(Luke 3: 7-18)


Apples are, by far, my favorite fruit.  Growing up outside of Syracuse, New York, we lived near an apple orchard that grew MacIntosh apples.  I would watch during the spring as the trees put out blossoms telling me the apples were on their way.  Then, during the summer, I’d watch the apples get bigger and redder until it was finally time for me to make a foray into the orchard to help myself to a couple of fresher than fresh apples from Mr. Lewis’ trees.  Later in life Teresa and I would live in a little farmhouse next to Mr. Lewis which allowed me to come clean and repent of my apple poaching.  He said he knew, and certainly didn’t mind as I now seemed to be a more productive, although unemployed, citizen.  Another benefit of living in Upstate New York was that in the fall these apples would be turned into incredibly sweet cider.  I still remember the trips as a kid to Morey’s Cider Mill for some cider and fresh donuts made on site.  A delight I treated Teresa to when we lived there for a short time.  To me, you couldn’t beat a MacIntosh apple for taste and juiciness.  It was one righteous fruit.


And righteous fruit is what the Apostle Luke is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning.  The righteous fruit brought about by repentance.  Luke tells us that John the Baptist has been out in the wilderness preaching salvation through repentance of sins and a baptism by water.  John had been baptizing for a while attracting larger and larger crowds drawn by a message they weren’t hearing preached in synagogue.  The message they were hearing talked about a direct relationship between them and God thereby cutting out the religious leaders who didn’t seem to care about their souls.  John had great compassion for these people who were desperately looking a change in their lives, but he was beginning to see other faces in the crowd who he suspected were there for other reasons.  Luke tells us that John said to the crowd: You children of snakes!  Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?  If you’re reading this for the first time, or hearing it as a first-century Jew, you’re probably thinking this isn’t the kind of approach that will attract many people.  “I’m just trying to make ends meet and provide for my family, and my parents certainly weren’t snakes!”  To better understand what John means by his accusation you have to read Matthew’s account found in Matthew 3: 7-9.  According to Matthew, John spotted some of the Jewish religious leaders in the crowd who may have been coming for one of two reasons.  First, to see what he was up to as he was attracting large crowds and posed a threat to their status quo, and second, it wouldn’t hurt to get baptized by this guy if there was a chance to escape eternal punishment.  Kind of a way of hedging their bets.  The two prominent groups John was addressing were the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  The Pharisees separated themselves from anything non-Jewish and carefully followed both the Old Testament law and the oral traditions handed down through the centuries.  The Sadducees believed the Pentateuch alone, Genesis through Deuteronomy, to be God’s word.  They were descended mainly from priestly nobility, while the Pharisees came from all classes of people who had worked their way up the religious hierarchy and would fight to stay there.  The two groups disliked each other greatly, and both opposed Jesus.  Kind of like the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  The Baptist continues by telling them to: Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.  And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father.  John was criticizing the Pharisees for being legalistic and hypocritical, following the letter of the law while ignoring its true intent.  He criticized the Sadducees for using religion to advance their political position.  I don’t want to get off into the weeds here, but it seems to me that we have some modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees that need to hear John’s admonishment and think hard about whether what they are doing is in line with God’s plan for his creation, and then repent and turn towards God.  But I digress.  John recognized them as wanting to be baptized so they could escape the eternal punishment but were not really repenting of their sins, nor were they willing to change the way they lived.  For the Pharisees and Sadducees to publicly repent of their sins would be like admitting they were like everyone else, like, you know, those people.  John’s also telling them not to play the “Abraham” card.  That’s not going to cut it with God any more than being a life-long Methodist, Catholic, Baptist and so on if you aren’t producing fruit.


John tells them that the ax is already at the root of the trees and that every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.  Well, that got their attention as they asked: What then should we do?  And John answered: Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.  He’s telling them, and us, to take care of one another.  When you or we see someone in need, provide for them out of your abundance, and, by the way, our abundance doesn’t have to be much in order to meet the needs of another.


Luke goes on to tell us that even the despised tax collectors came to be baptized and asked John what they should do.  John replied: Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.  And the soldiers present asked: What about us?  What should we do?  And he answered: Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.  John had apparently hit a nerve with these two groups of people as the tax collectors would routinely overtax people keeping some extra for themselves, and the soldiers would use their authority and position to take advantage of the powerless.  John’s message took root in unexpected places: among the poor, the dishonest, and even the hated occupation army.  These people were painfully aware of their needs, and they were honestly seeking to know what to do to change their lives, as opposed to the pious and self-righteous religious leaders in the crowd.  John’s message here demands at least three specific responses.  First, share what you have with those who need it.  Second, whatever your job is, do it well and with fairness, and third, be content with what you’re earning.  John was calling the people to right living as he prepared the way for their Messiah.


Luke tells us that the people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ.  Hearing this, he replied: I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming.  I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  He tells them that the one who is coming will separate the wheat from the chaff.  The wheat will be stored in his barn and the worthless chaff will be burned with a fire that can’t be put out.  Pretty bold talk for a guy living out in the wilderness dressed in a camel hair robe eating wild honey and locusts, but he speaks with uncommon authority and the people were listening.


John’s baptism with water symbolized the washing away of sin.  His baptism coordinated with his message of repentance and reformation.  But Jesus’ baptism with fire includes the power needed to do God’s will.  Luke perceived that these concrete actions that John laid upon the tax collectors and the soldiers were the type of fruit that repentance must bear and served as an example to others in the crowd.  It was one thing to repent of your sins but another to actually lead a life worthy of your repentance and forgiveness.  To be sure, good works do not merit salvation and John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, did not advocate works-righteousness.  Wesley correctly believed that the only condition for salvation is the provision of God’s gracious gift through Jesus Christ, which people receive by faith, not works or deeds.  However, he believed that spiritual changes result in other changes in how people think, speak, and act.  Wesley was hopeful about the degree to which God wants to change people through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.


God desires to pour out mercy on those who confess, and then to give them the strength to live changed lives.  It’s that on going repentance and the fruit of that repentance that contributes to the believer’s growth in holiness.  Following Jesus means more than saying the right words; it means acting on what he says.  For John the Baptist and Jesus Christ turning from sin must be tied to action.  And that’s why the Baptist’s message is so strong.  Those who refuse to be used by God will be discarded because they have no value in furthering God’s work.  Those who repent and believe, however, hold great value in God’s eyes because they are beginning a new life of productive service for him through the fruit of repentance.


Let us pray.


O Come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.  O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.  Yes, O Lord, how we await the day of your return, and until that day may we repent of our sins, seek your forgiveness and do your will producing fruits of righteousness that will cause others to rejoice and sing your praises.  Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.  In Jesus’s name, we pray, Amen.