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Worship Theme: The Faithful Produce Fruit
Sermon Theme: Be a Good and Godly Tree
I’m going to take a little risk this morning and talk about something I know very little about, trees! All I know are the basics. Trees have roots, trunk, branches, and leaves. Some bear fruit. It’s a risky venture for me because there are people here today who know a lot about trees. They know about planting and pruning, transplanting and trimming, growing and grafting trees. There may even be someone watching on YouTube with a degree in horticulture. So, it’s a bit risky for me to talk about trees because I know so little.
But I’m willing to take the risk because John the Baptist used the tree analogy as the backdrop for the message he delivered in the Gospel for this day from Luke chapter three, a straight-forward message for people then and now: be a good and godly tree.
When God works on your root system
Of course, that may conjure up some rather silly images, picturing people standing motionless like Kindergartners on stage for their first school play dressed like trees with their little arms extended and wearing little leafy wigs, or picturing yourself pretending to be a tree and having a couple sparrows build a nest under your arm, a squirrel run up your leg, and Woody Woodpecker drill a hole in your head.
When I was a kid, our family planted a long row of trees along our yard. The trees grew, produced leaves in spring, and seemed OK. But then one of the trees stopped growing and started looking sick. We couldn’t figure out what the trouble was. We called in the tree doctor. It didn’t take him long to discover what was wrong. The roots were blighted with bacteria that cut off growth and basically killed the trees from within. He said, “You might as well get out the saw and ax. These trees aren’t going to make it.”
John the Baptist was like a tree doctor. What did he see? I don’t think it’s coincidental that he carried out his ministry in the desert region around the Jordan River. Trees were not only few and far between but must have looked rather bad, some barren, some blighted, spreading tree disease. Only the trees with roots close enough to the river were healthy. But what did John see? Not merely the few trees. He saw all the people who came out in the desert to hear him. When he saw those people, he made a quick and accurate diagnosis. Some of them were like barren trees, no fruit, no decent God-pleasing living. All were blighted with a poisonous bacteria so bad that, switching metaphors, he called them a brood of vipers!
A barren or blighted tree can’t say to a tree doctor, “Leave me alone! I’ll be fine. Besides, my ancestors used to be close to the river.” No! To make a tree healthy and fruitful, you have to get at the root system, identify and kill the bugs, plus get the roots clean water. If you don’t, you might as well get out the ax because trees that are barren or blighted are in trouble. “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.” It does no good for people to say, “But my grandma prayed a lot” or “My parents went to church!” People whose lives are barren and whose spiritual root system is blighted with the poisonous bacteria of sin are in big trouble with God.
Oh, wait! I know for a fact that I entered this world just like every other human being, with a spiritual root system infected with the poisonous bacteria called sin. No wonder we have trouble on our own trying to be good and godly trees. It’s impossible for us to measure up to God’s standards and be good trees. There’s only one hope. John the Baptist proclaimed, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Repentance first of all involves a change of heart so that a person thinks differently about sin. Instead of, “Oh, my sin isn’t that bad,” there is horror at how bad my sin really is. That happens when God swings the ax of his anger to prune away the dead branches of our wrong thinking and acting and to smash to smithereens the poisonous bacteria of our sin. When I sense the glint on the sharp edge of that ax and come to grips with the sickly sight of my sin, I want to crumple. That’s the first part of repentance. In other words, when we repent, that means God has been working on our root system so that we see sin as detestable and realize our desperate need for the spiritual water and nutrients of his promises of love.
John’s entire ministry was devoted to pointing to the source of those spiritual waters and nutrients. “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29) he cried. He preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). And Luke tells us that with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. Jesus is the source of spiritual water to refresh our root system. Believe it because it’s true. That’s the second part of repentance, a change of heart regarding our Savior. Instead of, “Jesus? It’s OK to have him around in case I’m in trouble, but no big deal!” Now I know I desperately need him (first part of repentance) and rejoice that I have him (second part of repentance).
At a church visited some time ago, I heard church members complain about other members who didn’t show up. “They’re ‘dead wood.’ Should we chop them off the membership list?” Not much compassion, right? Actually, the better path is to prevent it from happening in the first place. So, you and I need to get our relationship with God in order and then make sure that each and every member is a living example of Psalm 1, which underscores the Advent message of John the Baptist: Blessed in the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers (Psalm 1:1-3). That’s why I need worship and additional times in the week to makes use of God’s ax and healing nutrients. That’s why we are planning an expanded small group Bible study network and encouraging folks to offer input and participate in Sunday Bible class. Consistent use of God’s holy words will keep us from becoming “dead wood.” That’s how God works on our root system so we can be a good and godly tree.
Your fruit will grow
Let’s say you had a chance to take care of fruit trees. Everything was OK until one day you noticed that one of the trees had no fruit. What will you do to get fruit? I know what won’t work. Don’t scotch-tape fruit onto the branches. That won’t make a healthy tree. You have to work on the root system, and then the fruit will just grow.
John the Baptist called out, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” The fruit of repentance is the change of action that flows from a changed heart. Those people who heard John and believed in the Savior wanted to thank God for his love. But as they looked at their own lives, they could see how often they had shown ingratitude and how often they had gone against God’s will for their lives. So, they asked John, “What should we do then?” In other words, “Give us examples of the fruits of repentance. Give us guidelines for a change of action that goes with our changed heart.”
John did just that. In doing so, he did not prescribe any momentous deeds to be accomplished. He did not say, “Do a hand-stand and walk around the block.” To those in the crowd who had been caught up in greed and selfishness he said, “Share what you have with people in need.” To the tax collectors who often had overcharged and bagged the extra for themselves he said, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” To the military personnel who lifted one hand in violence against the common people and also quickly stuck the other hand out for bribes he said, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” Very simple, very natural, and very much in harmony with God’s will.
You don’t have to force a strong healthy fruit tree to produce good fruit. It just happens naturally. God doesn’t have to force us to produce fruits of repentance. When his words have refreshed our root system, then changed actions naturally follow, and you’ll produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
And God doesn’t demand heroic deeds of us. He doesn’t demand that we sing hymns with a voice like Pavarotti or Kristyn Getty. He simply wants us to praise him the best way we know how. He doesn’t demand that we sell all and live like hermits. He simply asks us to consider how richly he has blessed us and to render to him a proportion in keeping with his love. He doesn’t demand that we personally drop everything and go to Mozambique to do mission work. He simply wants us to continue living and witnessing for him wherever we are. When God works on your root system, your fruit will grow, and you will be a good and godly tree.
John’s message, like his entire ministry, points us during this Advent season ahead to the Christ-child. “One who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” He set the stage for the Savior who also knew a thing or two about trees. Jesus himself said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire” (Matthew 7:17-19). Apparently, this tree business is important. Do you want to get your act together? Do you want to, do you need to, make changes in your life? When those doors are unlocked, be here. Clear your schedule, and make room for Bible study, either here in person, in a small group, or on-line. God will then work on your root system, you will be producing good fruit, and you will be a good and godly tree. Amen.
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Milwaukee, WI 53202