Here we are at the beginning of the new Church year and……..we’re talking about the end? Again. But we can’t be fooled into thinking that the end, the fulfillment of life in the new kingdom, is supposed to be anything like the intense images left with us by John the Baptist in the Gospel today. How can we imagine that the end which the God of Love has in mind will consist of winnowing fans, violent separation of the wheat and the chaff? Is the incense in heaven around the throne of God no more than the thick, black smoke of burning chaff? I hope not.
The prophet Isaiah tells the rest of the story. Isaiah describes the striking down of the ruthless and justice for the poor; the wicked will be slain merely by the breath from God’s lips; the Lord will come to restore Jerusalem, the mighty city now sitting in ruins. Then, once the Lord comes with his faithfulness and justice, what does Isaiah speak of? Smoke and fire and destruction? Quite the opposite. He speaks of paradise. Enemies – wolves and lambs, calves and lions – are lying down together being led by the meek and humble – the children; those to whom the new kingdom belongs.
The reading from Isaiah is so satisfying to us precisely because it does not end with death and destruction, but with newness and harmony – the desire for which lives within each of us. This desire is stirred up into flame after watching 30 seconds of the evening news. All of this starts when a shoot sprouts up from the stump of Jesse. A stump….how do you make a tree into a stump? By cutting it down. I can think of very few reasons why someone would be compelled to cut down a perfectly healthy tree.
Jesse, as we know, was the father of King David; the Davidic line – the family tree of Jesse – went bad. But as God promised through the prophets and patriarchs, there would be a new “springtime” for Israel and, indeed, a shoot of new life sprouts precisely from the place of destruction. But in order for the shoot to sprout, for spring to come, the tree must be chopped down. As it was for the unfaithful and unrighteous in Israel, so it was for the Pharisees and Sadducees being rebuked by John the Baptist, and so it is for us. “Even now, the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
But is that so bad? Like all things in the Christian life, this is not something we’re called to consider as happening to us as a human collective. Remember, God comes to save all of us, and he comes to save each of us. Therefore, the call to repentance is a call to you and me as much as it is to “that lady” over there, or to “those people.” Advent becomes a time not just for sappy daily reflections in our email inboxes about looking out for the big stars in our lives or becoming Mary to someone at work today, but it becomes an invitation for us to allow Christ to strike at the root of what keeps us from him, in order that new shoots may sprout. Where are the places in this community, this city and parish, where Christ is not welcome? The Israelites wavered because they did not live faithfully to the covenant; we too are in a covenant and we should expect the same disastrous results of disharmony when we stray from it.
The promise of paradise-renewed made to the Israelites is realized in the very person of Jesus Christ who, as a result of his Incarnation, lives among us. God doesn’t want a world full of “generic saints.” God desires a world in which Ryan Adorjan is holy; in which Debbie Johnson and Joe Shmoe and Connie Smith and even Ryan McMillin are holy. Not that they would quit their jobs and move to monasteries to pray for hours each day; remember, holiness is not a matter of virtue but of where we go with our pain. Where do we go when we feel the desire for newness and harmony in the world and in our lives? It is not a matter of “inviting Jesus into this or that place” in our lives; “I’ll just invite Jesus in and it’ll all be fine.” He’s already there – why would he call himself “Emmanuel” if he wasn’t God with us? So it’s not us inviting him, but him inviting us. Where? Into himself.
So ask: What are the parts of my life that I allow to go on living in the present age? What are the parts of my life which have not been surrendered to the power of the Risen Christ? How does sin or mediocrity or puny desire keep me from really living in the new kingdom? Ask these questions – these admittedly very difficult questions – then listen.
We come here today to renew our commitment to the covenant made with us in the blood of Jesus Christ. It is here that God principally reveals himself to us and calls us to himself. The Eucharist we’ll receive today is, really, the living God. May it be the strength we need to produce good fruit, to turn away from what keeps us from him, and begin anew in preparing the way of the Lord.