. They were born in to their faith, and wear it as a badge of honor. But then when it comes down to it they are trees unable to bear fruit. They jump through all the right hoops, they go through all the right rituals. But nothing about them changes. They end up the same people day after day after day. Stuck, mired in the same old habits and behaviors. The trees are there but there’s no fruit. John says they’ve missed the point of being a tree. Here I thought that the Christmas season was supposed to be friendly. Happy, jolly. But John is anything but.
And John says, this sort of complacency will have deep consequences: “Even now,” he says. 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.” Here in Matthew, Advent begins with a warning. A warning about the outcome of hardened hearts. And spiritual destruction. If you guys aren’t careful, John says. If things don’t change fast, you trees who are cold and dead inside are going to wake up trimmed. Or worse.
John simply doesn’t sound to us like Christmas, because our Christmas seems to come instantly. I was talking with a friend a few weeks ago who isn’t a church person. We were talking about how much earlier Christmas seems to arrive every year. “As soon as it’s the day after Remembrance Day,” she told me, “you get hit with an almost instant avalanche of rosey-cheeked Santas, eggnog lattes and a jazzier-than-normal Michael Buble belting out all of your favorite tunes. It’s just too much joy too soon.”
Is there such a thing as too much joy too soon? I’m not quite sure. But it does seem like we take one easy step in November and end up with our foot joyfully in the manger with Jesus. And according to John, we are completely missing something on the way to Bethlehem. John tells those of us who are preparing for the coming of Christ that this is no easy path of instant joy. John is here to hold up a mirror to us. To show us that we, like the Pharisees and Saducees, can become so complacent, so accustomed to our yearly rituals and traditions, that we slide into them every single year with ease or hesitation. We go through the motions, rest on our laurels jump through the hoops. There’s a huge jump in the gross domestic product, for sure. And there’s a bump in charitable giving and extra volunteer hours logged. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not a complete Scrooge. I’ve already got the tree. Got the lights out, and the Christmas tunes playlist on repeat. But by the time Advent is over Christmas comes and goes, I fear we are more often than not the very same people we were this time last year. I fear that I am the very same person I was last year.
But Advent, Christmas, it can be so much more. According to John, preparing one’s life for the coming of Christ, for Christmas is difficult. It can be costly. But it can also be life-changing. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” he says. “But one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He 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."
This sounds like a terrifying image at first. One of punishment and destruction. But this image is actually good news. It’s good news because John says that Christ comes not to destroy our lives. John says that Christ comes to baptize us with fire. The great novelist Franz Kafka once said that he believed that literature was meant to change people, to provide them with a new way forward. To provide “ice-axes for frozen seas.” The coming of Christ is like this. That in hearing and in living this story, the frozen seas of our hearts are being melted away year after year, to be filled with the grace of God’s Spirit. That Christ comes again and again and again to burn away all that is cold, all that is hard, all that is dead in us. Everything that holds us back from full and abundant life. And we can be freed to bear fruit again.
This is what we’re supposed to expect in this season. Not Christmas-as-usual. But that Christ comes to tear away the chaff from our lives, freeing seeds of new life to root in and grow. Like a forest fire that burns away old rotten stumps and deadfall to make way for green shoots. Regardless of how domesticated our Christmas may be, the coming of Christ can powerfully change us for the better. And for good. So the question for each of us this season is—what is Christ coming to burn away in you so you can bear fruit?
Perhaps Christ is coming for you this year to burn away your anger, your jealousy, your selfishness and resentment towards others. And permanently preparing the way in you to bear the fruit of divine reconciliation.
Perhaps Christ is coming for you this year to burn away past pain and suffering. To permanently cauterize old wounds to your body, mind or soul. And preparing the Way in you to bear the fruit of divine joy, mercy and forgiveness.
Perhaps Christ is even coming for you this year to burn away your extra cash. Imagine if in preparation for the coming of Christ, you gave away at least as much money as you spent on presents. God could permanently transform the role of money in your life from a tool of self-absorption to a fuel for blessing others with God’s kingdom. Clearing the way so you can the fruit of divine generosity.
Imagine what preparing for Christmas could be.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. This time for us, Advent, Christmas, this time for those of us who follow the way of Jesus Christ is a special time. It is not a special time because it is an easy inoculation of candy and sweet dreams. But it is a special time because it’s a time that we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. That we are able to look at ourselves in John’s mirror for who we truly are. Those things in us that are dead, are dying, or need to die. Without shame or self-delusion. Those things that need to be burned away. So they can be purified by the refining fire of God’s love, making room for Jesus to take up residence in our lives. Yet again. Year after year after year. Until it’s for good. Until it’s forever.
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Get ready for his coming.