It’s a Start
John the Baptist has one of the most thankless ministries in the Bible. His ministry is to do his job as best he can . . . and then to be left behind. Like other prophets before him, John comes to people with tough words. He calls for repentance; he predicts destruction. But ultimately his ministry is to give way to Jesus, so that God’s people can move on from their worst fears of God.
Yet it’s not an easy start. In today’s gospel, John the Baptist gives us two images of destructive judgment: the ax chopping down trees, and the winnowing fork gathering useless chaff. Both the trees and the chaff will end up in the fire. These words of John the Baptist might make us visualize God approaching us with an ax in one hand and a winnowing fork in the other. This picture, though, is quite a bit off.
When we meet Jesus on Christmas, he won’t be carrying an ax or a winnowing fork. Rather, as the angel in Luke’s gospel says to the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (2:12). Bands of cloth and a manger, not an ax and a winnowing fork.
And when John himself starts wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah, it isn’t because he hears about a man who has come chopping down trees or threshing wheat. Rather, John hears reports about a man who had such compassion for a widow that he raised her son from the dead. And when John sends his own disciples to investigate whether Jesus is the Messiah, they find Jesus healing the sick, helping the disabled, and giving the poor good news (7:22). Healing and raising from the dead, not slashing and burning.
Even if we recognize Christ in the manger or in his healing and life-giving actions, we can still get stuck sometimes in not moving on from images of destructive judgment. In fact, it’s easy to mistake Jesus for someone like John the Baptist. After John the Baptist was killed by the local ruler Herod, people in Jesus’s time often thought that Jesus was simply John the Baptist back from the dead. Herod himself was especially prone to this mistake: Herod had arrested John the Baptist for criticizing his marriage, although he did like listening to John; eventually, Herod had John killed because he was too cowardly to break a public oath that he would do anything his stepdaughter wished. When Herod heard about Jesus, he worried and said to himself, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:16). So Herod saw Jesus as the return of his worst fears, as a voice of judgment back to haunt him, as a plan for John the Baptist’s revenge. And so Herod missed the message and the person of Jesus Christ, the heart of God.
How can we move on as people from our worst fears, from the voices of judgment, from the anticipation of wrath? How can we keep ourselves from getting stuck in fear of judgment or vengeance? How can we move forward on the way, with John’s help, so that we’re more prepared to meet Christ—and to follow him?
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist does give us some practical steps to take. Instead of prescribing fasting and penance, sackcloth and ashes, John the Baptist asks for gestures of fairness that make our world more peaceful and just. Sandwiched in between John the Baptist’s descriptions of the ax chopping down trees and the winnowing fork throwing chaff into the fire are some instructions to follow. By following these instructions, different types of people can start from right where they are and begin to enter the kingdom that’s at hand. Like them, each of us can start from where we are and then set this world on track toward greater justice and deeper peace.
These marching orders are fairly simple, if not easy: If you happen to have twice as much food or clothing as you need, then share it with someone who has none. If you’re a tax collector, collect only what you’re supposed to rather than demanding more and pocketing the difference. If you’re a soldier, don’t extort, intimidate, threaten, make false accusations; don’t plant evidence or use excessive force.
Although these instructions might strike us as the rules of simple fairness, their impact is bigger than that. These acts of justice go against the grain of whole systems that distribute resources unevenly, that tolerate corruption, and that sanction violence. Perhaps sharing what we have, turning down our cut, or restraining our power goes a long way toward striking down injustice at the root.
With these instructions, John the Baptist turns some of the most despised people—tax collectors and soldiers who exploited their own people—into secret agents for the kingdom of God. Working from wherever they are, they can bend their institutions from within to the service of God and of all their neighbors.
At the very least, it’s a start. It’s a start when we, in our own positions, try to shape our world and ourselves into something more just and peaceful. It’s a start when we can let go of the fearful expectation that God will come with ax and winnowing fork rather than in manger and swaddling clothes. It’s a start when we can move beyond our fear that God will come to chop and burn rather than to teach and heal.
It’s not that we don’t need to brace ourselves, though. Jesus will come with great judgment on the injustices that we permit and perpetuate . . . but he will also come with great love for us wherever we are. And he will come not with anger or for revenge, but with great desire to give all of us a world that is so much better than the one we’ve built for ourselves. And the good news is that we can get ready for it right now. Who knows how long we’ll be waiting, but at least we can get started right away.