Matthew 3: 1-12
Wood is one of nature’s gifts. In spite of fires like those in East Tennessee last week, trees can grow again out of the ash. Sometimes wood is food for termites, and sometimes wood rots. Nevertheless, people still choose wood for many reasons. For its beauty and acoustic properties, we chose to have a wood ceiling in our sanctuary. Because of the availability of trees to settlers in the Appalachian region of our country and elsewhere, many a cabin was made out of logs. People who work with wood are sometimes carpenters, lumberjacks, or simply woodcutters. It can be a rough job cutting trees and hauling logs, or it can be a precision job, using small knives to whittle shapes. From our visit to Bethlehem, Mary Ann and I brought back a substantial manger scene that we display each December: stable, characters, and animals, all carved from olive wood. // I paid extra to have a fireplace in my Florida home, but I was surprised to read on the instructions for its use that it said: “Using real wood logs not recommended.” So we unwrap our fireplace logs from a package! // If you go to the edge of the Sea of Galilee you will find a museum that houses an actual wooden boat from the time of Jesus. Was it one in which Jesus sailed? Who knows? But it was preserved in the muddy bottom of the sea until it’s discovery in 1986. It appeared during a drought when the water had receded. // The story of the Three Trees is a favorite seasonal children’s story with wood having a primary role: One tree perhaps provided the material from which the Bethlehem manger was made. The next tree perhaps provided the material from which the boat was made that sailed on Sea of Galilee. And the last tree, so the story goes, was used to make the cross on which our Savior died. But that was not the end of the story! He arose from the dead and became Savior of the world! In wood’s raw form, lumberjacks use axes to chop trees. These days, after the hurricane, we mostly heard chain saws, a much faster way to handle the job. But in more primitive times, axes were used. On Scout camping trips when I was growing up, each Scout had his own hatchet and a pocketknife, and each troop had an ax to cut wood for our campfires.
Still, John had a different picture of wood as he shouted to the curious onlookers who gathered to hear him near the Jordan River. His words were a warning: “Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Matthew 3:10] Hmm. Let’s explore that claim. There are usually one of four reasons for chopping trees: 1) To make a way clear. If a house is going to go up on a piece of land, or a road is going through a parcel, trees may have to be cut to make the way clear. John even saw himself as one who cleared the way for the Messiah to come. 2) To make a fire. Green or fresh wood is allowed to dry and age, making it burn well so it can be used for warmth or cooking. John knew that power, and the fear, of fire. 3) To make Christmas. Our church every year chooses to buy a real tree to put in our sanctuary and decorate. Trees like this one are grown for that purpose, and they bring joy from their looks and fragrance! You can’t get that fragrance in a can! And 4) Trees can be chopped as a warning, saying that some things in the human race need to change. As John put it metaphorically, if we believe we are following the ways of God, but we cannot produce any evidence of that claim, parts of our souls might be dead. Dead trees can no longer produce fruit. And they can be blown down in a storm because they become brittle. So they get chopped down instead. The Apostle Paul took John’s metaphor and ran with it! A tree that does not produce fruit, or leaves, or whatever a healthy tree produces, is cut down at its root. John warned of that. And after what is dead becomes dry, it is chopped up and thrown into a fire, because dead wood burns well. Live wood. Does not.
Glinda, the good witch in the Wizard of Oz asks Dorothy: “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” If John the Baptist were here today, he might look us in the eyes and ask, “Are you live wood, or are you dead wood?” Using John’s metaphor, congregations that have members who stop participating, giving, or worshipping are sometimes referred to as “dead wood.” You might wonder how someone can tell if you are dead wood or not: one way is by checking your calendar: what things do you do for others, and what things do you do to honor God? A second way is looking at your checkbook or online account: where does your money go, and who does it help outside of your necessary expenses? Finally, Paul’s letter to the Galatians says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Do you have those qualities? If your wife, or your husband, or your child, or your parent, or your friend is giving you “the look” right now, the look that says “That is you!” perhaps a rugged self-examination is in order! Do qualities fit you bet that are opposite of the fruit of the Spirit? Some of those people are sexually inappropriate, or curse constantly, or put other things or people before God, or are constantly hostile or antagonistic, or get drunk, cause strife, create conflicts, or show regular jealousy, or they argue all the time. Those aren’t the qualities for the Kingdom of God.
In the beginning of my Christian journey, on youth retreats we sang,“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Has the spark of your first connection with Christ gone dim or gone out? Do you feel jaded about churches in general? Are most of your comments sarcastic? Are you just in worship out of a sense of duty? Have your gifts to your Lord slowed down or dried up? Do you feel somehow bitter about life? These are qualities of dead wood people. Through words or actions, you have been burned or broken; perhaps you’ve become angry as well? Today, will you consider letting John the Baptist shake the dust off your soul and your wounded feelings, so this Christmas can be a time of new beginnings? If you allow your will to surrender to God’s will instead, you can have a new and abundant life, not a broken and bitter one. Today as you prepare to take this Christmas communion, you can press your reset button, and decide to live differently.
On the other hand, if you are live wood, the Spirit of the Living God lifts and restores you again and again. Like endorphins coursing through your body, the Spirit lifts you up. God’s Holy Spirit gives you the energy, and the drive, to minister to broken people whose hearts have been crushed and whose hopes have been dashed. The Kingdom of God is made up of both dead wood and live wood. Join me in staying connected with, or reconnecting with God. Then the Gardener of the Kingdom can nurture us, and, if necessary, bring us back to life. God has done it before; God can do it again.
Let us pray:
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us; melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Through Jesus Christ we pray.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 4, 2016