Grace and peace to you from God the Creator and the Lord Jesus. Amen.
The tree is up, lights sparkling, colorful glass balls gleaming among its branches. The wine is poured, and appetizers invitingly displayed. The party-goers have all arrived bearing gifts, the laughter’s flowing freely, the vibe is joyful. And then, John the Baptist doesn’t bother ringing the bell; he kicks in the door and suddenly owns the place as he captures everyone’s attention, “You brood of vipers!”
What a way to start a party! What a way to start a sermon! John the Baptist is not the guest we want to welcome, especially at this time of year, but he too brings a gift, and it just might be the very gift we need, especially at this time of year.
We know something about John, this crusty prophet who marches straight out of the Old Testament and into the New. We know that the gift he brings is a word that doesn’t originate with him but instead comes to him from God. And so, as we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, people have come to him, have sought him out, out here in the wilderness, a desolate place where everything seems to be laid bare, a harsh territory you don’t venture into unless there’s no other way to get where you need to go. That’s why they’ve come to John, because somehow, they knew that his way was the only way to get where they need to go.
Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah set the stage for John, said John would paint a picture of what God is going to bring about some day: valleys filled up to level, mountains brought down to level, no more crooked roads, no more rocky paths; it would all be preparation to provide clarity and an unobstructed view so that everyone - every single person - will see God’s salvation.
And now John levels his gaze on his listeners, then and now. “You brood of vipers… _the wrath is coming… _the ax is sharpened and waiting… _the winnowing fork is at hand, ready for its grim work… _the unquenchable fire awaits….” Frightening, yes, but John isn’t trying simply to scare us with turn-or-burn theology; he’s getting to the heart of his gift, something substantial and constructive, even life-giving: It’s time to come clean before God.
In some church traditions the season of Advent is a penitential season, as is the season of Lent. It’s a time of identity formation. It’s marked by themes of introspection, confession, penance. Appearing as it does right before Christmas, Advent’s whole emphasis can seem like a rude intrusion on our culture’s season of parties and gift-buying and looking good. But the call to come clean before God is what we actually need. Maybe that’s what drew John’s original audience: they were responding to a Spirit-generated need to immerse themselves in a baptism of repentance, of reorienting their lives to God.
The time for cheap talk is over, John tells us. To say you follow God while you stuff yourself as the world hungers; to say you follow God while refusing to speak up and act out for justice; to say you follow God while participating in culture wars that demean and dehumanize people you disagree with - to do that is to let your actions and your inactions brand you a liar. It’s time to come clean. A life that is truly repentant will display itself in right living, as God defines right living.
So, John tells us, do more than look good: walk the talk - bear the fruits of right living. Later on in the Bible we’ll hear about what those fruits are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. But out here in the wilderness, John gets pretty basic about fruitful living. Share with those who don’t have; be honest in your financial dealings; don’t take unfair advantage of your power. This is what baptismal repentance looks like, and it is remarkable for its everyday simplicity. It doesn’t ask for the dramatic, the heroic, or the impossible; it is within our grasp, every single day. And bearing this king of fruit, John says - good fruit - is simply what good trees do.
In days to come, Jesus will go on to talk about good trees and bad trees. “No good tree bears bad fruit,” he’ll say, “nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit…. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil.”
Good people produce good fruit, bad people produce bad fruit. Sounds simple. Until we look in the mirror.
The great Russian novelist, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn took a look in all our mirrors when he wrote, in The Gulag Archipelago, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
“But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being…. During the life of any heart, this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.”
The great Reformation leader Martin Luther put it this way: The Christian believer is both saint and sinner at the same time. We aren’t either/or; we’re both/and. So, we might think of it this way. Each life is a forest of two trees, both very capable of fruit production, and the urgent encouragement that John the Baptist bring is this: nurture the tree that produces evidence of your allegiance to God.
The heart that chooses an orientation to God will, of course, at times fail in its commitment. That’s what makes the gift of repentance possible and relevant. If we were simply stuck being one tree or the other, the bad-fruit tree wouldn’t be able to achieve repentance, and the good-fruit tree wouldn’t need to. Let your repentance, and so your orientation, show in your life’s impact.
We don’t know the names of the people who showed up looking for John’s baptism out in the wilderness that day. They were referred to collectively as “the crowds.” But if we look closely at that mass of people, we can imagine one man in particular, a man a little shorter than the rest. We can imagine this man paying close attention to the Baptist’s words about repentance, about changing one’s behavior to make outer action toward others consistent with inner devotion to God.
Still dripping wet from John’s baptism and filled with curiosity about repentance, he makes his way back home to Jericho. Later, he hears that Jesus will be passing through his neighborhood. He wants to get a good look at this healer and preacher, so he scouts out the likely route of Jesus’ procession and scampers up a sycamore tree to wait. Finally, here Jesus comes.
This man might have been lost in a crowd but he wasn’t lost to Jesus. Jesus stops, looks up at him and says, “Zacchaeus, dinner’s at your place and I’m your guest.” And that personal engagement with Jesus ignites repentance within Zacchaeus, the despised chief tax collector branded “sinner” by the taxpaying public. Zacchaeus looked down from amongst the branches, met Jesus’ gaze and heard Jesus call him by name. In that instant Zacchaeus must have realized that Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. He knew there was nothing to hide.
So it is with us. Think of it. There is no place in your life that is off-limits to God. There is no private room, no hidden chamber filled with the unacknowledged sins you’ve committed, the guilt you so want to conceal, the shame you’re desperate to hide; a secret place known only to you. But Jesus is already there. He knows it all - and, knowing it all, loves you with an overpowering, cleansing love that is the very soil from which your good fruit grows.
Just so, Zacchaeus wants to get out from under his past. He comes clean with Jesus. “Half of my possessions I’ll give to the poor,” he promises, “and whatever I’ve gained by fraud I’ll repay four times as much.” Zacchaeus’s actions will be reoriented toward his townspeople because his heart has now been reoriented toward God.
Jesus applauds Zacchaeus for his repentance, but it’s important to note that he doesn’t tell Zacchaeus to stop being a tax collector. And in fact, back there in the wilderness, John the Baptist doesn’t tell his crowd, which includes tax collectors and soldiers, to step away from their vocations. Tax collectors aren’t told to stop being Rome’s hired hands, and soldiers aren’t commanded to shed their uniforms. Instead, their current, everyday vocations are precisely where they are to bear the fruits of repentance.
Again, so it is with us. Jesus knows us through and through and offers us the gift of repentance so that we too might lead reoriented lives that bear good fruit right here and now, lives that point to that kingdom that Jesus is bringing in its fullness.
I attended a conference on the Georgia coast and, as I was getting off the plane in Savannah, I noticed a man about eight people in front of me, making his way up the jetway. There was something noticeable about him, in fact something impossible not to see. As he walked along, just another face in the crowd, he was carrying a sign above his head. A square, yellow sign with big, black block letters that said, “This Is a Good Sign.” As he walked along, heads turned, smiles broadened.
I caught up to him in baggage claim. We were waiting for our luggage, and there he was, sitting on a bench, holding his sign above his head. I walked over to him, sat down, and said, “Excuse me, but I’ve got to ask you: What’s with the sign?”
He looked at me, big smile on his face, and said, “Here’s the thing. There is so much negative energy on the loose these days, everybody seems to be mad about something, seems like everybody’s mad at somebody. So, about a year ago a buddy and I got together and said, ‘We’ve gotta do something about this.’ So ever since then, wherever we go and whatever we’re doing, we carry this sign. It’s a great way to start some positive energy, some positive conversation, like when someone comes up to me at the airport and says, ‘Hey, what’s with the sign?’
“Look,” he said, “I know I can’t change the world - I get that. But I also know that I can change the part of it I happen to be in at the moment.”
People of God, my prayer for all of us is that as we fully embrace the joy of this season, we do it as signs; not just good signs, but as living Gospel signs, as claimed and forgiven sinners in the hands of a gracious and saving God. In our forest of two trees, let us choose to bear good fruit, not out of fear for what will happen if we don’t, but out of gratitude for divine love so freely given, the divine love that even now is about to come among us as the babe of Bethlehem. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
Gracious and generous God, we know that when we are motivated by you, there is no such thing as a small act of goodness toward others. So in this time of joy, we ask that you call us to repentance. Turn us from our selfishness, our pride, our greed, our arrogance, to live for you alone. Make us mindful that where you have placed us in this moment is filled with fruit-bearing opportunities; and then provoke us to act, so that our workplaces, our schools, our communities, our families may indeed flourish. We ask this in the name of the One who came, who comes even now, and who will come again, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.