Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2022
For Christmas a few years ago, my in-laws gave us a subscription to Ancestry.com. That’s one of the websites out there where you can track your family tree. Admittedly, it’s pretty neat. I could click through and see my family’s immigration papers through Ellis Island. I tracked down my great-great-grandfather who fought for the Union.
And while all that is interesting, I do think it reveals something about us, especially as Americans. Since we are such a hodge podge people, we want our family’s to have stories that root us in the past. But the catch is, we can make our past say whatever we want it to say. For example.
When I’m talking about why I became a priest, I can point to my maternal grandfather, also also an Episcopal priest. “See, it’s in my blood.” But when I don’t want to follow the rules, I can point to the other side of my family, the not so nice one, and also say, “see, being a rebel is in my blood.” When I want to be English, I can say, “Abbott is my family name.” When I want to be Italian, all I have to do is look in a mirror and I see a Sicilian; my mother’s maiden name is DiPietro, after all. Like many Americans, I can look back through my family tree and find anything I want to find to make it fit my mood for the day – a New York detective, a French teacher, a dressmaker, a surfer dude, a geometry professor, and a scofflaw deadbeat. It’s my story because it’s the story I’ve chosen.
But of course, that’s not the way it works. We are born into a particular set of circumstances, at a certain time, date, and place; then raised by people that we did not choose. We do not get to select our parents, we do not get to choose our family, we do not get to select our past; these are simply given, and they have profound impacts on our lives.
That’s part of what is going on with John the Baptist and all the people who came out to see him. They were putting their trust in their family line, their genealogy, their ancestry. They wanted to be faithful, like we all do, so they pointed to their ancestor Abraham. Abraham was righteous, so they must be righteous, too, since they are related to him. Abraham walked with God, Abraham made a covenant with God, God promised a vast multitude of offspring for Abraham, so here we are, they say. Abraham is our family.
But not so fast, John the Baptist says. John says, “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” (Matthew 3:7b-9). It’s not about family lineage, it’s about faithfulness.
And notice, notice that they point to Abraham as their righteous ancestor. They don’t point out all their ancestors who were unrighteous. They don’t talk about Ahab, the most evil king of Israel. They don’t mention Jezebel who killed the prophets. They don’t talk about Rehoboam, who enslaved the people of Israel. The people who have come out to see the John the Baptist have selected Abraham as their father, but it’s not as easy as that.
John the Baptist has a stunning message – God does not take into account your family name. Your ancestry, your lineage, your genealogy, that is all chaff which the wind will blow away. It is not who you are that matters; it’s what you do that matters. “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 3:10). Bear good fruit. We can push that metaphor. It’s not enough to be an apple tree, you have to produce apples. If not, you’re just taking up space in the orchard.
In other words, no one gets a free pass. God is calling you to bear fruit, to be righteous, now.
Because even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.
Sure this is hard news, but it is also good news. John the Baptist warns the people not to rely on Abraham. Thanks be to God that you don’t have to rely on your family name or your heritage or your ancestry to prove yourself to God. God loves you for who you are, not for what your parents do or for who your grandparents were. What a blessing! You don’t have to go seeking out some past to certify yourself. You don’t need a certain name, or family, or status to be righteous in God’s eyes.
I think that’s what makes me so uncomfortable about the whole cultural fad of tracing your ancestry. So often it’s done to prove something, to justify ourselves; but there is nothing you need to prove to God. It’s the Almighty who justifies us. The Lord God knew you before you were born, the Holy Spirit dwells in your very heart, the Lord Jesus has died on a cross for you. John the Baptist tells the ancient Jews they don’t have to claim Abraham as their ancestor, we don’t have to claim anything for ourselves either. Other than the eternal, unalterable fact that God loves us for who we are, because the Lord God created us.
This, I think, is the true freedom of Christ. You can stop trying to win approval from other people – from your family or from anyone else. You can stop living under the shadow of those who came before you. You can stop comparing yourself to your ancestors. Because I’ll tell you what – they were just as flawed as you are. And God loved them, too.
This is one of the hopes I have for us, the people of Trinity Church. We ought to be known for our good works, for the fruit we bear. So that people with great names and with no names at all can find sanctuary here. This is the good news that we have to share. This is liberation. We do not care where you come from, we do not care what your name is, we do not care how you ended up on this little sand bar in the Gulf of Mexico. What matters is that we are bearing good fruit for the kingdom of God, so that everyone can meet Jesus in this holy place.
I know, I know that these Advent lessons are hard. And with these warnings about trees getting chopped down and ancestors that don’t matter, we want to fast forward to Christmas. But the wisdom of the Church is that we have to linger here, we are forced to reckon with the challenging parts of our faith. And mostly what I want to say, is that even the challenging parts are good news. It may not be Merry Christmas, but it’s good news for our souls. Good news that God loves us. Good news, not that we have to choose God, but that God has chosen us.