7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
I was looking for a Christmas present for my wife this week when I wandered into the department store at the mall. I found myself at the perfume counter and asked the woman if she had anything that would make a good present for Sonya. So she pulled out a bottle of $50 perfume. So I asked if there was anything less expensive. So she pulls out a $30 bottle. Again, I ask her if there is anything less expensive, and she pulls out a little bottle that costs $15.
So I look the lady in the eye and say to her, “Ma’am, I’m going to say this as clearly as I can. I want to see something very, very cheap.” She handed me a mirror.
We as Christians are called to be generous. Not just with our money, but with our time, with our comfort, with all of our stuff. But is this really necessary? Or can we be just as selfish as some of the other people that we see around us everyday? Today I plan to look at John the Baptist to see how we are called to give generously to those in need out of our desire to follow Christ.
The text tells us that people were coming out to be baptized by John and how does he greet them? He calls them a brood of vipers! “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” I heard this week that John the Baptist perhaps wasn’t the best trained evangelist in the world. Calling people names like “brood of vipers” is not good for church growth.
John seems to be saying that these Jews that are coming to him seem to think that they can slide through life, doing whatever they feel like doing, and then say, “Hey, I’m a child of Abraham. I’m a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people. What does it matter if I flub up every now and then? What does it matter if I do the very least possible for God? I am in a covenant here.” But John replies by saying your pedigree isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter who your parents are, it doesn’t matter where you grew up. You need to be bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
“Bearing fruit worthy of repentance” is not a phrase that we use too often in my neck of the woods, so maybe an illustration can help us understand what that loaded phrase means. Many of us have some experiences growing fruit at our homes. Marvin’s brother Richard has an apple orchard in the Waynesboro/Stuarts Draft area. Richard has grown apples for who knows how long. But this year, because of some health concerns, Richard did not have an apple harvest.
When I was told that Richard wasn’t planning on having an apple harvest this year, I assumed that this meant that he was not planning on selling apples this fall. But Marvin told me that there wouldn’t be any apples to sell. And I thought out loud, “Won’t the apples grow on their own? They don’t need to be replanted every year, so wouldn’t the trees just bear fruit whether you wanted them to or not?”
Marvin explained to me that if Richard doesn’t tend to the apple trees, keeping the weed and bug population down, that there won’t be anything there to harvest. There will be competition for the nutrients that the apple trees need to grow and produce fruit and there will be competition from the bugs that are quicker to get to those apples than Richard might be. So if you don’t defeat the competition, there will be no fruit.
This is what John is saying when he tells those that come to him that they need to be bearing fruit of repentance. If they just continue to go on as they have been, then the weeds and the bugs in their lives are going to overcome the fruit. But through repentance, they can eliminate those things that compete for their allegiance to God. Repentance then becomes the Roundup and the Sevin (the weed killer and insecticide) that eliminates the things competing for your time, money, energy, and faith.
Repentance is more than just saying, “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong.” Repentance means changing your ways, making a U-turn. John is talking about the “fruit of repentance” and just saying that you are sorry and continuing to do the same thing over and over is not bearing fruit. To say that weeds and bugs hurt an apple tree won’t actually help the tree bear fruit. To bear the fruit of repentance means that you change something in your life, you eliminate those things that compete with God. If you eliminate the things that compete with your allegiance to God, then you turn toward God and you will bear fruit.
John then goes on to give some concrete examples of fruit of repentance. The people come to him and ask, What should we do? And John answers, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” The tax collectors came to John and asked what they should do. He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (v. 11-14).
Evidently the people that were coming to John for baptism were people like you and me. They were people that liked to collect things for themselves. Human beings like to collect clothes, just look at all of the shoes in my closet that I never wear! Human beings like to collect food; we have food in our freezer that has been there for over a year. Human beings like to collect money; savings accounts, 401k’s, CD’s, a coffee can buried in the back yard. There is no limit to where we can collect our money. And why do we collect these things? Because we need them and they are in limited supply.
Those two factors make food, clothing, and money very tempting to collect. We need these things and there is only so much of it to go around. This is an issue of supply and demand. We all need oxygen, but we don’t save it up in our basement vaults because there is a large amount of oxygen in the air for everyone. Albino tigers are in short supply, but we don’t need them, so we don’t collect them. But when we come across things that are in limited in supply and they are things that we need, we tend to collect them and keep them for ourselves.
So John tells the people that are coming to him for baptism, if you have extra clothes, give them away. If you have extra food, share it with someone that has none. Don’t cheat people out of their money, they need money too. Essentially John is saying two things: 1. Yes, there is only a limited amount of these things available, so we need to share it with others. And 2. Rather than putting your trust in your own ability to collect and store these items that we all need, put your trust in God to provide the things you need for you. And those two things are pretty scary to do.
I remember the first day of college as a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old. I believe that my first college class ever was an Anatomy and Physiology class. So nobody knows anybody at the school, and first impressions are important. You want to get off on the right foot with both your classmates and your professors.
Every class starts the same way, with the professor handing out the syllabus and explaining the expectations and assignments for the year. I remember that first day of my first college class as Dr. Greene walked us through our syllabus, a classmate of mine named Brad raised his hand to ask a question. Brad asked Dr. Greene, “What is the bare minimum that I have to do to get an A in this class?”
To us students and to the professors, Brad had just been labeled as a slacker. He wasn’t there for the right reasons. We wanted a good grade so that he could get a piece of paper after he put in his four years so that he could get a decent job. Brad wasn’t there to learn; Brad wasn’t there to grow. Brad wanted to do the very least he possibly could and still get what he ultimately wanted for himself in the end.
If you really want to get my goat, as we are studying something intense, something challenging, ask me, “Is this really a salvation issue?” I hear this sometimes when we are talking about issues like we are today such as giving to the poor and needy, pacifism, simple living, creation care, and justice. When I tell people I try to only drink coffee from places that sell fairly traded coffee beans, or when I tell them that I don’t shop at the world’s largest retailer because they treat employees poorly, and I tell them that I do these things because of my faith in Jesus Christ, sometimes I am asked, “Is that really a salvation issue?”
The reason that this get’s my goat is because when I hear someone asking if something is really a salvation issue, I often interpret that as them saying, “I really don’t want to have to worry about that. It is easier to buy the cheapest coffee and not worry about the condition in which the person growing that coffee has to live. So if my salvation isn’t contingent upon me doing that, then I really don’t think it needs to be an issue.” It is like my classmate on the first day of college classes that asked our teacher, “What is the bare minimum that I need to do to get an A in this class?” Only in this case, it is asking God, “What is the bare minimum that I need to do to go to heaven.” Or the flip side of that coin is asking, “How much can I get away with and still go to heaven?”
Our relationship as a church to Christ is often compared in the Bible as a bride to a groom. We as the church are metaphorically “married” to Christ. In this world I have been married to Sonya for almost 6.5 years. Now I wouldn’t say that we are perfect and that everyone should try to be like us, but I think we have a pretty healthy relationship. But imagine how different it would be if I went about being her husband by asking the question, “What’s the very least that I need to do in order for you to stay married to me?” Or the flip side of that coin, “How much can I get away with and have you stay with me?” Can I quit my job and lie around the house all day and do nothing? Can I look at other women and yell, “Hey baby” every time an attractive woman walks by? How little do I have to do, or how much can I get away with and still have Sonya stay with me? I think you can see what a bad approach this is toward marriage. So why would we approach our relationship with Jesus, who is the groom of the church, in that way? Why would we ask, What is the bare minimum that I have to do to be with you for eternity?
If I err, may I err on the side of following Christ more than I need to; may I err on the side of doing too much instead of too little. Because Christianity isn’t just about me going to heaven when I die. Christianity isn’t about me, it is about God and what God wants to do through me. And yes, by opening myself up to God and saying, “Yes Lord, use me” your past mistakes are forgotten. And I am not advocating works righteousness. I am advocating works faithfulness. Christianity isn’t all about what I can get. So much of Christianity is about what I can give.
So we read these words of John the Baptist, give your extra coat and extra food to the poor, don’t take more than you have to, and we might say, “Where is the good news in this?” My friends, this is a part of salvation. When Jesus was killed on the cross, we were saved from our sins. When we choose to follow the ways of Christ, we are saved from the sinful ways of this world. And one day when Christ comes back to reign as king, we will be saved to live with him for eternity. The good news that John the Baptist proclaimed that day is that we are saved from our wicked ways of greed and selfish ambitions into a life of serving God. We are saved into a life where there is no need among us. As we look at the early church in the New Testament, we find that they practiced what is commonly referred to as “The Community of Goods”. They put all of their things together and they shared one another’s financial, spiritual, and personal burdens. No, the early church was not perfect, but I believe that this more closely resembles what God has called us to and how we will ultimately live as his people. When Jesus comes back to rule as king of all, there will be no more poverty, there will be no more anger, there will be no more fighting. Our swords will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. The lion, the greatest creature of the jungle, will lie down next to the lamb and live in peace with the defenseless animal. We will no longer worry about the things that we need that are in short supply.
My friends, along with Isaiah we too can say, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Do you hear the present tense that Isaiah uses? Not only will God one day restore all things and we will dwell with him forever in paradise, but God’s salvation is available to us today. God’s salvation is made available to us today when we choose the path of repentance, turning from the way that leads to destruction, turning from anger, envy, and selfish ambitions to a generous and life giving existence in Christ our Lord. The Lord is my salvation and he seeks to be the salvation of all the world, to save everyone from the sins of their past, and to save them from the system of hate and dominance that seems to have a stronghold on this world. And God wants us to experience this salvation, not by being plucked up out of this world, but by changing the world by calling all people to see and hear the salvation that God has to offer; the salvation that begins when we give our coat to those in need. That, my friends, is the fruit of repentance.