Fruits of Joy (a sermon from Luke 3:7-18)

We are wired in such a way that we find our greatest joy when we become a blessing to others. We are created in God’s image. We are stamped with divine DNA. And because God indwells us, because we share in the divine life and divine nature, we will never find true happiness apart from consciously living out of our oneness with God. We are at our best, and we are most joyous and fulfilled, when we allow God’s Spirit to flow through us – when we allow God’s love to fill our lives and overflow into the lives of others. When we bless others, we bless ourselves, because we are doing what we have been created and called to do. Whatever happiness we may have as a result of self-serving actions is always fleeting and temporary. And once it runs its course it leaves us feeling empty, because it’s not real happiness. It doesn’t reflect who we really are. Repentance then, is a realigning of our actions and attitudes and desires with who we really are as God’s children and that brings joy.  

John and Jesus have parallel birth stories in Luke’s Gospel. And clearly, while more emphasis is given to Jesus, John has a significant role as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. Both John and Jesus were filled with the Spirit, and were blessings to others, though in different ways.

Some people think that John and Jesus were opposites. That John was all about judgment, whereas Jesus was all about grace. And to be honest, that was my view for a time, and you may even recall me teaching or preaching that. Well, I have come to see John differently. It is true that John emphasized judgment, whereas Jesus emphasized grace, but there is grace in John’s proclamation of judgment, and there is judgment in Jesus’ preaching and embodiment of grace.

It seems to me that how one understands John and Jesus’ preaching of judgment, and in fact, all the judgment texts in the scriptures, depends on one’s understanding of the character of God. If one sees God primarily as a Judge and a lawgiver, who cares more about order and control and and law-keeping than God does about the brokenness of God’s children, then it is quite natural to think of judgment as retribution. If God’s judgment is punitive, it is because God is punitive. That’s how a lot of Christians think of God. However, if God is primarily a  caring Father or Mother, as Jesus suggested when he used the Aramaic word “Abba,” to pray to and refer to God, then we do not have to afraid of God’s judgment. Because whatever judgment may involve, whatever pain or suffering go’s along with it, it is ultimately designed for our correction and redemption. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then none of us have to be afraid of being cast aside as worthless to be excluded forever from God’s presence.

Actually, if the Christian mystics are right, there cannot be any separation from God. If God dwells in all of us, if it is true as Paul said to the Athenians in Acts 17 that in God we live, move, and have our being, then we could never actually be separated from God. We might feel separated from God, but we could never actually be separated from God, for to be separated from God would mean “none existence.” Our spirits are infused with the life of the Divine Spirit. We are one. If God is unconditional love, then God’s judgment is for the purpose of transformation, not condemnation. If judgment is about satisfying the law and about retribution, then God is not unconditional love. It really all comes back to the character of God.

John talks about the Messiah, the one who fulfills God’s salvation, separating the wheat and the chaff. I’m sure you have observed that any person or Christian group who interprets the wheat and the chaff in this text to be persons or groups of persons, inevitably place themselves among the wheat that will be gathered into the granary. I did this in the first part of my Christian pilgrimage. No one wants to think of themselves as chaff. Who can blame them? But I’m convinced that we misread this if we make the wheat and the chaff persons or groups of persons. I think the wheat and the chaff represent the good works and unjust works we do, and the good intentions or evil intentions that fill our hearts. The fire of God’s judgment is intended to burn up all our unjust works and evil intentions, so that we will be able to love God with are whole being and love others as we love ourselves.

I challenge you to do a study of the judgment texts in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Every single judgment text in the Bible is about what we actually do and how we actually live that flows out of the good intentions or evil intentions of our hearts. Every single text. I don’t know where we ever got the idea that simply trusting in Jesus protects us from God’s judgment, because I don’t’ know of one judgment text in the Bible that actually teaches that. Even in the Gospel of John where the writer puts so much emphasis on believing in Jesus (and I think many Christians misinterpret what John means when he talks about believing in Jesus), but even so the one text in that Gospel that speaks of a final judgment says this: “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (the voice here is the voice of the Christ) and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” The judgment texts in the Bible are always about what we do and how we live and what fills our hearts, not about what we believe.

So when John speaks of judgment and calls the people out to the desert to repent and be baptized, he tells them to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. The crowds ask John, “What then should we do?” John doesn’t says, “Well, first you have to believe this or that.” He says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” One might respond, “You mean even that undocumented person, that migrant, that person of a different religion from a different country? “Yes, indeed,” John would say, “Anyone means anyone.”

Then some tax collectors asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” I can imagine the religiously devout taking exception with John here: “How can you permit these Jewish traitors who collaborated with the enemy to be baptised? How can you let in to the kingdom of God these greedy Jews who sold their souls to the Romans? John baptizes them and says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”

Then, lo and behold even the enemy shows up. Roman soldiers come out to be baptized. I can imagine real resistance here from both the common people and the religious leaders, because all the Jews had felt the wrath and mistreatment of the Roman soldiers. But when they ask, “What should we do? John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” And he plunges them into the waters of baptism too. I hope you can see here that John’s fiery preaching of judgment is filled with grace.

I don’t know how I ever missed it. John’s preaching of judgment is filled with grace, and completely based on what we do. Some Christians identify themselves on the basis of what they believe. Some even adhere to fundamentals that they claim one has to believe to be a Christian. They have a checklist: Mary was a virgin. Jesus was God. The Bible is inerrant. And so forth. But in John’s call to repentance there is not a single word about what one must or should believe. Every single thing John mentions as a fruit of repentance relates to what we do.  It’s about love of neighbor and the golden rule. It’s about how we care for one another, and treat one another with respect and understanding. John says, Be generous. Be fair. Be merciful. Treat people right. When you go through these waters of baptism, says John, you pledge to be a different person, you are making a commitment to love your neighbor, rather than take advantage of your neighbor.

John has one thing in mind out there preaching repentance and baptizing all sorts of unlikable people in the desert. John is getting them all ready to be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, which is nothing less than the Spirit of love. He’s out there baptizing in water, but the Christ will baptize in the Holy Spirit. He’s teaching them how to love others, so when the full embodiment of love comes along after him, they will be ready to be immersed in that love and shower that love on others.

You see, sisters and brothers, the unquenchable fire of the Spirit is the Spirit of love that burns up all the chaff, all the greed, all the hate, all the jealousy, all the pride, all the egotism in our lives. We all need God’s judgment. We all need God’s fire to consume the selfishness and evil in our hearts, so that we can love one another the way God loves each one of us. Wouldn’t it be great if we were so immersed in God’s Spirit that no one would have to tell us to love others? We wouldn’t even need a commandment to tell us to love others, because loving others would be the most natural thing in the world
Once there was an old priest who presided over a great cathedral in a once–prosperous city. The kindly priest spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of his tireless work, this holy place was known as a place of safety and sanctuary, and a constant stream of people seeking shelter were drawn to it. The priest welcomed all and gave to all completely without prejudice or restraint. His pure heart and gift of hospitality were widely known. No one could steal from him, for he considered no possession his own. One evening in mid–winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a knock on the cathedral door. The priest stood, went to the entrance, and to his great surprise, found there a terrifying demon with unyielding eyes. “Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?” Without hesitation, the priest bid the devil welcome and invited him into the shelter of the sanctuary. Once across the threshold, the devil spat venom onto the tiled floor and attacked the holy altar, all the while uttering blasphemies and curses. During this rant, the priest knelt on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the evening. 

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going?” “I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest. “May I come with you,” asked the demon, “for I too am tired and in need of a place to eat and sleep?” “Why yes, of course,” replied the priest, “come, and I will prepare a meal.”

On returning to his house, the priest prepared a meal while the devil smashed the artifacts that adorned the house. He ate the meal provided by the priest and then asked, “Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request. Will you welcome me into your soul?” “Why of course,” said the priest. “What I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

So the devil entered his soul, but there was nothing in the old man for the devil to cling to, no material of which to make a nest and no darkness in which to hide. All that existed in the old priest’s soul was light. And so the devil turned from the priest in disgust and left, never to return. In fact, the devil, not long after his encounter with the priest, retired from his devilish work altogether, for there was something in the old man that so affected the devil that he lost his edge for it and had to give it up.

If only we could be like this priest, and be so immersed in the Holy Spirit, so full of the light of divine love and grace that there would be no place for darkness to reside or evil to hide. There would be no room for greed, for prejudice, for pride, for favoritism, for jealousy, for envy, for contempt, or any evil intention or desire.

Whatever the fire of God’s judgment might be, that’s where it is headed sisters and brothers. That is the goal. A baptism with the Spirit so full and complete, a baptism of love so pervasive, there’s just no room for anything that would put down another or hurt another or take advantage of another. The fire of love would burn too hot and too bright.  

Oh God, may we invite and welcome your Spirit into our hearts, to expose our evil intentions and selfish attitudes and negative patterns so that they may be consumed by the fire of your judgment, and we might be free to truly care for and love one another as the Spirit of Christ fills us. Let us be immersed in the Spirit of Christ, O Lord, so that your immense love can expand our hearts and open our minds and incline our wills to do what is good and right and just and merciful. Let us not reap the fruits of our sinful ways, but let us reap the fruits of the loving kindness, forgiveness, and service we shower upon all those around us. For then we will know the lasting and enduring joy for which we were created. In the name and Spirit of Christ I pray.


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