Our first two scripture readings this morning tell us to rejoice, because God is among us. The prophet Zephaniah tells his listeners twice that God is in their midst and will rescue them from all the bad things going on around them. The letter from Paul to Philippi says that not only is the Lord near, but also if we live in peace and love, God is already with us. These two parts of scripture are actually used a lot, and are familiar to many people: Zephaniah is often read during Advent, and is one of the many scripture passages used during this time of year that talk about “daughter Zion” and “daughter Jerusalem” singing and rejoicing after a long period of mourning; Paul’s advice to the Philippians is read and meditated over and memorized by many people as a help in changing negative attitudes into positive ones. This particular part of Zephaniah actually calls to mind a piece of music we learned in sixth grade orchestra by Handel or Haydn (or some composer whose name begins with “h”), whose melody was an aria about daughter Zion singing with joy. And whenever I hear this part of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi, it reminds me of advice from a former music teacher: “negative thoughts eat your brain”. Some other people might be reminded of the song: “Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative”.
Whatever these two first scripture passages might call to mind, it is probably joyful for most people. And then we have the story from the gospel about John the Baptist – a figure (rightly or wrongly) not usually associated with rejoicing – and in the story this morning he lives up to his somber reputation. He says that the Lord is coming, but he doesn’t do it with the happy tone of our first two scriptures. He calls his listeners a bunch of snakes and says that when God gets here, it will be to chop down and burn up them and their wicked deeds, so they better get busy and clean up their lives. These words of John the Baptist are as famous as our earlier scriptures, but they are rarely used as the basis for elementary school orchestra songs or as aids by positive thinking gurus (although they do show up in a Bob Marley song about the destruction of the workers of iniquity).
However, John really doesn’t deserve his joyless reputation, because he was merely telling the truth, and it is a truth that needs to be heard; the truth of God chopping down and burning up our wicked deeds should be more joyful to us than we make it out to be, because all of those sins are not proper to our true identities as images of God. Even though we have numbed ourselves into thinking that all our little sins are pleasurable, they are actually barriers to true pleasure and fulfillment in God. We come to identify ourselves with our sins, when in reality they are foreign to the true nature of humanity as created by God. God does not want to chop us down and burn us up in his wrath; God wants to clear out the things that hinder our true personalities, and God’s wrath is directed against those barriers to our fulfillment, not toward us. Unfortunately, if we choose to cling to our sin, it only follows that we indeed will feel the axe intended for them, but that is our choice, not God’s.
The only way to make sure that we get out of the way of the axe is to admit and confess our sins so that we can see them for what they are: freely chosen actions that are not proper to us as children of God. Most people are not crooked government officials or extorting soldiers like John describes. Instead, most of us are hobbled by our own list of sad little sins that includes greed, superior attitudes, judgementalism, holding grudges, desiring revenge, or always wanting to say “I told you so!”. It is scary to have all these things so dear to us burned up, but God is too good and loving to let us continue to live that way – crippled by our own pettiness. We can start the process now of shedding our sins, but even that is frightening (at least on the surface), because in order to do so, we have to admit that we are just as petty as everyone else. But as we confess our sinfulness, we are slowly given the realization that we are also just as good as everyone else, and so we are worth the effort it takes to admit our sins and use the gift of God’s grace to repent and live differently.
The axe is at the tree, as John the Baptist says. It is up to us whether or not to rejoice in that fact, knowing God is cutting things away so that we may be healed and cured of our blindness so that we can see God and the world in their true beauty, or to resist it so that we can futilely try to hang on to the fake self-centered world we surrounded ourselves with. It is up to us whether to be joyful at the news of God’s presence, like Zephaniah and Paul, or to be frightened of it, like many of John the Baptist’s listeners. May we choose the health, life and truth offered by God, and may we help others do the same. AMEN