May 30, 2020

Homily for Advent II: Four Metaphors for Advent

The Sermon of John the Baptist (detail), Bruegel

The Sermon of John the Baptist (detail), Bruegel

Four Metaphors for Advent
A sermon for the second Sunday in Advent, 2013

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘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. Even now the axe 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.

‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

– Matthew 3:1-12

* * *

Tom Wright points out the four primary metaphors in today’s Gospel narrative:

  • The road
  • The water
  • The axe
  • The fire

These four pictures tell us a great deal about the ministry of John the Baptist, and also about the meaning of Advent.

First, he came to prepare a way for the coming of the King. The imagery comes from Isaiah 40, which introduces the great message of the second half of the Book of Isaiah: exile will end and God’s people will once more know the presence of God in their midst (Immanuel). The land, which has become a wilderness, will blossom, all enemies and obstacles will be removed, and the world will be on its way to a new creation.

Second, he came to bring his people safely through the waters, from death to life. John took up his position at the Jordan River for a reason. He was reminding Israel that God first brought his people into the Promised Land by leading them through the water. His ministry amounted to a reenactment of what happened in the days of Joshua. God always creates and saves through water. It symbolizes cleansing, birth, refreshment. Sacramentally, it speaks of resurrection and new creation. For Israel, it meant the end of exile and a new entry into God’s promises.

Third, he came to destroy false hopes and ways. He took the axe to them. The Pharisees and the Sadducees who receive the brunt of his rebuke here represented two ways of dealing with living under the rule of their enemies. The Pharisees said the answer was to become people of the book and to separate themselves by practices of law and purity. The Sadducees, on the other hand, took a more “secular” approach of accommodation and compromise, showing a willingness to set aside fundamental beliefs and practices for the sake of peace. They were the “conservatives” and “liberals” of their day, each pursuing policies they thought would help restore God’s blessing to Israel.

In addition, there were groups like the Zealots, the radical revolutionaries, and communities like Qumran, who fled to the desert and sought refuge in asceticism and radical community. John called all these groups to repent of their approaches and look to the hope that God had promised and that God alone could bring through the Messiah.

Fourth, he warned of the coming fire. John was not speaking of eternal judgment and a final apocalypse, but the end of the world as the people of Israel knew it. This judgment would fall on Jerusalem in 70AD, and the Jews would be scattered from their land, not to be a nation there again until 1948. The fire was just over the horizon.

Here are four helpful metaphors for us this Advent.

  • Am I active in preparing to welcome the King?
  • Am I living a “baptismal” life — dying and rising anew with Jesus each day?
  • What false hopes and ways is God pointing out, of which I need to repent?
  • Do I keep in mind that, when Jesus comes, he will bring judgment as well as mercy?

The road, the water, the axe, the fire.

Which of these metaphors speak most strongly to you during this Advent season?


  1. Your dispatching from the evangelical wilderness today. At first I thought the axe spoke most strongly to me. My inclination to look for conservative, liberal, and radical solutions( yes, each of them in different situations). Powerful homily. Who can discount or say that any of the four metaphors are more strong? This is impetus for me this Advent.

  2. Very much the first. Though for us, we’re celebrating that the King DID arrive and His kingdom WAS established (some thirty odd years later.) Beyond belief! Thanks for the terrific homily Chaplain Mike. I can’t wait to get to church this morning to celebrate. Peace and love all.

    • By ‘for us’ I meant my own tradition. I’ve never ‘celebrated’ advent per se. I don’t understand putting Jesus back in the womb or the grave to ritualistically reenact Christmas or Easter. But I mean no disrespect (and expect I could learn much from) other traditions.

  3. Great homily, CM. Short, with easy, specific take-aways.

    The metaphor that seems to mean the LEAST to me is the last one – fire aka judgment – which maybe means it’s the one I should pay the most attention. I’ll have to mull on that for a bit. The other three – road, water, axe – I like equally and will try to remember them this coming month.

  4. Wilderness is the metaphor that is most glaringly missing from the list.
    The others mean little to me unless I am willing to let God meet me in the
    wilderness and wildernesses of my life which keep cropping up. The passage is about allowing Jesus to prepare us, not we preparing ourselves. Jesus is the baptism, and the water and the fire. Not me.

    • Good addition, Tom. Next time I deal with this passage I will include it.

    • Alright! that’s just the excuse I need to celebrate 5 WEEKS of Advent next year. If they’re a gonna keep pushin’ back their holiday shenanigans, I’ll just out-shenanigan them with more Advent. Yes!

    • “Jesus is the baptism, and the water and the fire. Not me.”

      Jesus is also the road, as well as the Lord who approaches on the road.

    • Don’t know about that. The ten virgins, in another parable, needed to be prepared, the 5 that weren’t didn’t make it, the 5 who were, did.

  5. Of course, I would find it easy to say that the people of the book today are those who throw around words such as “biblical,” “inerrant,” “godly,” etc., which would mean that I would not have to look at those things in my life and tradition that need a good whack with the axe.

    I also appreciate the suggestion about the addition of “wilderness.”

  6. The second metaphor is always my most challenging.

  7. “Bhikkhus, all is on fire…” from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon

    Each time you come, Lord, you come with fire. How much of my life has gone to ashes? How much is going to ashes even now? How much will need to go to ashes when you come the next time, or the last time?

    You know me better than I know myself, Lord; you know what is the chaff that must be separated from body and soul, and thrown into the fire.

    You know how much of me, if anything, will be left when you are done. You know how much of me you will throw with your winnowing fork into the fire; you will weigh the wheat.

    Even so, come, Lord Jesus.