John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Luke 3: 7ff
You were not with me when I took this picture, but I bet you can feel the chill and dampness of a grey winter day just by looking at it. It is easy to take a picture that captures the cold isolation of winter. Anyone living in the northern hemisphere has experienced it and our minds are programmed to identify it.
Winter is one of my favorite times to walk in the woods. In the deep woods and river bluffs of Camp Shalom, the leafless trees allow me to see the contours of the land. Winter reveals the intimate details of nature not visible during the summer months. Look at the intermingled pattern of the branches. They communicate the struggle each branch has to reach the light that will allow it to grow.
Deciduous trees drop their leaves to conserve energy. It is a natural reaction to the changes in the surrounding environment. We cannot see it, but thousands of insects are hiding somewhere deep in the bark of this tree. They too are going dormant to conserve energy and endure the winter season. When the energy of spring returns the leaves and bugs will burst forth into life.
This tree reminds me of the parts of my faith life I do not want you to see. Those times when my soul feels lifeless and dormant. In my head I try to rationalize it by saying I am shutting down to conserve energy. But this is not completely true. I’m not conserving energy as much as I’m being apathetic. I know what I need to do, it’s just that I don’t feel like doing it. Someone needs to come and wake me from this spiritual slumber.
John the Baptist will attempt to wake me this weekend. From deep within scripture and time, he will yell at me, call me names and tell me to bear fruit worthy of repentance. I learned long ago how to handle being yelled at and to endure being called names. But, bearing a fruit worthy of repentance? I’m not sure I even know what this means.
I think John is calling us to do loving acts that equal the depth of our transgressions. To bear good fruit equal to our bad fruit. Fruits worthy of repentance require one to sacrifice for the benefit of another. Ultimately, John the Baptist is asking us, how are you living out your love for your neighbor?
Like a picture that resonates with our experience of the world, my confession will resonate with many of you. You will understand what it is like to be spiritually dormant because many of you have gone through the same thing. The only difference is people often expect more of a pastor. We want our pastors to be more holy than ourselves.
I’ve got my own problems, but here is the problem for you. John doesn’t put a religious leader higher than a soldier, a tax collector, or someone who is wealthy. He wants us all to live more ethically. And to live more ethically in the place we are at right now. This is done by living out our love for our neighbor.
The other day while I was sitting in my car waiting to get coffee in a drive-thru lane, a woman behind me started waving her arms and yelling at me. When I got out of my car to see what she wanted, she told me that I had left keys in the back door lock. Embarrassed, I thanked her, got the keys and returned to my car. When it came time to pay, I decided to pick-up her $1.90 bill. It made me feel good. I’m sure she felt good and it made the two drive-thru workers feel good. It cost $1.90 to make four people feel happy.
It takes a lot of energy to maintain our anger, even more to cover it up with pretty leaves. On the other hand, loving our neighbor costs so little and produces so much. Perhaps we should be deciduous people, periodically shedding our leaves of hatred and opening ourselves up to love. It takes so little energy.
This Advent Sunday instead of lighting a candle in a closed room, I invite you to prepare your hearts by doing some random act of love for a neighbor. Then let that light shine for all to see. It will feel so good.