We all long for new beginnings. Our churches are filled with people hoping to find a new beginning for their lives. We wish that we could get a fresh start. We wish that we were happier. We wish that our political systems were just. We wish that we could rid ourselves of our addictions to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, or porn. We wish that our environment was clean and healthy. We wish that we were healthy, too. We wish that we knew the purpose for our lives. We wish that God wasn’t so distant.
The Israelites in the first century longed for a new beginning, too. Languishing under the oppression of the Romans, they hoped for liberation. Their religious establishment was corrupt and divided in its response. They were mostly poor, struggling against disease and hunger. Their government was oppressive. In the story preceding this week’s gospel passage, Herod had massacred a whole village of infants.
It was in those days that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I’ve heard that word a thousand times. Some people avoid using it for fear of disturbing their congregations. Others relish it and wield it like a weapon against their already shame-burdened flock.
It has an almost exclusively negative connotation. But for those who experience true repentance, it is a word of healing. It is a word of new beginnings. To repent is to recognize that the path we have walked thus far is what got us into this mess in the first place, and now it is time for a change.
“The kingdom of heaven is near”
Whether or not we repent, everything is about to change. There will be justice for the oppressed. There will be freedom for the captive. The blind will see again. But are we prepared? Some of us, like the Pharisees and Sadducees in this story, are too attached to the old self-destructive ways of thinking and doing to be ready.
When the Pharisee’s and the Sadducees showed up to be baptized by John, he rejected them. To understand why, we need to understand how radical John’s ministry was: John was bringing the Jews back to a point of their story before their way of life in the Promised Land began. He was bringing them back to the Jordan River, where generations ago the people had crossed from the wilderness into the land of Canaan. One by one he led them back through the waters and out into a new beginning.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were not ready to give up the old to begin again. They were too invested in the old ways of thinking and acting. They still thought that God would favor them because of their ethnicity. They wanted the benefits of baptism, without the cost of repentance. They wanted things to change, but they did not want to change themselves.
I confess that I am no different. I often wish that things would change, but I do not want to pay the price that change requires. For example, I want to be less busy, but I am reluctant to acknowledge the fears and insecurities that I conceal with my busyness.
We all want a new beginning, but we all fear losing the life we know. We simultaneously desire change and fear it. We try to make little changes without fundamentally changing anything. We medicate and meditate, but do not address what lies at the root of our personal and societal problems.
To us, John the Baptist says this: “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.”
While we try to make little changes in our lives and world, God is charging in with an ax. God is not interested in small changes, but rather in wholesale transformation. Before a new tree can be planted, the other must be destroyed. It must be cut off–not at the branches, or the trunk, but at the very root. The gospel calls for a radical change. In fact, the word “radical” is derived from the Latin word for “root.”
This initial destruction bears with it a hopeful promise. Isaiah 11:1 says that “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of its roots.” Beyond the end of our old lives, there is a new life, with the promise of a future full of tasty fruit. Change, real change, is scary. But the reward is a new beginning. During Advent, we wait for the dawn of a new beginning, but first, we must prepare the way of the Lord. Let us pick up the ax, and swing for the roots.