Change Fruit - thrive UMC Official Blog

Change Fruit

            Today marks the first Sunday of our Lenten journey –a journey of growth and spiritual development and moving our hearts and attention closer to being with God. So we’re kicking off our new Lenten Sermon series called “The Saving Wild,” because so often in the stories of the bible, salvation takes place –it happens- in the wilderness.  In the wild places.  You can see this is true in the stories that inspired the practice of Lent.  In the Christian tradition, the season of Lent is modeled directly after the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism; and it was this time in the wild that prepared him for his ministry in Judea.  And we’ll read that story next week.  But today, we’re taking a look at what happens right before that, which starts with John the Baptist.

            Now you really can’t talk about Jesus’s ministry without talking about John the Baptist, because Jesus adopts John’s mission.  And at the heart of the mission of both Jesus and John is a call. A proclamation.  A movement.  But to really understand what we’re being called to, we have to learn a Greek word.  Because this word is at the very heart of the missional call, and here the way you translate that word into English makes a difference.  If you read the King James version of the Bible, John’s call reads “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  But if you read the Common English Version, as we’ll share today, in that same passage it’s translated as: “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  And there’s a difference between repenting, and simply changing, isn’t there?  At the very least, the two actions feel different.  And we’ll talk about that in a minute; but for now, I want to at least introduce you to the word.  The Greek word that’s used here by John the Baptist, and later by Jesus, and then again by the Apostle Paul after that is: “metanoias.” 

            And metanoias a compound word, composed of the preposition ‘meta,’ which refers to an after-effect or a result –as in the word Metamorphosis, which depicts a radical change that follows as a result of something; and the verb ‘noeo’ –to apprehend or understand, which is where we get our word for knowledge. So the Greek word more accurately and literally means something like ‘to know again afterward’ or ‘to gain a radical new perspective.’

            So, where lots of us are used to thinking of a call to repent, which suggests we did something wrong, and should therefore feel bad or guilty about it –John’s call here is actually just to a higher form of understanding, or a more insightful perspective, which comes as the result of encountering God’s living revelation.  And hopefully that will help us have fresh eyes and ears as we approach the scripture today.   So let’s prepare ourselves to receive a new knowing.

            Our reading is from Luke chapter three, verses 1-3, and 7-14.  It says this:

In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler[a] over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler[b] over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler[c] over Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 

Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”

14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”

He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”

            Now, when I read the first two verses of this passage, probably most of our eyes glazed over, which isn’t a very good way to start.  Because that was the part that mentions the emperor, and governor, and has these strange names that we don’t know.  But those are actually really important clues about what’s going on in this whole book.  Because Jesus’s ministry, and John the Baptist’s ministry, aren’t happening in a vacuum.  They’re taking place in a very particular political landscape.  The Roman Emperor is ruling over most of the world, and Pontius Pilate is governing what had been Judea.  And Herod, who is ethnically Jewish, is a kind of overlord or middle-manager over Galilee, which is Jesus’s old stomping ground.  In other words, what these two verses are pointing out is that there are these huge and overwhelming power-structures that have been set up.  A hierarchy of oppression looms over the whole land –and indeed over the whole known world.  And it’s into this explicitly political circumstance that God’s word enters into human history and meets a man named John, son of the priest Zechariah –God’s word meets him… out in the wilderness.

            A quick note here: the ancient Hebrew/Jewish people associated the wilderness as being the turf of spiritual powers.  Human powers might reign in the cities and urban centers, but a whole different dynamic was at play in the wilderness.  Out in the wilderness, you could meet God and find freedom, or you could run into a less-than-benevolent spirit, like Azazel (see Lev. 16).  That’s why we call it ‘the wilderness’ because it’s outside the bounds of our control.  We’ve inherited something of this sentiment when we call our rural areas ‘God’s country.’  And it’s no accident that this is where God’s word meets John –there is already a long-standing, reliable precedent for having transformative spiritual experiences in the wilderness.

            Anyway, John is out there when God’s word meets him, and in response, he calls, and I quote: “for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Which means, in case you missed it, baptism happened as a sign that people were –and here’s that weird Greek word again- ‘metanoio’ing.  These people were seeing or witnessing something.  They were experiencing something.  And this mysterious encounter that they had out there in the wilderness was radically changing them. 

            Some of you might remember: at the end of last fall, we did a series on the book of Joshua.  Joshua is the story of the wandering ex-slaves leaving the wilderness to coming home to the Promised Land.  And to enter the Promised Land, they had to pass through the Jordan River.  And when they went to cross –do you remember this?- the priests holding the Ark of the Covenant came to the water’s edge, and God stopped the flow.  The waters of the Jordan piled up so that the wandering Hebrew people could come home and possess the land God had given them. The fact that they could enter the land with dry clothes was a sign that God was with them.  And they eventually ended up moving into the cities and settling down.

            But this time, in the Gospel of Luke, there is a different path with new markings.  This time baptism is the sign.  This time entering the water, and becoming submerged is the sign.  This time arriving at the Promised Land –God’s kingdom- means you get wet. 

            In this 40 day Season of Lent, we remember the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the wilderness.  But as those people were taking a dip in the Jordan River, they were remembering the 40 years those Egyptian ex-slaves spent wandering in the wilderness.  And they were remembering the 40 days and 40 nights that God rained judgment down upon the entire earth until everything drowned –everything, with the sole exception of a single family and a boat full of animals. Most of us forget this about the story, but the rain of the flood story with Noah was actually a cleansing act.  For the whole earth was covered with violence.  God saw the evil of their violence and sent the rain to wash it away.

            Now I could go on and on about this, because this story is so rich, but can you just start to see a hint of what’s going on here?  Luke tells us about the structures of human power –the Roman Emperor, and Pilot and the Herods.  What maintained their power? 

            Fear!  Intimidation!  Violence!
            So why did these have to leave the cities and enter the wilderness?

            Because God’s judgment was coming! They could smell it in the air! Something was brewing –the whole social pot was coming to a revolutionary boil.

            Therefore, what’s the sign that God’s word and revelation have been witnessed and taken root?  These people go down and enter the water. They are not afraid –either of God’s judgment or what’s to come.  Instead, they welcome it.  They don’t wait for the rains to start –they’re the ones taking the initiative. They see and accept the righteousness of it.  And they witness the violence in themselves and want to be rid of it. They’re desperate to be cleansed of it.  So they go down to the river and enter the water.  It rushes over them and covers them and purifies them.  And then they rise again as changed people. They emerge new people.  That’s the sign that they’ve been changed at their deepest level, and that they want God to forgive their sins.

            Oh, and I wish we had time to talk about the Essenes and the community at Qumran today, but we don’t! Just be aware that there were other groups of Jewish people that the Bible suspiciously doesn’t mention, who lived in very disciplined communities in the wilderness –and they shared their property in common, and celebrated holy meals together, and dedicated themselves to service, and would ritually wash themselves.  They were also starting their own social revolution, and by the way John the Baptism may have been their leader! 

            Anyway, large numbers of people were coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John.  And this is how he greets them: “You children of snakes!” he says, “who warned you to escape the angry judgment that is coming soon?  Produce fruit that shows you have [metanoioed] changed your hearts and lives.  And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father.  I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.  The ax is already at the root of the trees.  Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

            Here in the gospel of Luke, John calls the whole crowd –not just the religious and political leaders (as it’s recorded in Matthew), but everyone there is ‘snake spawn!’  In other words, these aren’t God’s children –they are, instead, children of the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve.  That’s the rule and character that dominates their lives.

            So John wants proof that they’ve already changed.  He wants to see evidence –produce- that God’s revelation has taken root in their lives.  It’s not good enough to be a member of the right tribe.  There has to be fruit. 

            Now this is a brilliant metaphor, because all of us immediately know that fruit has three very important qualities: it’s delicious, it’s nutritious, and it’s reproductive.  When both of our kids were making the transition from milk to solid food as babies, they resisted everything we tried to feed them.  Rice-mush, oatmeal, mashed peas, Gerber’s chicken-carrot puree –they would spit all of it right back out with a look on their faces like you just put live spiders in their mouth. They’d spit it all out, except when it came to fruit.  Fruit is a gift you don’t have to justify.  It’s sweet, and it’s good for you, and it is also the means by which new fruit-plants are created –because fruit is a vehicle for seeds! 

             So where is it? asks John.  Where’s the fruit of God’s revelation in your life?  Where’s the produce of change –the evidence of a higher knowing?   Because here’s the thing, people –if you don’t have an irresistible, good gift that bears holy seeds to pass on to others, then you’re about as good as a barren apple tree. 

            This is a great and also terrifying question.  Where is your fruit of change –the fruit of God’s word blossoming in your life? 

            Where is our fruit as a community of faith together?  What good and irresistible and seed-bearing gift are we passing on to those around us?  Brothers and sisters, it’s not enough to invite people to become a part of our orchard!  Yes, absolutely, we’re all a bunch of very lovely trees ourselves –but we all have to realize that an orchard that isn’t dedicating every resource it has to producing ripe, marketable, and nutrient-rich fruit is an orchard with a very questionable future. 

            After all, even if no one comes along to chop it all down, what’s going to happen when the old trees die?  No fruit means no new saplings. 

            Or what about this: sometimes the fruit falls at our own roots, and the little sapling sprouts.  But there’s no room for its roots to grow, because the mature trees are sucking up all the life out of the ground.  Sometimes, for the orchard to go on, it has to teach its mature trees to pull their roots back to give the sprouts some room and resources.  Because, sure maybe the mature trees are carrying the harvest now, but what about in the years and decades to come? 

            Where is your metanoia fruit? 

            Because brothers and sisters, it has to be all about the fruit.  Our whole focus for what we’re doing here, our life and our ministry together, has to become about the gift we pass on.  Again. 

            This is a question worth spending 40 days and nights pondering: where is your fruit?

            Of course, in the story, the crowd didn’t know.  They didn’t have anything to give to John or to show him.  So instead they ask: “what should we do?”

            And the responses John gives are surprising.

            If you’ve got two shirts or some extra food, give it to someone who has none.  That’s it.  That’s the whole teaching: you have extra?  Give it away. 

            Then, quickly before we close, people of questionable vocations ask –what about us?  And here’s the thing, in Jesus’ day, tax collectors and soldiers were a part of the violence problem.  They kept the whole machine of fear and intimidation alive, so everyone would have expected John to tell them: go get an honest job!  Stop working for and feeding the evil empire.  But he doesn’t do that.  Instead, he simply says: be honest and satisfied with what you have.

            Brothers and sisters, we’re beginning a Lenten journey together.  It’s time to prepare ourselves once more to witness and receive the Easter revelation, so that our lives might be changed.  But as we begin this journey together,  let us remember: it’s all about the gift we have to pass on as a response to the resurrection miracle.  So let’s ready ourselves again to share our fruits of changed lives.