“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John the Baptist commands in a traditional Advent reading (Matt. 3). It sounds like a threat, and it is. He goes on to urge the Pharisees and Sadducees to bring forth the fruit of repentance or face the consequences: “The axe is already laid at the foot of the tree,” ready to turn “every tree that does not bear fruit” into kindling for an unquenchable fire.
What axe? And who is the axeman? Isaiah 11, often paired with Matthew 3 in the lectionary, offers a clue. Isaiah prophesies that the stump of David’s father, Jesse, will sprout new growth, a “Branch” anointed with the Spirit to bring justice and make the wolf and the lamb dwell peaceably together. Jesse’s house looks dead, but it will rise again.
To feel the full weight of the prophecy, we have to reach back a chapter to Isaiah 10, where the prophet tells Judah that the Assyrians who are invading the northern kingdom are an axe in the Lord’s hand. Yahweh of hosts is lopping off boughs from the trees, cutting down lofty branches and tearing through the thickets. Israel and Judah are imagined as a forest, their high officials portrayed as tall trees, and the Lord has embarked on a project of deforestation. If we ask, “How did the house of Jesse fall so low?,” Isaiah 10 gives us the answer: The Lord himself chopped the royal house down to a stump.
Psalm 74 is also relevant. It pictures the cedar-paneled temple as a forest, leveled by invaders. It is “as if one had lifted up his axe in a forest of trees. And now all its carved work they smash with hatchet and hammers. They have burned your sanctuary to the ground; they have defiled the dwelling place of your name.”
These texts are the backdrop for John the Baptist’s warning. “Axe at the root” isn’t a generic image of impending judgment. It speaks of foreign invasion, deforestation both literal and metaphysical, and devastation of the temple. In the first-century context, that can mean only one thing. The demand to repent is urgent because God is about to swing a new Assyria, the Romans, against the forest of Judea and Herod’s temple. God is taking his throne, and descent from Abraham isn’t enough to get into his kingdom. Anyone who wants to be safe had better repent and bear fruit. Best to get on the safe side of the Divine Woodsman before he starts swinging.
Some may complain that this reading is an unwelcome intrusion into the heart-warming story of the babe in the manger. Shouldn’t the church be a refuge from geopolitics?
That complaint misconstrues the Incarnation at a basic level. Salvation is of the Jews, and the Jews were a subject people within the Roman empire. If salvation were to come at all, it had to come there, to the Jew first, also to the Greek. It had to intrude into the dynamics of first-century politics, had to include Augustus Caesar and the Herods and Pilate, if it was going to be salvation at all.
Advent isn’t supposed to soothe us. It doesn’t teach us to be stoic in the face of the irreparable damage of the world. It doesn’t teach us to be piously hopeless. Advent celebrates the Creator’s arrival to repair the damage of sin, judging and making new. Advent comforts because it promises final restoration, justice, and peace. Advent encourages us to persevere in trials and injustice because it demonstrates that God has pledged to make all things new. Advent unveils a God so determined to fulfill his purpose that he did not spare his own Son but freely delivered him up for us all.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.