"Fruit or Fire?"
Dec.9, 2007 Mt.3:1-12
Startling Messenger, Blunt Message
Do you know any people who are so unconventional they 'rattle' you a bit? Jesus calls us to be originals, the unique and free individuals God meant us to be, by helping us to overcome sin and pride that would bind us.
Emily and Allison happened upon such an 'unconventional' person when they were strolling a beach north of Sydney Australia back in October. Meet Steven, an air force retiree in his 70s who lives with his wife near the sand dunes in a style he calls 'au naturel' (thankfully he kept the towel on while talking with the girls!). He believes in living as close to nature as possible, visiting his little nook on the beach every day. Notice how full his beard is, and how hairy his arms! Steven declares he is searching for truth. You might wonder if he's a reclusive hermit, but Steven is actually quite a world traveller: he told the girls he regularly uses container ships to visit distant lands.
Doesn't this fellow strike you as a bit odd, 'on the edge'? He has certainly shunned certain social conventions, such as clothes. Not the kind of individual you'd want your daughters to meet on a remote beach! You'd be just a bit wary of him. So free as to be almost 'wild'. Such folk challenge us, rattling our usual conformity to public expectations.
Yet prophets in the Bible often came across much like that to the people of their times. Their message, and often their appearance, challenged what society had slipped into as expected or conventional. From the edge of normality they call people to return to their faith-roots, to rediscover the basics of life and eternity that have been forgotten or trampled in our restless search for pleasure and prestige.
The story of Jesus' ministry years properly begins with John the Baptist. His appearance and lifestyle, like Steven's, might have caused anyone to stop and stare. Like Elijah, he had cut life's trappings back to the bare essentials. Matthew 3:4 says his clothes were made of camel's hair - not skins, but the long hair itself woven into a coarse cloth. His only adornment was a leather belt. His diet consisted of wild honey (not bad, if you can stand fending off the bees!) and locusts - like big plump grasshoppers, still eaten by poorer people in arid climates today. Looking at John, most Jews would be reminded of an earlier prophet, Elijah, who was equally at home in the wild. John's message, like his appearance, echoed that of prophets of old.
Turn Back - Disaster Ahead
When winter weather is like it was this past week, we get used to turning around and finding alternate routes because of closed roads. To go around the barricade would be to risk whiteouts, collisions with abandoned vehicles, and even loss of use of your vehicle because of lack of insurance coverage. When you see the barricade - turn back! Danger ahead!
Or when the bridge that was under repair near Lucknow collapsed back in November, thank God no lives were lost; but it's meant traffic on Highway 86 has to be creative in finding alternate routes (especially when that's coupled with snow-related road closures). You wouldn't want to be in a vehicle heading full speed along a road where there was a bridge out just ahead, over a knoll! If you were standing in a driveway beside the road and saw that happening, you would want to run out onto the shoulder waving your arms and shouting, "Stop! Stop! Turn around! Don't you know there's a bridge out up ahead? You're going to kill yourselves!"
That's exactly the message Biblical prophets gave regarding 'conventional' human sin. Matthew in introducing John identifies him with the voice of Isaiah 40, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him." NLT, "Clear the road for Him!" as if our sins were the drifts barricading access for fallen humanity. John's key word in his preaching was, "Repent!" That's what he was about. V1, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" V8, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." V11, "I baptize you with water for repentance."
The Greek word back of this is 'metanoia'; commentator Robinson notes that another, Broadus, "used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament". Metanoia is John's great word and "it has been hopelessly mistranslated". Unfortunately the English word commonly used ('repent') has the sense of 'be sorry again'. John didn't call on the people to be sorry, but to change (re-think) their attitudes and conduct. "Turn ye!" is more like it. This new prophet brings forward the message of the old prophets. For example Joel 2:12, the Lord declares, "Return to me with all your heart..." Ezekiel 33(11), God declares, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" Get that same sense - you're about to head over the bridge that's out! Turn around! Change your way lest you be destroyed!
As we read the passage, several aspects of what John intends by "repentance" become clearer. V5, there's a response: people stream out to him in masses, from Jerusalem and Judea and both sides of the Jordan. V6, they confess their sin: they own up to it, they stop covering up or denying they've got a problem, they humbly acknowledge in public that they've blown it. Also v6, they're baptized - an outward sign of inner change, washing away the old dirt morally, binding themselves by a promise to a new life. And v8 John commands those who come to "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance;" "Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God."(NLT)
Part of the appeal of John's presentation was its clarity, its simplicity: it was either/or, clear-cut, no grey areas; you had to choose either the "Kingdom of heaven" - God's rule and reign in your life, rather than a political or ecclesiastical organization - either God's Kingdom OR you were choosing destruction. For that he used a couple of vivid images that would be familiar in an agrarian society: the axe or the winnowing fork. The axe, John says in v10, "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." Ya, I can picture that! If you don't like the axe imagery, there's the winnowing fork. This was like a shovel used to toss the threshed grain up into the air to catch the breeze: the wind blew the chaff husks further, separating the heavier kernels which fell to the ground closer. Then, John says, the Coming One "will clear His threshing floor, gathering His wheat into the barn and [here's the heat again!] burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Mt 3:12)
It was one or the other, you had to choose: Kingdom of heaven or destruction; the Coming One would baptize you with Holy Spirit (for life with God) OR fire to destroy you. Take your pick - but do it quick; and turn now, before it's too late!
The Sneakiest Sin of All
People responded to this odd preacher, streaming to the Jordan by the hundreds, a huge public outpouring of guilt and appeal for a fresh start with God. "Confessing their sins, they were baptized..."; probably the whole range of transgressions summed up in the Ten Commandments, idol worship; dishonouring parents; lying, thieving, coveting, murder at least in thought, adultery and fornication - it was all there, uncovered, announced in broad daylight. Revival swept through the masses as commoners snatched this chance to get right with the Lord before judgment fell.
And then came the Pharisees and Sadducees, v7. For some reason they got singled out by the wilderness preacher with an extra volley of warning. "You brood of snakes! [you vipers' offspring - not exactly terms to win friends and influence people] Who warned you to flee God's coming wrath?" (NLT) Why does John single them out so severely? What makes their condition especially bad? Why does he demand to see proof of their sincere repentance, rather than just accepting them at face value like the farmers and weavers and fishermen? Look for a clue in v9, "And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham."
What's this about? Pride. When all the commonest, low-grade sins have been overcome in your life, there's one that may go unnoticed, the sneakiest one of all - having elevated your public righteousness, you fall victim to PRIDE. "I'm better than those tax collectors, those prostitutes, those tavern-crawlers.I tithe and attend worship like clockwork." So you look down your nose on those who come from rougher backgrounds, those whose breeding is in question, those whom life has seemed to strike with extra blows that resulted in failure of some form or other.
John warned them not to secretly suppose they were above condemnation; breeding and background were immaterial to the Lord, what matters is the condition of the heart. God could create children of Abraham from the very rocks if He chose - the Almighty is not impressed by human lineage. People from the best families can still conduct themselves wickedly, perhaps being especially susceptible to the more 'respectable' sins of envy, jealousy, gossip, greed, and hypocrisy. Conventional clout would not save them.
Modern-Day Calls to Kingdom Living
Not all prophets lived 2000 years ago or more. Jesus through the Holy Spirit is still calling people today to live for Him, to become truly original, to put off the trappings of sin and pride and the false self so they may discover His new life and be fruitful for God. The Kingdom of heaven is near - much nearer now even than in John the Baptist's time. There's too little time left to be squeezed into the world's mould, to be pressured by fear of man, what others simply expect us to do in order to go along with the wayward crowd.
This the second Sunday of Advent is traditionally associated with 'peace'. What does peace have to do with repentance, confession of sin, and turning around? Peace comes when we settle accounts with God and neighbour, when you 'come clean' - be honest and get real, beyond the small talk. Shalom or wholeness requires that we stop trying to impress, impose, or outdo, and instead humble ourselves to be servants. Like John the Baptist talking about being a servant not worthy even of carrying the Master's sandals. Just 'be there' for the other, without having your own axe to grind. Bury the hatchet.
One modern-day prophet is Bruxy Cavey, of the Meeting House church in Oakville (now with 4000 worshipers over 6 sites). Bruxy is exposing the Big Lie of consumer living, namely that "things make you happy". ChristianWeek reports he's urging members to downscale their lifestyles in order to free up time and cash to invest in compassionate ministries. He's challenged the church to donate $8 million dollars by 2010. He practices what he preaches: he recently downsized his own house, and uses examples to illustrate how Christians can simplify their lives and be less influenced by a consumer mentality. He suggests members save the money usually spent on coffee shop lattes, fashionable clothing, home improvements or expensive holidays, and consider liquidating assets such as second cars and vacation properties in order to contribute more generously. Much of the money will be used to double the Mennonite Central Committee's work in Southern Africa, including projects focused on HIV/AIDS, food, water, and peace-building.
Another modern-day prophet is about as much a contrast to bearded, long-haired Bruxy Cavey as you could imagine. Denyse O'Leary is a petite, demure, bespectacled woman, a fine intellectual whose column picture shows her wearing a lacy collar. But this woman is using her mind to tear down the strongholds erected by stuffy professors on the college campuses. Another big lie of modernity is that "God is scientifically irrelevant". Through her books and columns, Denyse is giving voice to faith in a credible way, interpreting science for Christians in a way that announces God's reign amidst an evolutionary wilderness. For instance, she attends an adult night school class at the U of T where a Waterloo physics chair was pointing out that discoveries about the nature of our universe during the last few decades "have only confirmed and strengthened the case for the Creator." She outlines how two theories advanced to supposedly replace God - string theory and cosmic inflation - are either in ruins or would demolish science. She challenges the conventional philosophy, drilled into students over the last 50 years, that we evolved from soup by pure chance and are nothing more than accidental collisions of molecules: how much that sort of attitude damages a person's sense of purpose and responsibility! By contrast, O'Leary reports that just this month philosopher Anthony Flew abandoned a half century of atheism on account of design in the universe. The title of his new book? There is a God. Do you hear the echoes from John? There is a kingdom of heaven near; God can do the impossible, even raise up children out of stones, humans out of dust.
One final example of a prophet on the edge, announcing God's reign. This one attacks the big lie, "I'll make a fool of myself if I talk about my faith." Devon Hill once opposed Christianity fiercely while he played in a metal band. But 5 years ago he became a Christian, left the band, and started spreading his faith on the internet. He posted the story of his conversion at a Saskatchewan metal website, and later on his Myspace account. When he posted his story on Facebook, old high school friends responded with surprise at his conversion, sparking new conversations.
There has been considerable backlash; some have blatantly attacked Devon himself as well as what he said. Yet, now a research engineer in his late 20s, he says, "But it was good; God used that to break more fear in me." One fan, whom he'd sometimes see in person, was especially antagonistic. Devon felt they were trying to get him too frustrated or scared to talk about God. He adds, "But God gave me certain things to do for this person. They would post certain things, and God would tell me go do this to serve them." Eventually Devon earned the fan's respect. Now Devon Hill admits, "Things in my mind that I thought were impossible - that God would never do that - He did."
His mind - his attitude - was changed. That's metanoia, an about-turn. And doing things for people in response to what God shows you is what John the Baptist would call producing fruit in keeping with repentance.
May the Lord continue to make us 'originals', freed from fallen conventionality and the bondage of sin, so we can discover who He's making us to be in Christ, baptized with the Holy Spirit, good wheat, righteous and loving. Then others will see and respond, turning around - before the fire comes and they discover the bridge is out. Let's pray.