Last week, the challenge was to see how you needed to be purified, so you could repent and grow closer to God. The next step is to put your purified self to good use. Today’s passage says this means to bear good fruit.
Once again, we have John the Baptist as the key figure in our Gospel lesson. All four Gospel writers include stories about John, in part to dispel the idea that he was the messiah. They all make it clear that John is God’s messenger, sent to proclaim the coming of the Son of God, Jesus.
Crowds gathered to see John, to hear what outrageous things he would say this time, and to be baptized and forgiven. At some point, they must have angered John; perhaps he began to draw more sight-seers and critics than believers; perhaps the people seemed to believe they could come and be baptized and forgiven, then return to their old sinful ways of life.
So, he raises the pressure on those who come – not unexpected for a prophet. And the people still came to hear him. This time, he calls the people in the crowd a “brood of vipers” – a den of snakes! He goes on to say, -- in a Pastor Lynn’s paraphrase – “If you are going to come to repent and be baptized, your lives must bear the proof of that repentance. You can’t rely on your heritage as children of Abraham. You yourselves must demonstrate the goodness you have received.”
Now that John has their attention, they are willing to listen. “So, John, what do you want us to do?” “If you have plenty to wear, you must share what you have with those who have less. If you have food, you must feed those who are hungry. You must collect no more taxes than you are legally allowed to do. You soldiers must not threaten the citizens, and you should be content with what you earn and not try to force innocent people to give you more.” In other words, share what you have; be fair; and show you care as you seek God’s justice.
The people wonder if John is the Messiah, but John always points to another – to Jesus. Like the people of his day, John expects that the Messiah will come with violence and judgment; the Messiah will sort out the good people from the bad people and throw the bad people into the fire. We know, of course, that these expectations turned out to be not exactly what God had in mind.
But even with these threats from John, the people are eager to do as he said. And, Luke says John proclaimed the good news to the people. Even with the news of judgment, the promise of forgiveness born in repentance and baptism is seen as good news! And it was good news, for the people of that time and for us today.
We begin each Sunday worship with the opportunity to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. I know the time allowed for silent confession sometimes seems too long, and sometimes, it’s too short. We either can’t think of anything that needs to be confessed, or we can think of lots of things for which we need forgiveness. There are also those things we have done or not done that only God may be aware of. We trust in the promise of forgiveness in our baptism and rejoice that God does forgive our sins for Jesus’ sake.
We respond to the good news of our baptism comes with a desire to pass on God’s goodness to others. In John the Baptist’s terms, we bear fruit worthy of our baptism. We demonstrate -- or pass on -- to others the goodness we ourselves have received. We share; we try to be fair; and we show we care by seeking justice.
We share: At this time of year more than any other, my mail box is filled with requests for cash donations. In the last week, I’ve had mailings from my college, from my seminary, from Heifer International, from Lutheran World Relief, and from several other places. My gifts will help students stay in school, will feed hungry people – and help them feed themselves. You all receive these as well, and many more, I know. You come to worship and see bulletin announcements to contribute Shoe Boxes, turkeys, candies for gingerbread house decorations, and so forth. It’s important to share generously what God has given to us, so that those in need are cared for.
Each week, our scripture readings urge us to be fair – to seek God’s justice. We bear fruit worthy of our baptism when we treat each other with respect, when we remember that every person here is God’s beloved child. We try hard not to judge others and we try to see their point of view, and work toward finding middle ground and compromise.
On a national scale, this is what Congress is trying to do with health care reform – despite being torn in hundreds (thousands?) of ways by individual and group concerns and fears. On a congregational scale, it is seeking the facts before we pass on a story, and using direct communication when we feel hurt.
We bear fruit when we show we care by advocating for justice in our community for those who are being oppressed. On a major scale, advocacy is what Martin Luther King and Gandhi and their followers did. On a small scale, it’s going to the civic association meetings and asking for youth activities, so young people have something to do besides get into trouble. It’s using vacant land to start a community vegetable garden, so we can teach people to feed themselves. It’s providing nutrition and cooking classes so people can eat a healthy diet.
When we share what we have, try to be fair, and show we care, we are disciples of Jesus, bearing the good news to each other, and to those in need. We sometimes forget that there is more to faith than coming to worship on Sunday mornings. We are baptized followers of Jesus, and we are called to be the church Monday through Saturday as well.
It’s an old saying, but it’s very true. We are the only Jesus some people will ever see. The ways in which we share, are fair, and show we care demonstrate to people outside the church that we are followers of Jesus, trying to do as he taught us.
Your challenge this week is to watch for ways to be the good news of Jesus. Watch for opportunities to share what you have, be fair with those you know, and show you care for those who need justice.
Please pray with me. Emmanuel – God with us – you gave your life for us, teaching us that following you means giving ourselves to others. Be with us this week as we seek to do your will, by sharing, being fair, and caring for those we encounter. In your holy name, amen.