JESUS CHANGES THE HEADLINES

I give Up

SERIES: I GIVE UP… a false sense of safety

SERMON: Luke 13

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

 

Blood was a very normal sight for the Jewish worshipers.  Bulls, calves, goats, sheep, even some birds were regularly and daily slaughtered for offerings at the altar.  It would not make the headlines at all that blood was being shed at the Temple.  And it would not be the most shocking headline to see that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had found some more lawbreakers who needed to be executed.  The government kept a firm hand on the people and would not tolerate disorder.

But this time it was different.  This was the type of thing that would make your mouth drop open in shock and your head shake in disgust if you were a Jew. The headline was “Blood mixed at the altar.”  Some people from Galilee were executed while they were at the Temple courtyard making sacrifices, so their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices.  It’s the kind of headline that got everyone talking.

And that’s not the only one that Jesus brings to our attention today.  Another tragedy that rocked the area was to hear that 18 lives were lost because of a terrible accident south of the Temple at the pool of Siloam.  That headline read: “18 innocent bystanders crushed in tower collapse.”

It doesn’t take a lot to imagine those kinds of headlines.  We see these types of tragedies and killings every day.  We probably have a similar reaction, too.  Why do bad things happen?  Why all the crime?  Why the accidents?  Why the diseases and hospital stays? Why the chaos as if this world has no idea what is good and what is bad, what is up and what is down?

Do you want the answer to these types of questions?  I know you do.  It’s actually a really simple one: Sin. Now, I’ve said that before, and I’d like to have a more concrete answer that you can use when you are seeing the headlines.  I’d like to clear up all the uncertainties, but God gives us only this one simple answer: sin has ruined this world.  Its grip squeezes everyone and everything: people, politics, weather, crime.  Sin is like radiation that permeates all things and brings destruction and devastation.  I can’t get rid of it.  You can’t get rid of it.  Sin will linger like a dark cloud over the earth until the voice of God says, “ENOUGH!  This is the end.  It’s time bring our people home forever.”

So, if sin is the only answer for the terrible headlines, both way back then and now, then we have to give up a false sense of safety, because not everything is ok for us.  Sin is part of my life and yours and that makes us guilty.  You and I cannot deny that, and it won’t work anyways. When I see the headlines, however, I don’t want to be lumped into the same category as the killers, rapists, and thieves. I’m guessing you don’t either.  I don’t even want to be in the category with people who are too selfish or have any other kind of undesirable trait.

And so I try to rationalize.  We all do it.  We say things like, “I would never do anything that bad. I’m glad I’m not like that.”  When we think that way, we are making levels of sin.  We put really bad people – like those who get a death sentence as Jesus brought up– way down here.  We put the pretty bad screw-ups next.  We put the foolish and selfish next up.  Then, maybe we make a category for ourselves.  We know we’ve made some mistakes, we know that we don’t always have the right attitude, and there are some pet sins that are hard to give up, but we like to think we’re not that bad.  Finally, we might even be honest enough to make a category of really good people above us.

We are the ones who naturally rationalize like this because we are human.  We rationalize because we have to find some way to cope with the guilt of sin.  We have to find a way to be safe before God.  And so we try to rationalize sin and minimize it.  When we look in the mirror we want to see someone good staring back at us. We think if we can do that well enough then we can find our way into God’s good graces.  If we can be better than others and work hard enough, then we can be right in God’s sight.

Jesus knows that we do this.  He sensed it when he was talking to these people.  So, he asked a couple questions that get to the heart of the issue. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  …Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  We would naturally and logically answer, “Well, yeah!  Bad people get what they deserve.”  Jesus answers these two questions much differently than we would. “Do you think some are worse sinners or more guilty than you? I tell you, no! These levels of sin that we make to look good in front of God don’t work at all.  Turns out God doesn’t have any levels for sin.  You either have it or you don’t.  Period.

Brothers and sisters, in us Jesus sees sin. You and I can try to come up with a way to cope with our guilt, you and I can try to get rid of it, hide it, or explain it away.  We can try to make ourselves safe, but you and I cannot change the truth.  We don’t carry out God’s demands. We don’t have ability to be right in God’s sight. So then, we are not the kind of people that God accepts into heaven.  Sinful people are the ones who go to hell.

However, Jesus says the headlines don’t have to be doom and gloom for us.  He says, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  So there’s our solution!  If we repent, we can avoid the whole mess. But what if I have forgotten to repent since this morning?  There are a lot of sins that I do every day, not to mention my sinful nature makes my whole life unacceptable to God.  I would almost have to walk around every second of the day saying sorry to God. And what if my repentance is not sincere enough?  Would it still count?  And what about unbelievers, how can they repent if they don’t know God?  Why would they say sorry to Jesus if they don’t believe in him as their only Savior?  Do you see how what kind of trouble we are in? If repentance is something we have to do to avoid hell or if heaven is based on how well I repent, then I’m still going to perish.

This is the point of the sermon that is like looking at headlines.  Our mouths hang open a little bit in shock. We want to stop listening, shaking our heads in utter disbelief.  We don’t know how our situation could be this bad.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to tell this little parable of a vineyard owner, who wanted his fig tree to be fruitful.  That makes total sense.  If you plant a fruit tree in your yard, I’m guessing you want to pick some fruit in the future.  Well, the owner didn’t find any fruit for THREE WHOLE YEARS!  He calls that tree a waste.  The owner wants it cut down.

Ok, so that doesn’t change anything, does it?  That news is still bad for us.  God is the owner and if he doesn’t see fruits of faith in your life, then he wants to cut you down.  But here’s where Jesus starts to change the headlines for us.  The gardener steps in at this bleak moment and says, “Leave it alone for one more year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

Jesus sees the situation very clearly.  He sees the sins in our life.  He sees how we try to rationalize them with different levels. He sees how we think maybe there’s some way I can help God fix it.  But he knows there’s nothing we can do. He knows that we can’t fix our situation by trying harder, praying more, or being sincerer in repentance. He knows we are lacking the righteousness God is looking for.  Jesus knows we deserve to be cut down and burned up forever.

And that makes him go to work to change our life.  He doesn’t want your story to end this way.  So, Jesus himself starts to work on you. He’s the only who can do this because he is the only won who is right in God’s sight.  He’s the only one who can do the job perfectly. So he picks up the shovel with his nail-pierced hands and starts digging. He digs out the excuses.  He digs out the sin.  He digs out the guilt. He digs out the rationalizing.  Making different levels for sin is not going to change anything for you.  Looking in yourself for righteousness because you aren’t that bad is not going to make you fruitful. Jesus digs all that bad soil away. That’s when he hits the roots, the stark reality is that you are not bearing fruit for God and you are dying in sin.  That leaves us feeling kind of exposed and raw, weak and helpless. That makes us realize we need some serious, life-changing help. That leads us to confess that we are not safe and we need serious, saving help.  That’s when Jesus starts shoveling on the nutrients and the fertilizer. He fills up the gaping holes around the roots where sin used to be with his forgiveness.  He loads on his love in place of the guilt.  He packs on his promises in exchange for the excuses. He replaces our rationalizing with his perfect righteousness. Then, he keeps watering with his Word and waits.

Did you notice how long the work takes? It’s not one time.  It’s not a couple days a week for a while.  It’s every day for a whole year.  If you want fruitful results tomorrow, don’t be disappointed if there isn’t any fruit yet.   Jesus is doing the work underground at your roots first.  Jesus is feeding you and strengthening you.  He’s getting you strong and healthy. And that might take some time.  But don’t give up.  Jesus isn’t. He’s not ever going to give up on you.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is working on you.  He is working on you with his law and gospel.  He is working on you with repentance and faith. This means he changes our bad headlines.  He changes the focus from our own miserable mistakes and failing fixes.  He changes our attention, so that we see him and everything he has done and still does for us.

Do you think that it will work when Jesus does all these things to you?  Jesus doesn’t finish the story.  He doesn’t tell us what happens.  But if God planted the tree and if Jesus works on that tree to get rid of the bad and nurture and feed it with his goodness, then what do you think the headline will be?  “Sinner is saved.”  “Guilty is innocent.” “Fruit instead of fire.”  That’s you.  That’s me.  That’s our headline through the work of Jesus Christ.  To him be thanks and praise forever. Amen.

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GETTING RID OF THE TROUBLE WITH GREED

SERIES: I GIVE UP…the root of all kinds of evil

I give Up

Joshua 7

2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.
3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”
10 The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
13 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.
14 “ ‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe the LORD chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan the LORD chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family the LORD chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’ ”
16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.
19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD.
24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.”
Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor h ever since.

 

“Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City! Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!”  That’s a lyric from Professor Harold Hill in the famous musical… anybody know?  The Music Man.  (Stick around for Bible study today and I’ll tell you the story of how I know that)  In the musical, Harold Hill goes from town to town to selling instruments and putting together a band for kids.  The catch is that he’s not a music professor.  He just wants their money and then bolts town.  What’s ironic about the song is that Harold Hill and not the townsfolk is the one who’s got the trouble.

Today, we’ve got trouble, too.  Literally, that’s what the name of this valley is; Achor means “trouble.”  And what exactly is the trouble?  It’s not that the boys of Israel were getting together at the local billiards hall to play pool.  The trouble is the same thing Harold Hill was consumed by.  It goes by many names: greed, materialism, coveting, as the Bible calls it “the root of all kinds of evil.”

If you’ve ever seen the Music Man, then you know that Professor Harold Hill was caught in his act.  For him, the punishment was being handcuffed and forced to lead the unrehearsed and untalented River City Boys’ Band in a song.  It went terribly, but it’s a fictional story where everybody always lives happily ever after.  The parents are all happy that their kids were part of something and had an exciting few weeks.  Harold is released.  He gets the girl.  And the rest is history.

I guess after hearing this section of Joshua 7, you know that the same cannot be said for Achan.  It’s a troubling history to read, but I’m happy God included it in his Word.  Troubling stories like these would not be in the Bible, if God’s Word was a collection of made up fables and feel good stories meant to teach us some moral lessons or motivate a religious following.  God doesn’t hide it, however.  God doesn’t cover up some of the dirty details of human history.  He doesn’t change things so that his Word is less offensive to study.  He gives us the honest truth, with all the troubling details, so that we will see what we need to give up and what we need him to give us.

If I were to ask you to tell me anything about Achor, Ai, or Achan, what could you come up with?  This isn’t the first lesson that we teach in Sunday School, that’s for sure.  But what if I asked you to tell me anything about Joshua and Jericho?  Maybe that’s in your wheelhouse.  The context is always crucial.

Joshua was the man appointed to lead Israel into the Promised Land after Moses died.  It was called the Promised Land because God promised to give it all to his people.  The land, the cities, the crops, the animals, the riches, all of it would be theirs.  But God also said, “The first city that you take is for me.”  That first city was Jericho, with the high walls that came a tumbaling down after the people marched around the city for 7 days and then blew their horns on the final day.  Because God said, “This first city belongs to me,” they weren’t allowed to take any plunder from it.  Instead, God told them to burn it to the ground.

 

Well, everyone listened except this man, Achan, who took a fancy robe, some silver, and gold.  He took it back with him and buried it in the ground.  It seems like the crime is not a huge deal.  No victims because it was all going to be burned anyways.  The stuff wasn’t worth a fortune, maybe about $25,000.  Why does this cause such trouble?

First of all, God told the Israelites not to do it.  And if you haven’t figured it out by now, when God says anything, he is serious about it.  God never has said something that is kinda, sorta important, take it or leave it.  Therefore, it was an offense that violated what God said.

Secondly, Achan’s sin of coveting and greed uncovers the root of a serious problem. See, God had promised the Israelites everything in Canaan.  He had demonstrated his power to keep his promise by giving them Jericho.  By asking for them not to take anything from Jericho for themselves, he was giving the Israelites the opportunity to trust him to deliver on his promise the rest of the way.  In and of itself, God says coveting and greed is wrong, but they also have deep roots that don’t just lead to sinning with possessions but also sins of priorities and trust.  Achan was not just caught wanting and taking something that God told everyone not to.  He was caught loving things more than God. Achan was caught trying to hide from God.  And Achan was caught trusting himself and worldly passions more than God.  So, it wasn’t about the robe, the silver, and the gold.  It was the hearts of his people that God cared about.

God cares deeply for your heart.  He wants you to be with him, both right now in your life and for eternity.  And so he says, “Me first!”  When it comes to your time, your energy, your relationships, and your money, God knows how easily those things can take hold in your heart.  He knows how a little bit of greed or materialism can sink deep roots into your heart and life and take up more space than they should.  God needs to be first.

Some might accuse God of being selfish or petty.  Sometimes that thought might cross our minds.  We might say, “No one is going to be hurt if I’m a little greedy, no one is going to find out if I’m too materialistic sometimes, there are no victims when it comes to coveting.”   That’s exactly how sin works; sometimes it can make so much sense.  And that’s the danger.

Here’s the thing: God does not need your money.  He owns everything already.  But God does want your heart.  God wants your trust, because trust is about more than your schedule for the week, your relationships, and your finances.  Trust ultimately impacts our eternity.  There is only room in our hearts for one object of trust.  It’s either going to be God or something else, and something else always leads to death.

The devil works hard to get us to misplace our trust.  To do that he doesn’t have to get us to denounce Jesus, stop reading the Bible, or never come back to church again.  He can use something that seems so harmless like materialism, coveting, and greed to sink deep roots into our hearts that crowd out our full and complete trust in God.  It’s no wonder, then, that God demands to be first and why he was so upset with Achan’s sin.

Did God go a little overboard, though?  Achan, his family, his animals, his possessions and all that he had were taken to this valley of Achor and stoned to death, then burned, and covered with a large pile of rocks.  But before that do you see how careful God is with Achan?  He didn’t just strike him dead in his tent. God went through this long process of identifying the tribe of Judah, the clan of Zerah, the family of Zimri, and then the guilty man, Achan.  God was being patient with a sinner, urging repentance.  And God’s patience helped Achan arrive there. “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel…” Notice that his confession is not directed to Joshua or Israel, and there’s not a word of passing blame, minimizing his mistake, or justifying himself.  Achan acknowledges what he has done against the Lord and confesses everything in detail.

The root of all kinds of evil is going to lead to evil. Sin is going to grow more sin.  When it shows up here (in this section of Joshua) and when it shows up here (my heart), it’s never a good thing.  God says the wages of sin is death.  So, Achan died because of sin.  That’s the same reason I am going to die.  That’s the same reason you are going to die.  But my death and yours is just going to be one day.  For all who are turned away from sin by God’s loving patience, for all who live in repentance and faith, for all who trust God above all, the suffering of death is just one day.

That’s what Joshua said to Achan. “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.  There is nothing in these words about his eternity.  Now, we can’t say with certainty what was in Achan’s heart, we don’t know for sure where Achan ended up, but we know that God wants people to be with him.  We know that God was trying to accomplish that by leading him to repentance.

Trouble today is far better than trouble for eternity.  Isn’t that the way God still deals with us?  Good days, success and blessings are wonderful gifts from God.  Be thankful when you have them, but those things aren’t God’s number one priority for us.  God wants us to be happy with him forever in heaven.  Very often a dose of trouble today can go a long way in getting us to remember that.  Sadness, hardships, and the like shows us that we are in a broken world and we are broken people.  The time for God’s forgiveness, the time for us to trust him is today.  As much as it hurts God to see us suffering, he will put up with it if that means he will be with us for eternity.

But maybe you’ve noticed something about this sermon so far.  We’ve heard about sin that so often sends it’s roots out into my heart and takes hold of me turning my trust in God to trusting myself or my stuff.  We’ve heard how that caused trouble for Achan and for all of Israel.  We’ve heard about the trouble that happened on that day in the Valley of Achor for that one guilty man.  But how do we get out of trouble?  How do we give up this sin?  How do we get what we desperately need from God?

Well, there was another man who had a day of trouble.  He didn’t deserve any of it.  It wasn’t forced on him, but he willingly took it.  And he did so that we would not have an eternity of pain and trouble.  Jesus, the perfect Son of God, took our troubles on himself and suffered our punishment.  The root of all kinds of evil wrapped around him and held him in its clutches so that it wouldn’t hold us anymore.  Jesus went into the valley of trouble for us.  That is how God took care of our trouble, so that we can have joy for eternity at his side.

Do you want to give up sin?  Do you want to give up the coveting, the greed, the materialism, the root of all kinds of evil?  This is how!  This is how God did it.  Jesus fought off every temptation.  He fought off the devil.  He was the perfect One, the righteous One, the holy One.  And he gave it all to us.  His death takes away all of those sins and all of those roots that try to crowd out our faith and trust in Jesus.  His death removed all of them and replaces them with his perfection.  Your sins are gone through faith in him.  God gives you a new life through Jesus, apart from sin.

Let me say that again!  APART FROM SIN!  That’s how to give up the materialism.  It’s not fear that you might end up like Achan.  It’s not trying to earn something from God.  It’s that the material cannot give you what Jesus does.  He gives you a life apart from sin.  He gives you an eternity apart from trouble.

God cares about your heart so much that Jesus came to save you from those roots that lead to evil.  God cares about your heart so much that he patiently leads you to repentance.  God cares about your heart so much that he has an eternity free from trouble waiting for you.  Amen.

Capture
Luke 3

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 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.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

 

When you hear the word “repentance” what comes to mind, sorrow or happiness?  When you repent to the Lord or to someone you have wronged, are you sad or joyful?  A Christian hears the word repentance and knows that it is a good and godly thing, yet overall it probably conjures up a sad feeling.  After all, Scripture says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”  But today in the Gospel, John the Baptizer teaches that repentance leads to a deep and pervasive joy.  The kind of joy that is so powerful and overwhelming that it will literally change the way a person thinks and acts, because that is what the word means, “a change of mind.”

You might think that it seems like an odd topic to cover less than ten days before Christmas, but brothers and sisters, this is exactly what we need in preparation for Christ’s coming.  Repentance was also needed while John the Baptizer is preparing people for Jesus to begin his public ministry.  That is the summary that we are given from Luke.  He is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Maybe some were just intrigued by the weirdo out in the desert, but the main idea God’s trying to get across with the prophet, John, is forgiveness of sins.

It’s a little harsh to hear John call the crowds a “brood of vipers,” but sometimes people need to be jolted out of their spiritual laziness and snoozing.  On the one hand, these crowds were lulled to sleep by their religious leaders’ false teachings, and on the other hand their own sinful thoughts and attitudes were putting them on a dangerous path away from God.  Either way, the idea that people could escape, or be saved, from God’s wrath while continuing to cling to some of their culturally acceptable sins was counterproductive and destructive to their faith.

Another thing that was not going to help these people was their genetics.  You can just hear some of them retorting John, “We have Abraham as our father,” as if Abraham was the Savior.  John’s message was that a connection to a past believer will not do any good for their eternity.  But that was the thinking of so many back then.  John was preaching and teaching that the only thing that matters is faith.  Where people believe in God’s promised salvation and live in that faith, there is true joy – the kind of joy that produces fruit.

It’s not like people in John’s day are the only ones that need this message.  We need it, too, because so often we are looking for joy in all the wrong ways.  Sure sometimes we are clinging to the joy of salvation that comes through Christ, but there are plenty of times where we find “joy” that comes from gratifying our sinful flesh.  But you can’t have both.  Life doesn’t work that way.  You can’t enjoy eating all the calories you want and also enjoy good health.  Pizza, candy, burgers, donuts, and chips don’t help you get or stay healthy.  You can’t be a lazy pile and expect to be excellent at something.  If you want to be a great athlete, musician, dancer, or chef, you have to get off your butt, sacrificing that lazy leisure time, and work hard over and over again at developing and improving those skills.

Certain joys just cannot coexist within a person.  The joy of salvation does not coexist with the things the delight our sinful nature.  If a person pursues whatever joy their sinful flesh desires, thinking that an outward show of religiousness like attending worship or praying every day would also allow them to enjoy heaven, then they are just like those people going out to see John.  They are listening to and a part of the vipers.

This vipers bite us, too.  Do you ever use the one or two hours you spend here to excuse the other 166 or 167 hours of the week?  Do you ever think the 3% or 10% or even 20% of your income given back to the Lord can somehow negate the materialism and greed that is evident in the way we think about and use the other 80%, 90%, or 97% or our money?  Do you ever think that because you have your name on the rolls of a WELS church that you can escape the coming day of the Lord, forgetting that God could raise WELSers up out of the stones?  How much of our life is about desperately wanting and then enjoying God’s forgiveness so that we can rejoice in his gift of eternal life?  And then how much or our life is about wanting to know about God’s forgiveness of sins so that we can continue in those comfortable and familiar sins?

If there is any viper’s poison in us, we need what the Baptizer is saying.  We need to hear the truth that, “The ax is already at the root of the trees.”  There are, right now – that’s the word John uses – individuals who are religious and attend church that a just and holy God is ready to burn.

So, how’s that for joyful?  If you want the kind of joy that God has accomplished for you – eternal joy, joy this life could never bring – it is impossible without God leading you to see the seriousness and ugliness of sin.  A person is not seeing the seriousness of sin if they come to church and takes the Lord’s Supper to salve their conscience over the fact that they intend to go straight back to their familiar sins.

There is a time when sorrow is healthy for us.  The Bible calls it godly sorrow.  This is not the kind of sorry that is bummed and frustrated after being caught in sin or a sorry that comes from negative consequences for sin.  That’s a selfish and worldly kind of sorry that is only looking at myself.  Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have offended my Creator, my Father.   Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have made myself detestable to God and worthy of damnation.  That’s healthy sorrow.

If you do not acknowledge guilt and sin, you cannot possibly have joy.  When you try to hide guilt and coverup sin, when you pursue the “joys” of sinful desire, what you have is a futile attempt to distract yourself from the Judge who is coming.  You have some excitement and maybe an adrenaline rush, but you do not have joy.

To have real joy – the kind of joy that God give, the kind of joy that comes from repentance – it must be connected to God’s good news.  And that is also what John gave to the people.  John didn’t tell them to repent more frequently and more sincerely.  He told them of the one who was infinitely great and more powerful.  He pointed to the Messiah, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John didn’t want any credit or glory.  He was just a servant.  Jesus was the master, the Lord, God himself.  Luke writes, “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”

And what exactly is that good news about Jesus?  Well, it certainly is not a message of how you need to clean up your life.  It is not a message of how you need to be more genuine and honorable.  It is not a message of how you need to bring joy back into your life.  It’s the message of how Jesus does that for you.

We’re reading kid’s Christmas books at our house for bedtime lately.  And one book kind of caught Mandy’s and my attention, “The Little Crooked Christmas Tree.”  It’s a cute story about one tree that was supposed to be a nice Christmas tree, but got crooked and misshapen.  I think of my life, and it looks pretty crooked and messed up.  It’s not the picture of health and vitality.  How about yours?  How healthy is it?  How tall?  How appealing?  Now, what if Jesus was a tree, too.  How majestic is that tree?  How straight and healthy and tall?  How green and full and fruitful?  Considering John describes fruitfulness in terms of generosity, kindness, and compassion, the Jesus-tree would be unlike any other in how amazing it is.  Yet, when God looked at our crooked and sickly tree, when he picked up his ax and walked determinedly toward us, Jesus begged, “No, Father! Not them!  Cut me down.”  On the tree of the cross that is exactly what God did to his own Son.  The amazing, thick, full, fruitful tree was cut down.  The sickly, crooked ones were spared.  That would be a sad story, except for the fact that Jesus’ tree came back to life even stronger and more beautiful than before.  When that fact is given and proclaimed to you – that God loves you, God wanted you, God chose you, God was willing to pay any price to have you for eternity with him – how does it affect you?  How can it not comfort and lift you up?  It boosts us up from the dingy depths.  It straightens us up.  It fixes what it broken. It gives us unequaled brilliance and joy.

And a tree that is healthy like that will be unbelievably fruitful.  John’s encouragement does not call for any activity of heroic proportions.  He does not say that the necessary fruit is to be a missionary in a foreign country or sell everything you have to support the poor and the work of the Church.  We simply have a new goal, a new purpose, to reflect Christ in our lives and in our dealings with other people.  We now live for him who died and rose for us.  We struggle through pain and hardship with the strength of Christ that he gave to us when we were baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We use the good news that causes great joy not on a once a year or once a week basis, but on an every day basis and for everyone basis.  This is the fruitful life of a believer.  This is the joyful life that we have now, and God will make perfect forever in heaven.

I started the sermon with a question about repentance.  Did you say it was sad and sorrowful?  If you did, that’s not entirely wrong, but it also is not entirely right.  The kind of repentance that God works in his people will always conclude with joy, because godly sorrow turns you and changes your mind away from sin, away from how bad your tree looks and points you to the only place where forgiveness is given.  It points you to a different tree, one that is unmistakably and infinitely greater.  It points you to the tree where Christ died.  It points you to the tree that made the first bed our Savior ever had.  It points you to the Son of God and his restoring, refreshing, renewing, revitalizing love.  You have that joy right now and forever in him.  To God be the Glory!  Amen.

 

 

REPENTANCE IS A COMPLETE TURNAROUND

2.18.18 Lent 1B

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Mark 1 :12-15

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

I was watching a skiing race the other night.  It amazes me how anyone in their right mind would want to careen down a mountain at 80 miles per hour on two little skis without any padding.  As I watched, I saw a couple skiers take pretty bad falls down the mountain into those few layers of fencing they have set up on either side of the course to catch out-of-control competitors from going into the trees.  A few skiers later I saw something that I hadn’t seen before: one skier was pushing his way back up the mountain.  Now, why in the world would a skier in the Olympics turn around in the middle of his moment on the world’s stage?  He missed a gate.  A downhiller has to weave in and out of those designated markers to successfully complete the course and register a time.  If you don’t, if you miss just one, you are disqualified, and you won’t show up in the final results.  This guy missed a gate.  So, he stopped himself, turned around, and went back up the course a bit to do it the right way.

Have you ever missed a gate before?  I’m not talking about skiing in the Olympics.  I think it’s pretty safe to assume we don’t have any Olympians here this morning, right?  I’m talking about life.  You know the way God has laid out for you – he’s got a guideline for his people, “your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” – and you missed a gate.  On purpose or on accident doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you went off the course.  Do you know what you need at those times?  A turnaround.

The people living in Palestine during Jesus’ day needed a turnaround, badly.  The Jewish religion was trying to show people what they had to do for happiness and contentment, how they had to deal with their guilt and sin, and how they had to appease God by making their own turnaround. That Jewish religious road, however, was leading to a disqualification (hell), because the search was focused on themselves, on what they had to do.

If you could follow through on your end, then God would follow through on his end.  That was the deal. First, you show how well you can represent the name of Abraham and Israel and David, and then God would bless you, hopefully in similar ways to Abraham and Israel.  First, you follow the works and rituals to demonstrate your worthiness to God, and then you will be rewarded.

This is not a foreign system in the 21st century.  The road the Jews were paving was way narrower, more black and white, but the religious systems today still have the same focus: me first.  If I am acceptable in my culture and society, if I am dedicated to being what I think kind is, if I am tolerant and open-minded with people, if I am trying hard to be a better person, if I have a religion and I’m dedicated without being to closed off and biased, then all of those things should put me on the right path.  I am showing myself worthy to whatever god I follow.  I have earned the respect of others.  I am deserving of blessings.  I should get whatever reward I’m looking for.

This is a road that is so easy to pave for ourselves, too.  Me first sounds so logical.  If you are nice, then nice things should happen to you.  This 21st century religious open-mindedness sounds so loving and kind.  My acceptance and kindness, and it will make this world better.  It sounds like this road of togetherness and peace would lead in the right direction.

But that is the irony.  A road that puts the focus on me first and what I do won’t help me with God.  Because my road is always going to shoot off the course God has laid out.  My way has never, does never, and will never line up with his way, because my road is sinful, and his road is perfect. My road leads to disqualification and his road leads to redemption.

So the question becomes, how can a sinner be on God’s perfect road that leads to perfect glory in heaven?  Jesus shows us how.  It’s a turnaround from religious rituals and observances.  It’s a turnaround from what our cultural definitions of religion, faith, love, and God.  It’s a turnaround from personal passions and pleasures.  It’s a turnaround from putting the focus on me and what I do.   It’s a turnaround from anything that is distracts us from the kingdom of God.

Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news!”  Jesus says, “You’re going the wrong way if you follow after all of that stuff that seems to make so much sense.  You’re going the wrong way if you think you can make yourself more acceptable to God than others because of what you do or who you are related to.”  That’s what those people in Palestine needed to hear, and we do to.  Jesus says, “You’re going the wrong way if you follow those who water down the Bible into something we can all agree with.  You’re going the wrong way if you want to make this world your home.”  He says, “Turn around.  Don’t continue going the way that is contrary to God’s.  Repent.”

Isn’t it nice to know there is someone loving enough, someone interested in your life enough, someone who is willing to give you the tough talk you need? That is good news for us.  It is good news that someone is willing to shout, “Turn around!”

When a racer goes off course, misses a gate in a ski race, or misses a flag like I once did in a cross-country race in high school, it’s really important to have someone who is willing and able to point that out.  I would have been disqualified for missing one right hand turn, but someone was there to call me out and got me back on track so that I could finish the race the right way.

Do you see how necessary that is?  When we talk about repentance, turning around from sin, we need to remember this is not my work to make God happy with me.  A sinner can’t make themselves turn from a sinful road, can we?  We need someone perfect to turn us around.  That’s Jesus.

He went in the desert to face off against Satan so that he could overcome our temptations.  He could see that sinful road, but he said no.  That way wouldn’t lead to our redemption.  Sure, Jesus would have had food for his belly, he would have had power in this world, he would have proved the power of angels, but none of that was what Jesus came to do.  He said no to Satan, because Jesus came to follow the perfect road.  That was the only way to give us redemption.

That’s the good news he was preaching in Galilee.  Jesus was here to defeat Satan.  He was here to say no to the sinful road.  He was here to provide the turnaround that sinners needed.  By his perfect life a new road is ours.  Jesus was proclaiming the gospel of free and full forgiveness given to sinners by the perfect love of a perfect God and Savior, not earned by sinners.  That’s not possible.  That is like a bunch of cheaters trying to compete for who will be less disqualified than the other cheaters. It’s nonsense.

Jesus has good news for us, a shabby bunch of people who couldn’t stay on course if our life depended on it.  His good news is that he never once strayed from the perfect road.  He fought the devil off.  His perfect life is for us.  There’s more.  He is also that person who is willing and perfectly able to shout out, “Turn around” when he sees us going off course.

Brothers and sisters, do we ever need that!  We need the voice of Jesus calling out after us to turn around.  Maybe it’s a parent.  Maybe it’s a pastor.  Maybe it’s a friend.  We need the voice of the Savior who fought against sin perfectly and gave us the perfect road to heaven.  We need to know when we have strayed from God’s way.  When people are willing to show you, rejoice that people look out for you as Jesus would want them to.  Rejoice that your God has a different road for you.

And then, repent, turn around from the sin that leads to disqualification.  Turn around from the sins that might be popular or easy.  Turn around from the things that you thought were maybe ok but on second or third glance might be questionable.  Turn around from the sins that don’t just offend parents and the family of God, but they offend God.  Jesus did not come to live here, he did not earn the perfect life that was necessary for us, he did not give up his perfect life with such a gruesome sacrifice on the cross, he did not conquer death for us, he did not make us his children through the power of his Word and baptism, he did not send the Spirit into our hearts so that we would throw it all away.  He did all of that to save us from hell.

That’s the good news that leads us, guides us, motivates us, and gets us to turn around.  Repentance is not me first.  Repentance is God’s Word at work.  It’s listening to your Father’s loving voice. It’s sorrow to God for the slipups and selfishness.  It’s sorrow to God for accidents and ignorance, for bad purposes and choices.  It’s sorrow to God for all of the messes and mistakes.  It’s turning around from all of that.

And when you hear the voice of Jesus, calling out to repent, do you know what you see when you turn around?  You don’t see a long list of all the things you need to do to get back into God’s good grace.  You don’t see all these angry faces.  You sure better not.  God says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”  You see loving face of Jesus.  You see the object of your faith that made you turn around in the first place.  You see all that he has done for you.  You see the road that he traveled so that he could shut the doors of hell and open the gates of heaven for you.  You see and hear good news from the Savior who knows you and loves you.

Jesus’ road to win our redemption was hard.  We are going to look at during this worship series.  Today, we see how the turnaround happened.  It wasn’t me first.  It is Jesus first.  It is his love walking the road to redemption for us.  It is his grace suffering the punishment of sins for us.  It is his gospel changing sinners into God’s children through faith in Jesus.  It is his voice calling out after us when we stray.  It his good news of forgiveness and life getting us back on track.  It is his never-ending work through the Word and sacraments keeping us going.

You don’t need to be ashamed when you hear the word “repent” or when you hear the voice of the Savior coming from someone who cares calling out to “turn around.”  Be thankful that God cares that much.  Be sorrowful that you got of his path.  And be faithful as he guides you.  God grant it.  Amen.

 

REPENTANCE THE RIGHT WAY

12.10.17

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Mark1

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” 
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?  I wanted to make some venison burgers on Friday night.  I was told it’s a good idea to mix a little pork with it first, so I got out our KitchenAid mixer and the meat grinding attachment.  I had used it before, so I started putting it together and grinding some of the pork and venison together.  But as it was going I started noticing some dark spots and it wasn’t shooting out the meat very well.  Mandy came in and asked, “Did you put it together right?”  “Yeah, of course I did.  I’ve done this before.  I know what I’m doing.”  Then, she shows me the spinning piece for the front of the grinder that I forgot to put in.  I had to throw that little bit that did make it through away, because those dark spots were little metal shavings or lubricant that got mixed into the meat because I was missing a piece.  When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?

You’ve done it before.  I’ve done it.  I’ve certainly seen it plenty.  When you have kids, it seems like they will try to make anything work.  I’ve seen Issy and Lute use some of their toys for a whole bunch of different purposes other than just playing.  We expect these kinds of things to work, maybe not as well as it could, but it will at the very least get the job done, so we think.  Then, when it doesn’t happen or someone ends up hurt, you realize that you should have just taken the time to use the right tool the right way.

Advent is all about Christ’s coming.  It’s about preparing for him.  So, getting ready for Christ’s coming means you need to have the right tools and you need to use them the right way. That thought came to mind as I studied the Gospel for today.

People need the right way to get ready for the Christ.  Back then and still today, we could never come up with it on our own.  When it comes to spiritual life, can a person ever legitimately think, “I’ve got this covered.  I can take care of my spiritual life the way I want to with my own abilities and my own thoughts?”  No, if God is the Spirit and he is one who gave us ours, then we need what he gives to keep us spiritually strong and healthy people, especially as we get ready for Christ’s coming.

Do you know how that process works, to be strong, healthy, and fit?  Let’s just talk about it physical terms first. It takes the right tools used the right way.   And it might hurt.  I’m in the middle of that hurt right now.  A few weeks ago, because I was not doing my best in the realm of fitness and health, I started up a workout system called Insanity.  It’s an insane cardio, death-defying 45 minutes 5 mornings a week.  It’s not what a lot of people consider fun.  It doesn’t feel good.  My muscles are being tugged and torn, so that they can be rebuilt.  My lungs are screaming.  My heart is pumping upwards of 180 beats a minute at some parts.  But that’s how you get better.  Combining that kind of regular exercise with healthy foods and, voila, I’m healthier, stronger, and fit.

But it’s not easy. This training system is not telling me what I want to hear.  What I want to hear is, “Sleep in and eat a bunch of donuts and bacon all morning.”  What I want to hear is, “Go ahead and have a third helping.  And when you get done with that, how about some ice cream?”  What I want to hear is, “You will be fine if you just do whatever makes you happy.”

Now, if that’s not how it works when you want to get into better physical shape and be healthier, do you expect that to work when it comes to being spiritually healthy?  Can you expect good results when you don’t have the right equipment, or don’t use the it the right way?

Like I said, God is the only one who can give us the path to a healthy spiritually life, and God is the only one who can show us the right way as we get ready for Jesus’ coming.  That’s what he was doing with a man named John.

Now, John was a recluse who lived in the desert, ate bugs and wild honey, and wore a camel hide around (and I don’t think he was trying to start a new trend). God gave them someone very unexpected.   And John’s job was just as unexpected. His job was not to tell people what they wanted to hear.  His job was not to be a cheerleader for whatever they already had going.  His job was to prepare them God’s way, a way they didn’t expect. Sometimes he said things that the people didn’t want to hear: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” As we get ready for Christ’s second coming, God still gives us a message that is sometimes hard to hear.  “Straighten out!” he says.

When it comes to staying fit, we want to hear, “Eat the donuts and bacon and sit on the couch as much as you want.  You don’t need to push yourself.  You don’t need to go through the pain and exertion.”  But what do you expect will happen when you listen to what you want to hear?  You’re never going to lose those extra pounds.

Spiritually, when you want to be fit and ready for Christ, you can’t always listen to what you want to hear.  God has somethings to say in his Word that might hurt a bit, but it is for our good.  He is straightening us out.  He’s getting us stronger and spiritually healthier.

When he tells us that our devotional life, prayer life, or worship life is sporadic to the point of damaging our faith and the faith of our children, it hurts.  When he tells you or he tells me that my offerings are a meager reflection of what he has blessed me with, that hurts.  When God says that my actions and attitudes are supposed to be a bright, shining light in this world and when he looks he asks, “Why are you living like a child of darkness?  Why, when I listen to the words coming out of your mouth, do I hear praise and cursing?  Why, when I see your actions, do they not resemble the good things I have prepared for my children to do?  Why, when I look at your heart, is it darkened with selfishness and negativity?” – that hurts because I know it’s true.

But that’s not the end of it.  The hurt leads us somewhere.  God does not just want you to hurt and that’s the end.  It’s like a workout.  The diet and exercise done the right way doesn’t end in pain.  The pain in your muscles and the pain of saying no to some of your favorite foods leads to getting more fit and healthier.  That’s how God’s spiritual training works. His Word strengthens us, it turns us into a new direction, a direction that is spiritually better for us.  This new direction is straighter and smoother, even if there is some difficulties in getting there.

For people who are hurting, there is peace.  For people who are sad, there is joy.  For people who are broken, there is comfort. Did you hear that from the Prophet Isaiah, today?  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…  That was also God’s message through John to these people who were hearing some things that were tough to hear.  They had been hurt by God’s message, but God was preparing them for his good news, the good news of a Savior who was coming.

Mark quoted these words in speaking about John the Baptist.  Yes, he was unexpected.  Yes, his words were unexpected.  Yes, the people were sometimes hurt by his words.  And yes, God was turning them from the wrong kind of spiritual life.  The hurt was leading to a healthy and strong spiritual life, a life ready for the coming of Christ, a life on the straight and narrow.

That’s what repentance is, brothers and sisters.  It hurts to hear.  There is pain in God pointing out your sins.   There is a burden that becomes too heavy to carry.  And through repentance, God lifts the burden.

But it’s not up to you to do the heavy lifting.  When I began the sermon I said, “When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?”  If you think repentance is your work that God recognizes and rewards, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is the get-out-of-jail-free card, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is finishing up the work that Jesus began for you, you are using it the wrong way.

Repentance is simply the Christian spiritual workout.  Through his Word, God brings us to the realization that we are out of shape.  God shows us where we need some work.  He gives the new direction, the new regimen for the healthy, stronger spiritual life.  And he gives us the motivation and willpower to turn things around.  It’s all from him.

And do you know what that will power is?  It’s not that I’m going to look so good for God, that I will be blessed more.  It’s not that my life is going to start getting better and better here on earth.  It’s not that I’m going to be such an asset for the people around me.

Those things could potentially happen, but the real willpower for repentance is that Christ loved you to the point that he was willing to leave heaven for you.  He was willing to carry your heavy burden of sin.  He was willing to live according to God’s perfect expectations.  He was willing to suffer the punishment and pain.  He loved you to the point where his last breath was exhausted from his body, because you could never pay for your sins.  He felt the full wrath of God’s anger against sin, so that you and I would never know what that’s like.  Yes, repentance hurts when God points out our sin and we can only hang our head and confess it, but it will never hurt like the separation Jesus was forced to endure.  He did that for us.

That’s the motivation for repentance.  God has given us this new life in Christ.  God has given us his law and gospel.  God has given us the reality of heaven.  Nothing can take that away from us.  So, the spiritual exercise of repentance helps us on the journey.  It is God’s way of helping stay spiritually healthy.

The way John says it: God is getting us to straighten and smooth the way for Christ because he is coming soon.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to try and convince Christ that there are no potholes, unwanted twists and turns in your life.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to veer off the wrong way thinking your hard work and confession saves you.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the unexpected message that sometimes hurts, when God points out what’s wrong in my life or what is missing.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the way God takes care of the crooked and rough places of my life with his loving forgiveness.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means continually going through the spiritual exercise of repentance to enjoy the health and strength that God provides.

That is how to use repentance the right way.  God grant it.  Amen.

THIS IS FRUIT-BEARING SEASON

are-you-ready

Matthew 3:1-12

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.