Pastor Bitter

Text: Luke 3:7-18

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What was your first sign of the approach of Christmas this year?  I think for me, it was a radio commercial advertising Black Friday shopping and it ran a few weeks before Thanksgiving.  But even before that, I think I saw Walmart put some Christmas decorations on display for purchase already in October.  And you probably have more examples of your own. 

A few weeks ago, I heard a radio program bemoaning the loss of Thanksgiving as a holiday to ever earlier Christmas preparations and Christmas shopping and perhaps it seems like there might be some truth to that.  One humor columnist has a term for this: Christmas Creep.  Every year Christmas creeps a few weeks earlier, and this writer theorizes that in about 10 years Christmas will no longer be a holiday – it will be a year-round lifestyle. 

In some ways, maybe it’s comical to see how our country starts getting ready for Christmas so absurdly far in advance.  In other ways, perhaps it’s sad to see the commercializing of this important religious holiday.  But, there is one advantage to Christmas Creep.  While it might seem silly to us to start decorating our houses with lights in July, spiritual preparation for Christmas is something that we can never start too early.  In today’s gospel, John the Baptist invites us to consider the question spiritually: Are You Ready for Christmas? 

Produce Good Fruit! (v. 7-14)

Today’s gospel shows us a huge crowd of people going out into the desert to hear this John the Baptist guy preach.  John had been out in the wilderness for some time.  His preaching was interesting, even controversial.  He was introducing a new spiritual ritual washing called Baptism.  He lived on a diet of locusts and honey, and dressed like a desert nomad.  People like a spectacle, and some probably went just because of the novelty and to see what all the fuss was about. 

But John’s message also attracted attention because John’s preaching carried with it the authority of God’s prophets – something that had not been seen among God’s people for nearly 400 years.  And John’s topic was the coming Messiah – just as it had been the topic of the prophets in years past.  It was a subject near and dear to the hearts of God’s people, because while they probably would not have used exactly those words, the religious life of God’s Old Testament people could be accurately summarized as one gigantic spiritual preparation for Christmas – the very first Christmas – the coming of the promised Messiah. 

To prepare, the children of Israel attended weekly services at the synagogue, performed their ritual religious ceremonies, and worked their way down the checklists of sacrifices, fasting, and other ceremonial laws.  And now, just to make sure every possibility was covered, they were going off into the desert to hear John and see this new ritual called Baptism and whatever impact it might have on their lives. 

Perhaps some expected to hear a compliment from John – an acknowledgement of their dedication – or perhaps at the very least, an interesting message.  And John did preach a startling message, but probably not quite what they were expecting to hear. 

John’s words are summarized in today’s gospel: “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  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.  The ax is at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”  (Luke 3:7-9 – NIV84)

One commentator took some artistic license and paraphrased John’s message with these words: “Brood of snakes!  What do you think you’re doing slithering down to the river?  Do you think a little water on your snake skin is going to deflect God’s judgment?  It’s your life that must change, not your skin.”  (The Message)

Preparation for Christmas isn’t about creating the appearance that everything in your life is smooth and good.  It’s not about doing the right activities, it’s a matter that involves the spiritual state of your heart and mind.  This idea wasn’t something new to John the Baptist – had his listeners read carefully the Old Testament prophets, they’d have found the same idea. 

The prophet Joel told the people several hundred years earlier: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” (Joel 2:13 – NIV84).  In the Old Testament, tearing your clothes was a way of showing spiritual distress, but that particular action meant nothing if it was done only for show and not over genuine concern over sin. 

For John’s listeners: making the trek out into the desert, hearing John preach, following the ceremonial laws of sacrifices, celebration festivals like the one described in the First Lesson, even being bloodline descendants of Abraham, the great man of faith – none of those would automatically prepare anyone to meet God face to face in and of themselves.  It was a warning that caught their attention. 

“What should we do then?  The crowd asked.  John answered, “the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized.  “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”  “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.  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.” (Luke 3:10-14 – NIV84).  These practical examples served to further illustrate the truth: every life situation presents opportunities to produce fruit – to show love – and all too often those opportunities are passed up, or acted upon for the wrong reasons. 

If John were preaching today, the takeaway would be pretty much the same.  Produce good fruit!  Don’t assume you’re OK just because you’re a member of a church that holds the bible in high regard.  Don’t assume everything is fine spiritually just because you go to Christian school and have religion class every day.  Don’t assume you are good with God just because you’re in church and bible study every week, or because you volunteer a lot, or because you work for the church. 

Because as good as those kinds of things might look, it’s all too easy to do them just because they look good, or because they’re what everyone else is doing, or some other self-centered reason.  If you dig deep enough, you can usually find evidence of our sinfulness beneath even the best of intentions and activities, and John’s message preached harsh condemnation: “Any tree that does not produce GOOD fruit (not just fruit, but GOOD FRUIT – not just the right action, but also the right motivation) will be chopped down and thrown into the fire!” (Luke 3:9 – NIV84)

So ask yourself the question John places before us today: Are You Prepared for Christmas?  Have you or I produced enough good fruit to stand before the LORD?  When we look at our lives, the sad answer is no, because all too often it seems that even the fruit we produce that looks good by outward appearances is actually quite rotten when we peel back the layers and consider our motives. 

In Keeping with Repentance (v. 15-18)

That’s really the only conclusion we can come to when we look at ourselves objectively and honestly.  John’s listeners recognized that too.  You can probably imagine the uneasy mumbling that went around the crowd who had gathered to hear John as they considered what his message actually meant. 

Luke writes: “The people were waiting expectantly (the original word indicates anxiety and distress) and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.” (Luke 3:15 – NIV84).  The people had to wonder if they were actually ready to meet the Messiah:  “John answered them all, “I baptize you with water.  But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  (Luke 3:16 – NIV84)

John was not the Messiah, but he knew who was and he had come to point people to the Messiah.  And really, that is what John had been quietly doing through this whole sermon.  Think about what John said – exactly.  He didn’t say, “produce good fruit” and stop there, leaving the impossible task up to us.  He said, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” 

Repentance is the key to being prepared for Christmas.  Repentance is more than just admitting that we have sinned against God.  It’s more than acknowledging our own faults and shortcomings.  That’s only half of it. 

Repentance also means following John’s lead and fixing our attention on Jesus, because with Jesus everything is different.  With Jesus, we don’t have to be terrified of facing God when we realize how feeble and rotten our own fruit is.  Because with Jesus our readiness to face God isn’t dependent on us.  Jesus is the promised Messiah. 

John illustrates this by pointing to baptism: John baptized with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  John performed baptisms, but Jesus is the power behind those baptisms, and he’s the only one who produces fruit in our lives – good fruit that comes in keeping with repentance. 

Think about what being baptized means for us.  Baptism is one of our connections to God’s grace.  We talk about being washed clean in baptism, and clothed with a new life, and that’s exactly what happened.  Jesus washed our sins away and clothed us in his righteousness. 

To use the picture from the text, Jesus covered our branches with the godly and perfect fruit he earned with his perfect life, so that when God comes to inspect his garden, he sees exactly what he wants, and we don’t have to fear being cut down and thrown away.  Jesus took our sin on himself and was cut down and thrown into the fire to be punished when he died on the cross to pay for our sins, and all that is left is the perfect holiness he won for us.  That’s why we prepare for Christmas with repentance – recognizing our hopeless situation and turning to our Savior.  

Repentance also shows us where good fruit in our lives comes from – the work of Jesus through his people.  And you can see examples of it.  He gathers his people together in churches like ours, and gives us the opportunity to use our time, energy and resources to accomplish his will. 

All year, but especially at Christmas, he gives us the chance to produce fruit by singing his praises alongside our brothers and sisters, our parents and children.  He lets us produce fruit as his mouth-pieces, his representatives in the world, sharing the Christmas message with a world that desperately needs to hear it.  He prepares us for Christmas, and he works to produce fruit in the lives of his children. 

Maybe next year Christmas decorations will come out of storage as early as September as Christmas Creep moves the holiday up a few more days.  But from a spiritual perspective, even that’s not soon enough because we really are preparing spiritually for Christmas year round. 

We celebrate the first Christmas on December 25th, but the second Christmas could come at any time, so are you ready?  From a cultural perspective, you probably haven’t finished cooking all the food yet, and perhaps there are still a few presents left to purchase and wrap, but if Jesus should choose to come today, we are ready to meet him and stand before our God, because through our baptism, we have been connected to Jesus.  Through our Baptism, Jesus does produce fruit in our lives, and we are ready for Christmas.  Amen.