By the river Jordan, John the Baptist spoke good news to the people.
‘Even now the axe 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.’ ..
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.(Lk. 3:9 NRSVA)
Trees are amazing. They have been around for millennia. They take up water and a little bit of minerals and give us oxygen and fuel, building materials, weapons, and the plain sense of beauty. Trees protect us, demanding nothing in return.
Trees are also powerful mythological elements, symbolic representations of the world and life. From the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life in Genesis to the two trees before the throne of the Lord in Revelation, the trees inhabit the stories of the Bible.
The green tree, the representation of health and well-being as in Psalm 1, stands by a stream and yields its fruit in season, is also a representation of those who delight in God’s law and meditate on His law day and night.
Deuteronomy (20:19) speaks about not damaging the trees during a siege of a city. In contrast to that, there is also the sad fig tree in Matthew 21, withering as it bore no fruit for Jesus to eat.
And in the middle of the forest, the metaphor of the axe at the root of the trees, poised to chop. How is this Good News? Why is this good news?
Before thinking of trees, one must consider the water. Another powerful image: the water was there, undivided when God created the heaven and earth. Water gives life and is incredibly dangerous. Water streams renew desert, crossing the waters leads the tribes of Israelites into the Promised Land.
Alongside the images of water are the images of fire. Both are used for cleansing. Yet water takes away, whilst fire consumes. Prophets describe their calling in terms of God’s fire burning in their hearts. Isaiah is made prophet by divine fire. In the New Testament Jesus speaks of unquenchable fire of the last things.
God planted his people by the river Jordan. A whole lot of good trees. They grew, they matured, they changed. The history of that can be read in the books of history and prophets. It is customary to compare the history of Israel with that of the flock living with a hierarchy of shepherds, but it also could be compared to a history of a forest, cared for by foresters and rangers, looted, getting ill and cured. (It is a forest that walks away from its planter, too)
Now John, the last prophet, the last forester, stands by the river Jordan and does a marvellous thing: he immerses (baptizes) God’s people into the flowing waters of essential change. He calls upon the powerful images of water as the agent of cleansing, he calls upon the powerful images of the imminent death unless the cleansing happen (the axe), he calls the people in powerful words, just not the words the elect nation is used to hear.
John’s appearance and language are testimonies of the Old Testament. They are simple outside and in. They call people to change their mindsets and their heartsets, and return to God their father. The trees are called to straighten up towards the sun and grow the right way up.
And then the other words of fire are spoken.
‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
There is another fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit who makes all the believers into witnesses of Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour. In a few sentences, John has named the great hope — and the great responsibility — the community of believers have and are called to share.
First, to be immersed in the waters of Baptism, of the death of Christ, and rise with His rising to a new life in Him. Some make a conscious decision, some are brought to these waters as babbies or young children, but all are planted by the rivers of God’s grace like good saplings.
Now, they have to be rooted in Christ (Col. 2:6-7) — learn to grow deeper into the rich tradition of Christianity, drink from the Scripture, interact with the community of believers in prayer and worship (speak to each other in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs).
When rooted, they must grow, blossom and bring forth fruit. The trees have to rejoice in their planter, stretch out their arms towards His sun and breathe out oxygen.
This is what the Letter to Philippians (4:4-9) says — Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. — The joy that comes from above is the best witness to a depressed and generally sad world. This is a joy that comes from knowing the Truth. Not truth as information or knowledge, but Truth as a person. The person of Jesus, who is the Way, Truth and Life. Welcome (χαίρετε) in the Lord always.
By our quiet joy we can invite people into the Lord.
For the Lord is near. That is good news. The Truth that sustains life, is near. The light is near. Not one of the many little truths that the infostream tells are equally important and thus equally sad, but the one real Truth. God came, walked this earth, loved, taught, made disciples, and died instead of the sinners. God became the living water so his forest could live, so every tree he planted could grow and rejoice in the world He made.
Always give thanks. In a world of clients, rights and complaints, giving thanks for what one has, is a pointer that life can be different.
The next bit is a little more difficult. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In a world of self-help books and trainers, rely on God, acknowledge Him, speak to Him. Like tree roots look for the water, look for Jesus, for His spirit in your life.
And from that rootedness in Christ and His teaching, from prayers and thanksgiving, and ‘let[ting] your gentleness be known to everyone’ comes this: you cannot do other than what Jesus did — comfort the stranger, feed the hungry, be light to the world. In the world that hurries, be still, with your roots in your love who is Jesus and who enables all love. In the world that is selfish, share the riches that are found in our, Christian spiritual tradition of prayer, generosity and acceptance. In the world where all truths are equally true, bear witness of the Truth that surpasses all: there is a restful place for the human heart and weary spirit, and that place is in Christ. With your works of kindness, use words to name the source of all kindness. Words are necessary.
For the axe has been brought to the forest and will be put to use. For the believer that is good news: the second coming of Jesus is not a tale, and the winnowing will take place, and there will be the unquenchable fire for the empty shells. But it is not this day, this day is still the day of water, and changing, and growth. In a world of spiritual deforestation, it is the Christian community, the forest of Jesus, that are called to bear witness with John — to immerse the empty shells in the waters of change, to call on Him who carries the Spirit and fire, to be the voices in the desert, shouting: prepare the way for the Lord.
If you care for those you love, plant them in Christ, call them to Christ. Spread your branches of prayer over them and help them grow, rooted in the Way, the Truth and the Life.
By becoming part of that divine fire, we are like the only tree in the Bible that burned and was not consumed by the fire. And the ground around it was holy.
So, rooted in Christ, the believer is like a tree by God’s streams, stretching themselves toward Him in prayer and contemplation, aware of the presence of the Lord, bearing witness in what they are and what they do to how near our Lord is.
And then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7 NRSVA)