Advent’s Axe

I wonder if you’ve ever cut down a tree? I’ve done a few small ones over the years, and it’s a hard job.

We’ve mostly gone the root of chopping off all the branches with a big pair of loppers or a reciprocating saw, so that you’re left with a tall trunk in the ground to use as a lever. Then you go at the roots, exposing them with a mattock and going through them with mattock or axe, before levering out the trunk and stump.

I’ve never tried the approach most of us would picture—taking an axe or chainsaw to the side of a tree to fell it and leave a stump behind. Partly because I don’t the right kind of axe for that, partly because I’ve only ever done small trees you can lever out, but mostly because who wants the stump of a tree left in their garden? They’re a pain, so you’ve got to take the roots out first.

There’s a spiritual analogy here some of you might be familiar with: if you’re engaging in deliverance ministry it’s helpful to cut out all the roots before you actually cast out the demon—essentially so that they don’t have anything left to cling onto. In practice this means less dramatic exorcism scenes and more gentle counselling while Jesus heals wounds and gifts forgiveness and repentance.

There’s a wider analogy though too, the axe of Advent. John the Baptist is the Advent figure par excellence, the desert prophet wild with the fury of the heavens telling of a great light to come. He bids us repent in no uncertain terms, but cries that “the axe is laid at the root of the tree” (Matthew 3) and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down for firewood.

John is using a common Biblical picture of people as trees, seen in Genesis 2 but clearest in Psalm 1 and then the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 5, Jeremiah 2) and saying that the brood of vipers he addresses—the Pharisees and Sadducees—will be judged by their fruit.

Advent’s axe is Jesus, who appears immediately afterward. We think of Christmas as a time to meet Jesus the baby, God condescended, God in weakness and meekness. In Advent we encounter Jesus the Judge of the world, apocalyptic King who came with a sword to divide. How do we prepare for Jesus’ coming? John tells us to repent. How we prepare in Advent, today, for his return? John tells us to repent.

We might find Jesus the Judge a strange and forbidding figure, though he is not so frightening to the oppressed as to those who have something to lose. In Advent we are invited to see through the frippery and the tinsel to the deep reality at the root of things—to what lies beneath: the dominion of God, the coming king.

Some light is shed on Advent’s axe by a strange little story in 2 Kings 7, where the sons of the prophets—the community of followers of Yahweh within Israel—need to build a bigger meeting space because their numbers have grown. They take Elisha with them to cut some trees down, and one of them slips, his axe shedding its head which promptly lands in the Jordan. This is a matter of great distress as he says the axe was borrowed—he is by the Law liable for its cost, and we’re told it’s an iron axe, an object of great value. This means he may need to face debt slavery to pay back the cost. He is petrified.

The man asks Elisha for help, Elisha throws a stick into the Jordan and the axe head floats up in what looks like sympathetic magic—but that isn’t what’s going on. Remembering that the sea—and therefore the Jordan as another Red Sea—is the place of chaos and death, the abode of chaos dragons and demons, for something to sink and float again is for it to die and rise. The axe head is baptised. It moves from death to life as a stick—a typological tree—is thrown into the water. It pivots on the cross.

When we read this text Christologically—focusing on Jesus, as we should all the Bible—we see that Jesus is the axe head who is ‘borrowed’, sinks and then floats, who is then returned to whence they came. Ok, maybe you go with me there, but what does that have to do with John the Baptist?

Think of it like this: that axe head is doing two things. Firstly, it defeats the dragons in the Jordan, returning from the place of the dead with evil defeated. Secondly it cuts down a tree to build a house.

What’s my point? That Jesus is the axe laid at the root of the tree of each individual and of the systematic hellish thornbushes that grow their tendrils throughout the garden of the world. That axe does two things: it defeats evil by cutting down the tree, and it uses that wood to build a house.

When the axe hits the tree we see a collision between the world’s resistance to God, which we so often participate in, and the irresistible force of the returning King with axe in hand. In Advent we rethink our lives, we reorientate to the future, and we cut the roots wherever we find them. Friends, we must start in the gardens of our own hearts.

In Advent we pray for Christ the Woodcutter to return and finish his coppicing of the forests of the world. He is the one who cuts out every root to truly remove the ugly trees that bear no fruit that our world is overgrown with. He is the one who takes the wood from that demolishing and builds with it a house—a Temple, the Church—to sit within the now beautified garden lands.

We use our time in Advent to see the trees for what they are, to assess their fruit and, terrifyingly, our own. We see that all rulers will be cast down, all empires upturned, as evil is dramatically ended. And we see that the Church is built in the wreckage: not that we are called to pull down Empires, though our preaching will do so, but to take the wood left over, burn what cannot be saved and build with what can.

Here is the stark choice we are presented with: will we repent? Will we turn ourselves towards God and his Kingdom, knowing that we cannot help ourselves but desperately need the Christ to change the world and our hearts? Because the axe is laid at the root of the tree that does not bear good fruit.

Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash

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