But when [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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. Matthew 3:7-10
Oh, Jesus, meek and mild, who is this fiery fellow who uses such fine pastoral language? You brood of vipers indeed! Sweet Lord Jesus, did you know that your cousin John was going around talking like that? My, my…
Thank goodness we’re not like them, those awful Pharisees and Saducees. What’s that, you say? Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Cranmer and Hooker (and Luther) as our ancestors.’ We too face your wrath? What have we done to deserve that?
Well, perhaps we might ask Nelson Mandela who has just died, who was imprisoned by a racist regime in South Africa for 27 years as a ‘common criminal’. We don’t participate in racist systems in Canada, surely? Or economic systems which favour a few at the very top and impoverish millions of others even as they poison this beautiful garden world of yours?
Cut down and thrown into the fire, you say? But that’s so harsh! All our systems are corrupt, aren’t they, Jesus, and you’re not so meek and mild after all? There is much in all our systems, and in all of us, which needs to be thrown into the fire. But because you have forgiven us – Did Tata Mdiba learn that from you? – and we experience reconciliation through you – Again, Mandela your disciple? – the fire is not something to fear but to welcome.
The Advent fire lights the way to Christmas, and beyond. The rough wood of stable and manger reminds us that the Child born so long ago ends his earthly life nailed to a rough, wooden cross, and takes upon himself the sorrow and death of our existence. The ‘wrath to come’ has already come, in Christ crucified. So there is light beyond the gathering gloom, the light of Christmas, to be sure, but shining even more brilliantly is the light of Easter’s New Fire, kindled on that most holy night of the Great Vigil of Easter when the whole creation begins its rebirth in the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!