Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10
Back when I was little and we lived in Virginia, our neighbors had a fig tree. It grew right next to the fence, and every summer we would be allowed to pick the fruit whenever we felt like it, because there were way too many figs growing on that tree for the three people next door to eat. I remember, as a kid who grew up in a neighborhood far from farms of any kind, how special that tree was because of how it magically made food.
And then there were these other trees in our backyard. Big, tall pine trees that dropped their own kind of fruit. The fruit they had were these hard, round, spiky balls we called “gumballs”—a name I still am not sure if it was real or just what we called them. They dropped every time a stiff breeze came by, and most of the backyard would be covered in them to the point that running barefoot was like running through a minefield.
Even as a child, I could tell what good fruit looked like.
So when John the Baptist compares people to trees that produce fruit, it’s a big deal that he points out specifically that they should bear good fruit. The Pharisees and Sadducees were definitely producing fruit of a kind, but more often than not it was more like the gumballs that made playing difficult than fresh figs. But more than the imagery of trees bearing fruit, I think it’s the ax that sticks with us. We hear John’s warning that “the ax is at the root of the trees,” and “any tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire,” and that kind of imagery stays with us.
But John isn’t the only one talking about cutting down trees.
Just before the reading from Isaiah today, the prophet relays the actions God will take against the corrupt and violent leaders of the whole region. Guess what the imagery he uses is? Trees. God promises to take an ax to the forest of evil men leading the kingdoms of the time—Assyria, Samaria, even Judah itself. It’s come after centuries of kings and leaders being given the chance to act justly toward the poor and use their power and influence to shape society into the way God has called them to live since the beginning. But they never did it. They preferred to line their pockets, relax with their riches, and let the poor be poor. So, God will cut every one of them down because of their corruption and how they have not cared for the poor.
Judgment is hard for us to hear, though. When we hear “judgment,” we immediately think of something punishing and final. It probably comes from the way our legal system works. After a trial determining guilt, a judgment is handed down to name how the guilty person will be punished. And that’s that. Mercy doesn’t really play into it. Second chances look like hard-fought legal appeals. People who end up on the wrong end of the legal system get thrown into jail, and a lot of the time they’re forgotten, as some of the prisoners I’ve talked to at the county jail have said. When they do come out, society continues to judge them unworthy of things as basic as help getting back on their feet, a whole range of jobs, and often the right to take part in voting. Judgment, in the end, remains nothing but the final punishment received for wrongdoing.
But I wonder about those Pharisees and Sadducees. Yes, John was harsh with them, but Matthew points out that they were coming to be baptized. And John was giving a baptism of repentance. Do you think that warning—“bear fruits worthy of repentance”—was enough to set them straight? These aren’t one-dimensional villains, after all. They’re deeply faithful people trying to do their best to honor God. They might be self-righteous and believe that on some level being children of Abraham gives them special status, but even they knew better than to just dismiss a prophet’s words out of hand. If a holy man tells them to do better, to be worthy of the repentance they’re committing to, I would think they’d take it seriously.
They might have seen something important in John the Baptist’s words of judgment, and we should too. Fire in the Bible is most often a symbol of purification—removing what’s broken or corrupt or sinful, and leaving everything that’s good and holy and just. The crowds flocking to John’s baptism knew that, and I’d bet that’s why they were coming in such numbers. They wanted to be made whole, like any of us would. They wanted the parts of them that were keeping them from loving God and neighbor to be burned away (or washed away, since it was a baptism). They wanted to be ready for the coming of the Lord, because as John was saying, “the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Because after God cut down the forest of corrupt leaders, we read in Isaiah today that there is something left: a stump. God doesn’t completely destroy anything. Instead, God clears the ground to ready the people for a second chance at getting it right. It’s from the stump of Jesse that a branch comes up. Life comes up in a new way from what has been cut down. And out of the destruction, that judgment, a whole new way of being emerges—one that looks like a leader who judges the people with righteousness, who doesn’t tolerate wickedness, who brings hope and security to the people. By clearing away the wickedness, something truly good emerges.
So maybe when we hear that Jesus has his winnowing fork in his hand, eager to separate the wheat from the chaff, the judgment it brings isn’t something that will mark us as condemned. If we looked again at how even the tree chopped down at the root will send up new life, maybe we can see how even Jesus chopping down the fruitless trees is a way of encouraging hope for a better future where the lion lays down with the lamb, and the bear and the cow eat straw together.
So what needs to be cleared away for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord? What fruitless trees do we as a society need God to chop down and throw into the fire so that new life can emerge? What chaff in our souls needs to be sifted out and burned so that we can live the way that Jesus calls us to live? What repentance do we need to do, what behaviors need to be changed, what systems need to be challenged, what injustices need to be addressed, so that the fruit of repentance is worthy and the world will be ready for the kingdom of heaven?
The ax is already at their roots. And as scripture teaches us, it’s God’s judgment that leads to life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.