In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do 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. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
The first sermon I preached in seminary, just a few weeks before Advent of 2004, was on this text. If you just read the text only once, it will put the fear of God in you. Maybe that was the point of assigning to into preaching students.
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It was less of a good preaching assignment than a ritual hazing. Students would compare notes with one another from year to year on how they handled the “axe at the root of the trees” passage, and professors would complain about how bad the sermons were. I don’t have the sermon I preached for that class, and I’m very sure it wasn’t worth saving. I do remember, though, the strongest piece of advice that came from the assignment: Do not look at your congregation when you read the words of John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
In the second week of Advent, “You brood of vipers” doesn’t say Merry Christmas in any way. Or Christ is born for you. Or God is with us. You brood of vipers.
The way that Matthew tells it, great crowds of ordinary people – everyone he says! – were flocking to be baptized by John in the wilderness at the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Like a Baptist preacher who has struck gold at a tent revival, John is baptizing people left and right. Suddenly he looks up from the water and sees Pharisees and Sadducees coming toward him. They were an unusual pairing because the two groups disagreed about most things religious, and often opposed one another. But here they are arriving together to confess their sins and be baptized. What does John say? You brood of vipers.
He stops them at the water’s edge. If you want to confess your sins, he says, prove it. Actions speak louder than…words. The translation I read says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Another translation renders the same phrase: “Prove your repentance by the fruit that you bear.” John believed these leaders were in a position to do more good than they were doing. It was not as if they had tried and failed, come to the limits of their own abilities, and so came to the wilderness to throw themselves on divine mercy. The problem the prophet diagnosed is they weren’t trying, and instead they were adding to the burden of those already suffering.
As Jesus tangles with the Pharisees and Sadducees, throughout Matthew’s gospel, it becomes apparent that these two groups of people are in need of inward transformation. They have power, but not goodness. They worry over the outward appearance of their lives but ignore inward truth. They observe the law but fail to show compassion. John refuses them an easy religious pass and challenges them to go prove their repentance by bearing good fruit.
Bearing good fruit is a surprisingly hard thing to do. In the first church I served as a pastor, there was a farmer who owned a large fruit farming operation that sold pick-your-own to locals but trucked most of what they grew to Philadelphia and New York. One Sunday after worship, we were standing having coffee and for some reason, I began to press him on reducing chemicals in his farming and being more organic and environmentally friendly. After listening for a while, he finally said, “You have no idea how hard it is to grow good fruit. When you grow fruit, you create a feast for everything that’s living. From insects to birds to animals, everything wants to eat the fruit. I have to use anything I can to try to get this fruit to market.” Good fruit is hard to produce, and what’s true of strawberries and blueberries and apples is also true of human life.
For every act of kindness, we have at least one memory of a cold response. For every time we were generous, we can remember walking away. For every time we forgave and forgot, there was a time we held a grudge or thought there was no way we could ever forgive. For every time we tried to repair a relationship, we can remember another time when we got angry and were ready to burn it all down. Good fruit is hard to produce.
That’s why Matthew says that everyone was coming to John in the wilderness. Everyone has a need to confess. Everyone has a need to repent. Everyone needs a new start.
Sometimes the very language of repentance has the effect of saying “brood of vipers” to a congregation. Even when we know we have failed to live up to our potential, talk of repentance can trigger in us feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness. No one likes to be told to change.
In his small book Breathing Under Water, the Jesuit priest Richard Rohr reframes the repentance in a way that is filled with grace, as he brings it in conversation with the twelve-step tradition. He writes that ordinarily our understanding of the process of repentance goes like this: we sin, we fear getting in trouble, we repent, and we are transformed. That’s an economy of merit and moral purity, and that’s where our guilt and shame is triggered.
Christ, though, does not deal in merit and moral purity. Christ draws us into an economy of grace. Christ offers us unconditional love, and in God’s economy of grace, repentance works like this: we sin, we experience unconditional love, the encounter with God’s love transforms us, and this leads to repentance.
In other words, repentance doesn’t happen because the fear of God has you by the throat. Repentance happens because the love of God has your heart. The fruit of repentance is not what we do because we feel guilty. The fruit of repentance is what we do because we are loved by God.
When God’s love shapes our inward lives, then the fruit of God’s love is revealed in our outward lives. I know it is hard. If you are like me, in the moment when good fruit is required, we often feel unsure. Perhaps we’re too in our heads or caught between conflicting instincts. Maybe we’re just too distracted, too cynical, or with simply too much to do. Many times, if you’re like me, it’s only in hindsight that we remember the words we could have said or the actions we wished we had done. The farmer was right, bearing good fruit is hard.
Yet when God’s love shapes our inward lives, we bear good fruit. In the way we treat others and ourselves, in our opinions and how we express them; in our time, energy, and resources and how we use them; in what we stand up for and stand up against; in what we hope for and what we work for. The fruit worthy of repentance is the fruit of God’s love that has taken root and grows in our hearts.
In this Advent season, we are called to prepare for Christ’s arrival – Christ’s arrival in a second coming glory; Christ’s arrival in Bethlehem in a manger; Christ’s arrival in surprising ways in our everyday lives. John the Baptist, with his fiery sermon in the wilderness, is reminding each of us that preparing for the advent of Christ means bearing the fruit worthy of God’s love, worthy of the love of the One who is born for us.
As a congregation, we seek to bear the fruit of the love of Christ in our life together. One way we do this is happening today, through the Loaves and Fishes Gift Market. Through this alternative gift market, we do more than find a gift for the person who has everything. We can give in a way that makes a difference to organizations in our community who share our mission of sharing the love of Christ with the world. The mission partners in this year’s Loaves and Fishes market, as has been true in these markets for almost twenty years, are hands and feet on the love of Christ in our community. When we give to these organizations, we bear good fruit that is worthy of God’s love.
In the same way, we bear good fruit when we give to the ministry of this congregation through our stewardship efforts and our annual giving. Our gifts, put together, make it possible for this congregation to bear the fruit of God’s love for one another and our neighbors.
And just as this congregation is called to bear fruit that is worthy of the love we have received, our community also has a calling to bear good fruit. I was reminded of this truth this week, when the local news reported that a long-awaited report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness will be released in January. For years, our city and non-profit and faith community leaders – and this congregation – have worked to care for those who are experiencing homelessness and to provide avenues to housing. But we know that more needs to be done.
Last year, the city and county and Dogwood Health Trust partnered to hire National Alliance to listen to our community and propose solutions. They have done that work, and the report will be heard on January 25. We need to pay attention to this because our community needs to bear fruit. As civic, non-profit, and faith leaders, we have talked and talked and talked about the need to do more. The problems are deep and difficult; there are no easy solutions – but we must try. It’s time to prove it – to bear fruit that is worthy of the love, compassion, kindness, and abundance that exists in this community. Even if it’s hard.
The conversation I had with the farmer that day in the Fellowship Hall of the church stuck with me. It’s hard to grow good fruit. But something else the farmer said also stuck.
When you grow fruit, you set a feast for everything living. That, too, is true. And the world needs the good fruit you and I can bear. The world needs the fruit of God’s love in lives that are marked by compassion, forgiveness, integrity, faithfulness, peacemaking, and deep joy. It is hard to bear good fruit, but we do not do it alone. Like a faithful farmer, God continues to work to bring good fruit from our lives – even, and sometimes especially – in the places where we are wounded. Even when we fail, the Savior’s love never fails. God will never give up on bringing good fruit from your life.
Because we are not a brood of vipers. We are God’s beloved children. Until Christ comes again, the work of our faith and hope is to prove it by bearing good fruit.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina