Fruit Worthy of Repentance
| Matthew 3:1-12
||Sun, December 6, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|John is back. It's like clockwork. Every year at this time, good old John the Baptist wanders into our life. He is like an Uncle who must be invited to Christmas dinner ... even though everyone knows that he will cause a scene. Yes, John is back. And what are we to do? Turn him away? Politely hear him out ... and then say "That's nice, dear"? No. John is not peripheral to Christmas. John is not an embarrassing relative to be seated in the kitchen away from the guests. John is the one we need to hear if we are to be prepared for Jesus. Forget the turkey. Ignore the lights and the tree. Don't sweat the gifts and the parties. Pay attention to John if you hope to be ready when we get to the manger. Remember "Checkpoint Charlie"? The most famous crossing between East Berlin and West Berlin. If you wanted to leave the eastern side you encountered ominous border guards, sniffing dogs and mirrors under your car. You never knew whether you would be permitted to leave. Guess what. Welcome to "Checkpoint John", the baptizer. Because, as Walter Brueggemann says, "you cannot get to Jesus except by way of John. You cannot get to the sweet-smelling Jesus of Christmas without checkpoint John, which is as spooky and intimidating as Checkpoint Charlie." ("The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness", p. 131).
Maybe you had forgotten. The manger lies in another region. Jesus is not a Canadian citizen. To visit him we will have to cross the border ... the border that marks the boundary of God's Kingdom. That's where Jesus lives. That's why he's in so much trouble right from the start. Look. John the Baptist appears in Matthew, chapter three. Don't forget what Matthew describes in chapters one and two. A paranoid dictator out to kill any infants who threaten his hold on power. Strange dreams that forewarn the ambassadors from the orient to sneak home out the back door ... and that cause Jesus' own parents to steal him away into political safety in Egypt. By the end of chapter two Jesus and his parents have crossed back into Israel and are hiding out up in Galilee ... where Herod's family cannot find him. "In those days", says Matthew, "in those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea". John is not the only one whose arrival stirs things up. Oh no. John's arrival is just preparation for the stir that one greater than he is about to make. If you think that John is upsetting just wait until you see how Jesus upsets things. John says "get ready ... prepare yourself ... I'm warning you ... tomorrow's going to be too late". And within a page or two of Matthew's gospel Jesus is saying things like: "Blessed are those who mourn ... if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also ... love your enemies ... do not worry about your life". Herod has reason to be afraid. The infant king to be born in Bethlehem is a threat. No question about it. His kingdom turns the world upside down. And John is right. If we intend to visit this king ... if we plan to bring him gifts ... even to apply for citizenship in his kingdom ... then yesterday is not too soon to begin our preparations!
Just how does one prepare to meet the 'king of kings and lord of lords'? Let's put it this way. I wouldn't worry too much about what to wear. John's outfit made of camel's hair is proof of that. No. Border guard John wants to know what we are carrying over the border. We hand him all of our papers. We imagine that he is interested in our credentials and the reason for our trip. We are careful to have a Bible in good view on the front seat of the car. We just happen to ask the passengers in the back seat: "What did you learn in Sunday School today children?". We hope for a glimmer of recognition in John's eyes ... a smile and a wave and a "Go on through, folks". Instead John motions us over to the stalls that are reserved for a full search and questioning. This is not what we were expecting when we came to church this morning ... not what we need in the midst of all of the pre-Christmas rush. Or maybe it is what we need ... what everyone who journeys to the Christ needs. A warning. Time to prepare. A reality check. Checkpoint John.
John is interested in only one thing. Repentance. He preaches the same sermon over and over and over again. No one is surprised when Jesus' first sermon after John baptizes him in the Jordan sounds familiar. The truth is, both Jesus and John preach the same thing: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 3:2 & 4:17). Repent. Imagine getting a Christmas card from John: 'Repent'. Opening it you read "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee ...". John says "Repent". And we hear "Bad boy", "Bad girl". John says "Repent". And we hear "Guilt". Maybe it is all of those street corner preachers with their sandwich boards. Maybe it is all those New Yorker cartoons of street corner preachers with their sandwich boards. Maybe it is one too many Sunday morning pulpit pounders with their message: "Repent". Who knows what it is. But when John says "Repent" ... more often than not, we hear something else.
When John says "repent' he's imagining a tree. Yes, a tree. "Bear fruit worthy of repentance" he says. "Bear fruit ... Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire". Imagine that. He was called 'John the Baptist'. But he could just as easily have been known as 'John the Orchardist' or 'John the Lumberjack'. "Bear fruit worthy of repentance" says 'John the Border Guard'. This is what he is searching for as he goes through the car trunk and empties out all of our belongings. He is looking for fruit from the tree of repentance. If we are not carrying any we won't make it past the checkpoint. It's that simple. And that radical. John is a radical. No question about it. Radicals always go to the 'root' of the trouble. It is the root meaning of the word. 'Radical' surgery. Reshape your life. 'Radical' change. Have a change of heart. Not 'cosmetic' surgery. Not 'cosmetic' change. That's what most of us try to get away with at Checkpoint John. It is the reason that he is so suspicious of the 'Pharisees and Sadducees' - the 'Catholics and Protestants' of his day. It is the cause of John's rude welcome for all well-heeled religious folks who try to cross the border into God's Land. He's seen their type and heard their song before. They talk a good story. They know the language: "Lord have mercy on me a sinner" and all that. But there is rarely any fruit in their luggage ... rarely any of that sweet and juicy fruit of the tree of repentance.
At root 'repentance' means to change ... and be changed. It means to turn in a radically new direction. No wonder sweat drips off of our brow at Checkpoint John. Will he notice that we are gripping the steering wheel a little more tightly? Did he catch that momentary panic that darted from our eyes? Repent? Radical change? Reshape our life? Somehow putting up the Christmas lights doesn't sound nearly so onerous as it did when we woke up this morning. Maybe we should just back up the car, turn around and head for home. It may not be the Kingdom of God ... but at least its familiar ... at least we know what to expect. And yet there is something ... something invitational ... even tantalizing ... about John's message at the border. Remember God's word to Abraham and Sarah: "Go from your country to a land that I will show you". Reshape your life. Recall God's call to Moses: "Bring my people out of Egypt". Change direction. Don't forget Jesus' first words to his disciples: "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people". Repent. It is a thread which can be seen stitched through every square on the patchwork quilt of biblical faith. Turning away from sin ... turning toward God ... turning, changing, repenting. This is our story and song.
Yet it is a mystery still. How do we repent? What shape shall our new lives take? There is no shortage of examples. Ask President Clinton. Ask the United Church of Canada. Ask the local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Repentance is no easy process. As one of you said this week in an email reflection on this passage: "John's position resembles how I've always thought of repentance (as long as I've been thinking about it at all), that repentance is a complex process of becoming aware, regretting, sorrowing, being contrite, and (both ultimately and through this process) changing ... But beyond my own decision that repentance might be a good thing, I also repent because it's a direct order -- one of those "do it or else" parts of Christianity. Yet by his death, Christ "gave" me repentance along with forgiveness of my sins (Acts 5:31)." Do we repent because we realize that it would be good for us to change ... or because God demands that we change ... or because Christ changes us? Go to the next meeting of AA and ask. They'll tell you in one voice. True repentance is self-chosen ... and true repentance is a divine imperative ... and true repentance is miraculous gift. So, when John stops us at the border this morning, his one word sermon is part invitation -"Repent", part commandment -"Repent", and part healing touch -"Repent".
"Bear fruit worthy of repentance". I think of this text often these days. The fact that my name appears in print as "Chair, BC Conference Indian Residential Schools Task Force" brings me a variety of visitors. They arrive through a letter in the mail ... or via a ring of the phone ... or with a knock at the door. They are survivors of Indian Residential Schools. They come not in anger or with rage. They come because they believe the church. After all that they have been through, they believe the church when it says "We are repentant. We are changing direction. We are reshaping our life." They come seeking the fruit of that repentance. They expect that the church will not forget them or ignore them any longer. They assume that the church will walk beside them and listen to them now. They are not interested in words from head office or sermons from important pulpits. They simply ask to enjoy fruit worthy of repentance. And I find myself calling upon all of my resources to pray that the sap of repentance will speed its way through the trunk ... and into the branches. I find myself afraid that there will be no fruit ... that John's axe will be taken to the roots if they walk away ... turned away once again. The tree appears to be so diseased and unproductive that I am afraid when the mail comes and the phone rings and the door swings open ... afraid that 'Border Guard John' will catch us out ... afraid until I remember the scene at the foot of another tree. How Peter wept at his unfaithfulness when he heard the cock crow. How the others all ran away for fear. How the Starchild gave up his life. How his death bore fruit in their transformed lives. Then I read the mail ... and I answer the phone ... and I open the door ... and I trust in Christ to bear fruit in us.