12/24/2018 2:47:24 PM
Are You Ready for Christmas - December 19, 2018
Pastor Kyle Bitter
Are You Ready For Christmas? 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. That’s been the message carried by God’s prophets in every generation – prepare to meet the Messiah! That’s what you heard from Malachi in today’s prophecy reading, and that’s also what you hear form John the Baptist in the section of scripture that is before us today. Produce Good Fruit! (v. 7-14)
Today’s scripture reading 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. Everyone likes a spectacle, and some people probably went out just because of the novelty and just to see what all the fuss was about.
But John’s message attracted attention too, 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 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. Think of all the things they did to prepare; weekly worship rituals at the temple, sacrifices, festivals, and ceremonies, dietary restrictions and dress codes! If you stop and add them up, it was a lot of work!
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 preached an interesting message, but probably not quite what they were expecting to hear. Luke summarizes John’s words for us: “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).
Harsh words, and certainly not what they expected to hear! The point is this: 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 not about being descended from the right family. Preparation to meet your Savior includes 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. In today’s reading from the prophets, you heard Malachi talking about refining and purifying – not just cleaning the dirt off the surface to create a nice appearance but purging out the impurities with fire – all the way through – until nothing but pure perfect gold remains. John’s message was the same, using the picture of fruit. Not just fruit that looked good on the outside but was rotten and filled with worms within, but good fruit, all the way through! For those listening to John: making the trek out into the desert, hearing John preach, following the ceremonial laws of sacrifices, 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’s not about appearances. It’s about the condition of your heart. 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). The people didn’t have to look far to find examples of what God-pleasing activity was supposed to look like. Every life situation presents opportunities to produce spiritual fruit by showing love to God through acts of love showed to other people. But sadly, all too often such opportunities are passed up, or acted upon only for selfish reasons.
If John were preaching today, the message would be pretty much the same. Produce good fruit! Don’t think that outward appearances are all that matters. 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 sit through 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 godly as those kinds of things might look, it’s all too easy to do them for that very reason – to look good – or because they’re what everyone else is doing, or some other self-centered reason. If you dig deeply enough, you can usually find evidence of our sinfulness beneath even the best of intentions and activities, and John’s conclusion is devastating: “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). And an honest look at life shows us great cause for concern. All too often it seems that even the fruit we do 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)
John’s listeners recognized that there was a problem. You can probably imagine the uneasy mumbling that went around the crowd who had gathered to hear John as they considered what his message meant, but that was the point. Now they understood why they needed a Savior. 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). But John dispelled such notions immediately – his job was to direct attention to Jesus. 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.” And that makes all the difference. Repentance isn’t just being sorry for our own sinfulness – anyone can do that and how sorry you feel doesn’t change anything. Repentance is also knowing where to look for help, because there is one person who has always produced good fruit, one person whose motives were never suspect, one person who only acted in love, every minute and all of the time, and that’s our Savior Jesus, and he did it for you. That’s why he came down to our world – to work God’s spiritual vineyard and produce the God-pleasing fruit that earns the gardener’s favor so that sinful people like you and me don’t have to fear being chopped down and thrown into the fire. Jesus did that for us.
And, Jesus didn’t just produce fruit during his time on earth. He continues to produce fruit today by working through the lives of his people. John said, “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). Yes, John performed baptisms and proclaimed the good news about the coming Savior, but Jesus was the power standing behind everything John was doing, and that wasn’t true just for John. The same thing happens for all of God’s people. Think about the people to whom John gave specific instruction. A person with extra clothing. A tax collector. A soldier. John doesn’t ask them to give up their possessions and jobs and go do something special to produce fruit for God – he simply invites them to reflect the love Jesus showed them in their interactions with other people! Everyday life is filled with opportunities to produce fruit. What has he placed before you this time of year? How can you reflect your Savior’s love into the lives of relatives who might have strained relationships between them? How can you reflect your Savior’s love to people who are so frantically busy that they hardly seem to have a second to spare? How can you reflect your Savior’s love to people who struggle with loneliness or loss especially at this time of the year? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Produce fruit by turning to Jesus, seeing his love for you, and then reflecting that love to other people. Jesus is the one who prepares you for Christmas.
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 in before our God, because Jesus has refined and purified you, just as the prophet Malachi prophesied he would. Jesus does produce fruit in your life. Jesus has made you ready for Christmas. Amen.