Oh, we need Craig Merson about now. He really has John the Baptist down. Meg and I were settling into the pageant last week, familiar hymns, the Gospel narration, the kids, then Boom in come Craig. He’s big, his voice is booming and he brought it. He startled us, I literally jumped. It was perfect because the call of John the Baptist to repentance is bold. It is confrontational. It is booming. He is crystal clear about our role and our responsibility to God.
The ax lying at the root of the tree was God’s judgment that the religious structures and observances in Israel were not fulfilling their mission. And what was the mission? Recall that when God made his covenant with Abraham he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people and through you I will bless all nations.”
It was a radical revelation. The cultures at that time were polytheistic – they ascribed gods and goddesses to every aspect of nature. Abraham served the one true God and passed that faith on to Isaac and Jacob, the 12 tribes and away they went.
After close to two thousand years of Abraham’s covenant, we see that the religious structures were failing in their mission. Scripture tells us that the people, Jewish people steeped in that covenant, were continuously streaming out to John the Baptist, hungry for John’s baptism in desperate search of God’s salvation. The fact that they are doing that illustrates John’s point - they aren’t seeing or yielding the fruit of their faith in the structures in place. And, despite the fact that there were communities of Jews spread throughout their known world as merchants, traders and artisans, they had not made much if any progress in converting people to faith in the one true God. It wasn’t happening – so what did God do? John confronts the people with the way that fruit should look: Clothing, feeding, honest dealing.
Let’s bring this closer to home.
When you drive by orange groves you can see the difference between a grove that is well tended and one that is neglected. It isn’t enough to be in the right spot in Florida, same sunshine, same rain.
So what do you do with a tree that isn’t bearing fruit? You push it up and burn it. You plant resets. And when you plant, you get the right root stock grafted with the tree you want to grow. You protect the young tree, water and fertilize and spray and mow and pull vines and fix microjets and tile ditches. You battle canker and greening and tristezia and Apopka beetles and nematodes and mites. You do everything you can for years – 7 or so – to bring it up healthy so it can bear fruit for many more years.
You can’t control everything but you do everything you can reasonably do to make sure your trees bear good fruit.
We are to do the same. We are not to rely on our religious affiliation. We cannot just be Episcopalians. We cannot rely on our families, our roots, however deeply they run in the church and community. That doesn’t carry us very far anymore anyway. God is continuously calling us to do our part in receiving him. When we are attending to his way, feeding and watering our faith with his Word, he drives us to “Loving our neighbor as our self,” which Jesus will say later in the Gospel but he’s quoting Leviticus, which they all know. It has at that point been explicitly in their law for 1500 years and implicit for a few hundred years before that.
Applied to our own lives and our own time, it means those who have means should give generously to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Not under compulsion, as Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, for God loves a cheerful giver, so out of love. It means those that are in authority over others in business or government must wield their authority justly, not taking advantage. We can fairly add Paul’s list in Galatians chapter 5, love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self control.
To this point, it all makes good logical sense, it adds up in almost an arithmetic way. Learn right and do right. Be good. Eat your vegetables. It’s just the sort of thing in our heart of hearts we expect a just and loving God to say, like a good parent, teacher or coach might do, on a grander God-scale.
But there’s more. We don’t do the heavy lifting on all that. Jesus is coming.
Baptism of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Jesus will burn away the chaff and bring us to Him.
The joy isn’t in the planting and watering and fertilizing and spraying. It is in the arrival, presence and victory of the One who gives the growth. He is with us always until the end of the age.
That is Good News! Rejoice! Paul in prison, chronic pain, deep grief, tragedies and hardships – hang on to him and his promise. That hope carries us through.