In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
2 feet of snow has a way of signaling a few things. All the feelings of fall have been rudely stopped cold in their tracks. It sure was nice while it lasted, but it’s all gone now. Winter has arrived! This year it was swift kick in the face. There was no introduction, just one of the bigger storms ND has seen over the past decades. So that means we will enjoy this white winter wonderland for the next 4, maybe 5, months.
And yet, at this time the appointed readings from God’s Word tell us in the cold snowy north to get ready for fruit. In fact, every year at this time God tells us in worship to prepare as you would for a harvest. He says there are things we must produce. And he’s not talking about writing up a Christmas list or taking a shopping trip. He’s not talking about decorating or baking. Because this is fruit-bearing season.
If that is the case, that God says this can be a fruit-bearing season, then do you ever wonder why during these exciting days we put so much emphasis on a tree that has been cut down (or a fake representation of it)? I mean, why did we spend all that time last week setting this stuff up. None of it is living. None of it is producing anything for us or for God. Those trees that have been cut down are dying and there’s nothing that can stop it. But every year we do the same thing. In the weeks leading up to Christmas we spend money and time picking out the right tree, or we spend time and serious, backbreaking energy hauling this lifeless representation of a tree out to our living room. It has become one of the main things that mark our preparations, but this kind of tree is never going to be productive. There is never any useful fruit from it. So, to cover up that fact, on this dying tree we attach lights to make it shine brightly and beautifully. It might hide the fact that the tree is not in good shape, but it won’t change the outcome. We also add little round balls to ornament this tree with fake “fruit.”
Did you know that’s kind of how ornaments started? Without going into too much detail, people in Europe and America in the 1800s were doing this Christmas tree thing, too. But the trees were decorated with candles, paper roses, beads, snowflakes, and little treats. Well, as the story goes some people wanted to add edible snacks to the tree. And because people during winter were always looking forward to spring, some thought it would be a good idea to put fruit on the trees as a way to ponder and promote growth and new life that would be coming. After a while, the tree became more about decorating, so the fruit changed to round and shiny ornaments that symbolized fruit.
I don’t think that’s what John the Baptist had in mind, do you? When he said produce fruit, he wasn’t talking about hanging little balls on a dying or fake tree. It’s all a commercialized sham now. And we eat it up. Getting into the Christmas spirit with a tree, lights and ornaments isn’t going to give you the productivity that you need this year. It’s a dying or fake tree.
Now, I have nothing against a Christmas tree. There is some good symbolism to it and it does add to the overall festive nature of Christmas. But I think that this whole Christmas tree thing serves as a great illustration today as we listen to God’s Word. It describes what is wrong in our lives.
God saw it happening long ago. People were trying to cover up the problems in their lives. Back in the days of Isaiah, the prophet, they were saying things like, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about? We are God’s chosen nation. We are descendants of Abraham. Nothing can happen to us. We’ll be fine.” They did what they wanted and I’m sure it they convinced themselves that it was ok, because at least they weren’t as bad as other people.
Then, centuries later John the Baptist comes to prepare people again. And there were people who didn’t learn. These Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious gurus. They knew the Old Testament. They knew what happened to God’s chosen nation, both the highs and lows. They knew how God kept his promises to people who didn’t deserve it. And when John started preaching out in the desert these religious leaders thought he was nuts. They said, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about? We are God’s people. We have Abraham as our forefather. We follow the laws. We’ll be fine.”
Do you notice how they were just like these dying trees that we put in our houses at this time of year? They were trying to ignore the reality of their sinfulness. They were trying to make their life shine brighter than others do by their actions and their religiousness. They were ornamenting their lives to look good on the outside, but it didn’t change the facts. They were dying inside.
People still haven’t learned. Today the preparations for Jesus’ coming can look pretty similar. We can be like the dying trees. You try to cover up the problems. You try to hide the mistakes. You illuminate what is good and ornament our lives with what the world calls fruitful and productive things. “As long as there is more good than bad in my life, then I’m fine. And have you noticed the kind of people in this world. Look at all those protesters out there. I would never be like them. I would never spread lies or cover up facts. I would never cause mischief or harm for others.” And have you ever noticed how we bring up family connections when it comes to religion? “My family tree is full of Christians. I went to church and Sunday school as a kid. I went to Lutheran high school or I want to send my kids to a Lutheran high school. That means I’m a healthy branch on a healthy tree. Nothing is wrong with me.”
Friends, there is a reason why John tells us today to “produce fruit in keep with repentance.” Because so often the kind of stuff we come up with won’t produce that kind of fruit. Repentance is not trying to convince yourself that you aren’t that bad. Repentance is not trying to make a dying tree look productive and beautiful. Repentance is not making your life better than callused criminals, disgruntled coworkers, or passionate protesters. Repentance is not what I do so that God will give me what I want. That kind of repentance does not exist. It’s fake. It takes the focus away from God and puts it on others and me. When that’s where my focus is, how can I be productive? How can I be on a straight path to heaven?
This Christmas, when my focus is on doing all the things that other people, or the TV commercials, or the internet deals and steals are telling me to do then I’ll have a great December 24 and 25. But it won’t be a great Christmas. It won’t be productive for my faith. It won’t be productive to others. It won’t be fruitful for God. And John tells me and he tells you what happens to a tree that isn’t productive and fruitful. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
God has done it before. The family tree of Abraham was falling apart. Branch after branch became diseased and fell off. The family tree of God’s chosen people resembled those firs and spruces that people throw out in January. The fruit God was trying to produce was gone. God warned them. With such fatherly love and patience, he warned them. He said unproductive, fruitless trees serve no purpose. They get cut down. And then it happened. God cut down the family tree of Abraham. They were cut off from the land of Israel. Their homes were destroyed. God’s own house, the Temple, was leveled.
Now, we might think that nothing good, nothing productive, nothing fruitful would come from that. And I know that we make stuff out of dead trees. Lumber is good for lots of stuff. I even have a fire pit in my back yard so that I can enjoy burn up old dead wood for cooking and s’mores. But a dead tree isn’t going to live. It isn’t going to produce fruit. It’s isn’t going to produce seeds for more trees. It’s dead.
Did you hear what Isaiah spoke about 700 years before those Pharisees and Sadducees went out to see this crazy prophet by the Jordan River? “A shoot will come from the stump… from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Do you know what that says? It says God doesn’t do things the way this world does things.
We know that a cut off tree isn’t going to be productive. All the time spent decorating and ornamenting isn’t going to bring the tree to life and make it fruitful again. And we know that the stump doesn’t do much good either. You grind a stump away. You dig it up so you can do something useful with that spot in your yard or that soil. But the way God looks at it, he sees possibilities with the stump.
See, out of the ruble that was left in Abraham’s family tree God kept a promise. He said through Abraham all nations would be blessed. 12 generations later, there was a man named Jesse and again, God promised to his son, King David, that there would be a king that would sit on his throne forever. And even after God cut that whole family tree down, God saw the hope. A little offshoot sprang up from the stump. Where there was death, God brought life. He made a productive tree. No, Jesus was not here to be a productive political king. No, Jesus was not here to be a productive entertainer or educator. But he was a here to produce forgiveness. He was here to produce a new and lasting life. He was here to produce eternal salvation. And what a job he did.
People tried to cut him down. People tried to get rid of him. People tried to replace him with their own better versions. But it didn’t work. Jesus accomplished his mission. He came to give us a new life, a productive and fruitful life. He came to give us a life that is not focused on trying to make a dying tree look good. He gave us a life where the tree and branches are all living and productive and fruitful.
Did Jesus need your permission for that? Did he need you to ask him to do it? Did he need anything from you in order to be your Savior and mine? NO! So, gone is the focus on me. Gone is the focus on the commercials and internet steals and deals. Gone is the focus on what other people are doing. Those things were cut off and thrown out. Jesus made us new because he loves us. That’s what happened in baptism. He came with the Holy Spirit to change who you are. The old way is destroyed. The sinful nature is no longer in control. Instead, we are God’s children. We are connected to Christ. We are part of his chosen nation. We are grafted into his family tree. And that means we have a good fruit to produce, just like John said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Like I said, repentance is not something I do to get God’s attention. It’s not something I do to meet God’s requirements. It’s not a one-time choice so that I can have eternal blessings. Repentance is not a worldly sorrow that I got caught doing something I shouldn’t have. Repentance is not a childish sorrow that is bummed out about missing all the fun. Repentance is producing God’s fruit.
If you are forgiven by Christ, if you are filled with the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, if you are a child of God by his grace, then repentance is a natural thing for you. You make a mistake and you don’t need to cover it up, like we cover up dying or fake trees. That’s not productive. You can’t hide that from God anyways, but you can confess to your loving Father and he forgives you. You hurt someone and you don’t need to hide from it, you can humbly admit what happened and say sorry. You get caught up with the ways of this world and you don’t have to make excuses for it. Your Savior already took those things to the cross and died for them all. Repentance is simply acknowledging the facts: I have sinned. Jesus has forgiven me. I am a child of God by his grace. I have fruits of faith to produce.
So as you look at your Christmas tree, think about that. Don’t think about all the things that need to get checked off your list before Christmas comes. Think about all the things this little baby in Bethlehem has done, how productive his life was for you. Think about the faith that was planted in your heart to make you a fruitful child of God. And think about how you can be productive, yes, even in the middle of the cold north, months away from any gardens growing or trees producing, you can bear fruit for God. Amen.