(Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Matthew 3:7-12)
Have you ever bought a piece of fruit – like an orange or a peach – that looked delicious but, when you bit into it, was dry or mealy? It is so disappointing when that happens. First, fruit isn’t cheap, so a piece of fruit purchased under false pretenses ends up being a bad investment! Second, a piece of ripe, juicy, delicious fruit is so wonderful to eat that we feel really let down when it turns out to not taste good. And the thing is that it is really hard to tell from the outside what a piece of fruit will be like on the inside. The outside can be beautiful and the inside horrible. Or, the outside can be ugly and the inside wonderful. We take a gamble when we buy fruit.
The Pharisees and Sadducees looked like beautiful pieces of fruit. They had the right pedigree, appeared to live righteous lives, and came out to John the Baptist to repent. John, however, picked up on the possibility that the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t have quite the proper attitude when they approached him. He tore through their presumption as ancestors of Abraham. He challenged their privileged position: “Do not presume 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” (Mt 3:9).
It didn’t matter who they were or where they had come from; what mattered was their attitude and their behavior. Did they come to John with new hearts and changed lives, or were they looking for a cheap grace, a mere forgiveness of sins that would assuage their guilt over past offences? It wasn’t enough to feel badly about the past; the Pharisees and Sadducees must also be willing and ready to live lives worthy of repentance. They must be willing to be fruit that is delicious on the inside as well as beautiful on the outside.
Of course, the same is true for us. We must be or bear worthy fruit. But what does that mean? If we look to the Old Testament scripture passages for today – to Psalm 72 and to Isaiah 11 – we get an understanding of what John the Baptist would consider fruit worthy of repentance. Throughout the Old Testament Psalms and the writings of the Prophets we find the words righteousness, justice, and peace. Psalm 72:1-7 uses the word “righteousness” four times, the word “justice” twice, and the word “peace” once. And Isaiah 11:1-12 is all about righteousness, justice, and peace. When we delve a little deeper into the relationship between these three words, we find that they are interconnected.
Righteousness is the orientation of the heart that yearns for those things for which God yearns: honesty, gentleness, truth, compassion – basically, the fruit of the Spirit we read about in Galatians. The righteous heart yearns for these things to be present within human communities. Justice is the presence of these qualities within communities. Jim Wallis, a public religious figure, states, “The clear meaning of ‘justice’ is ‘what is right’ or ‘what is normal’ — the way things are supposed to be. . . . Justice is part of God’s purpose in redemption.” And peace is what results when justice is present. Righteousness leads to justice, and justice leads to peace, and peace that results from justice that flows from righteousness is a sign of the kingdom of God.
Fruit worthy of repentance begins with righteousness and produces justice and, ultimately, peace! When we repent, we are not to merely ask for forgiveness for our sins; we are to come with a heart that is willing to be changed, willing to be oriented toward God and the things that God desires, a heart that will lead to a changed life!
I am sure you have noticed by now that in the peaceable kingdom described by Isaiah, natural enemies exist lovingly with one another: the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the lion with the calf, the bear with the cow, the infant with the cobra, and so on (Is 11:6-8). In the peaceable kingdom, there are no enemies. There are no enemies because the earth is “filled with the knowledge of the Lord” (Is 11:9).
The knowledge of the Lord allows us to see people and the world as God intended them, not as they are. That is the way Jesus saw them. Isaiah tells us that Jesus was the shoot that came up from the stump of Jesse, the Branch that bore fruit. On him, the Spirit of the Lord rested: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of knowledge and respect of the Lord. Jesus contained God’s wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge. He could look at brokenness and see beyond it to the wholeness that God intended; he could look at sin and see beyond it to the righteousness that God intended; he could look at evil and see beyond it to the good that God intended. And in his seeing beyond what was evident, he could bring into being what God intended. That is why he could heal with a word, with a touch, with an intention. The woman with the hemorrhage merely touched his robe and was healed.
God calls us to try to see things as Jesus saw them. God calls us to see beyond the evident and the obvious. He calls us to see people and the world as he intended them to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the brokenness and sin and evil. We acknowledge it, but we also see beyond it, to what people and the world can be if they are redeemed. We say, “Yes, this is the way it is, but I can see what it could be if it were redeemed, and I will help create a space for it to become what it could be.”
The problem is, as human beings with our own “demons,” we get in our own way when we try to do as Jesus did. We are growing in Christ, but we are NOT Christ, right?! Henri Nouwen writes about this in his book, The Inner Voice of Love. Nouwen states, “As you see more clearly that your vocation is to be a witness to God’s love in this world, and as you become more determined to live out that vocation, the attacks of the enemy will increase. . . . The more you sense God’s call, the more you will discover in your own soul the cosmic battle between God and Satan. . . . Don’t be surprised by the demonic attacks. They will increase . . .”.
This is a spiritual truth. As we grow in Christ, the power that opposes Christ – what we call in Christianity the demonic or satanic – will fight back. It doesn’t want to lose the battle! Remember, after Jesus was baptized and claimed as God’s son, he was sent into the wilderness and tempted there by Satan. Jesus was hungry and Satan tempted him with food. Then, Satan tempted him to test God. Finally, Satan tempted him with worldly power. Each time, although made vulnerable by his wilderness sojourn, Jesus withstood the temptation and remained faithful to God.
Satan tempts us, too. He knows our vulnerabilities and he will go for our soft spots. Are we fearful? He will tempt us to be afraid. Are we doubtful? He will tempt us to doubt. Are we prideful? He will attack our pride. And so on. When we are growing in Christ, Satan gets worried and goes on the attack.
Nouwen tells us what to do when the enemy attacks: “Do not be afraid. Keep deepening your conviction that God’s love for you is enough, that you are in safe hands, and that you are being guided every step of the way. [As the attacks of the enemy] increase, [and] as you face them without fear, you will discover that they are powerless.” When we refuse to be tempted by Satan and we stand firm in the love of God, Satan has no power. He only has power when we give it to him; on his own, he has none.
And, so, we turn to Jesus be strengthened and we grow in Christ. We will need that strength because, if we long for that peaceable kingdom described by Isaiah, we must be willing to work with God to achieve it and, as we work with God to achieve it, the attacks of the enemy will increase. So we cling to Jesus and become obedient to him. John baptized with water, but Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnows out of us all that is not worthy of repentance and burns it with an unquenchable fire. He winnows out of us all that is worthy of repentance and makes of it life-giving bread to feed the world. Our righteous hearts – hearts that long for those things God longs for – are the secret ingredient that allows Jesus to make of us life-giving bread. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:1-2). Thirst for God, drink from the living water that Jesus offers, and become the fruit and bread that feeds the world, despite the efforts of the enemy.
Fruit, bread, water . . . yes, we can become these things that nourish the world. Our lives can be peeled like an orange, broken open like a loaf of bread, or poured out like a pitcher of water, and then given to the world for the glory of God. What better thing do we have to do with our lives than serve God by serving God’s world? There is no better vocation.
In one of the issues of The Christian Century magazine that I get, the editor, John M. Buchanan, reviewed and recommended four books he had read. One of the books is the novel by Jonathan Franzen titled, Freedom. In it, Franzen explores freedom, the having of it and the not having of it. Buchanan wrote the following about the book: “Franzen’s characters, I thought as I read, don’t have enough important things to do. Even the attempt to save a songbird from extinction becomes compromised. I kept wishing they’d all pack up and go to church some Sunday morning and volunteer in a homeless shelter or sign up for a mission trip.”
As I was reading what John Buchanan had written about Franzen’s characters, I almost laughed because, I, too, have felt that way sometimes as I’ve listened to people or watched their lives. I have thought, “Just go to church.” Let the discipline of weekly church attendance – the singing of hymns and the praying of prayers, the attentive listening to the reading of scripture and to the sermon, the studying of the Bible, the loving and supporting of others who long for God – shape and form your life in such a way that you become part of the work of God in the world. You become worthy fruit, dense bread, and pure water that God can use to nourish the world. I think even Buchanan would agree with me in saying that such work is certainly important enough to do. May we all be so blessed that God enables us to do it despite the efforts of the enemy! Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, on Sunday, December 13, 2015, the Third Sunday of Advent.
 Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gavents, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year A. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, 14.
 “Face the Enemy,” 93.
 November 30, 2010, 3.