Sermon for Sunday, December 4th, 2022, the Second Sunday in Advent
The Lessons: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-15; Romans 15:1-13; Matthew 3:1-12
The Text: Matthew 3:1-12
The Topic: Bear good fruit befitting repentance
Jimmy had trouble pronouncing the letter “R”; so his teacher gave him a sentence to practice at home: “Robert gave Richard a rap in the rib for roasting the rabbit so rare.”
Some days later the teacher asked him to say the sentence for her. Jimmy rattled it off like this: “Bob gave Dick a poke in the side for not cooking the bunny enough.”
He had evaded the letter “R.”
There are a lot of people today – including Christians – who go to great lengths to avoid the “R” word of “Repentance.”
MATTHEW 3:1-12: ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST’S WARNING TO THE PHARISEES
Crowds of people were coming out into the desert of Judaea to hear the preaching of John the Baptist and to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins, but John issued a dire warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees as they came for baptism, since he saw that they might well be avoiding real repentance. He has strong words for them:
O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
(Matthew 3:7b-9, KJV)
He implies by this that the Pharisees and Sadducees are so deeply rooted in evil that it is almost impossible for them to turn away from it and turn to God to begin a new and righteous life. It is a wonder that someone even warned them “to flee from the wrath to come”! He warns them to guard against the pride of assuming that just because Abraham was their forefather, they are acceptable to God. Pride in their Jewish ancestry will not save them! Instead of avoiding real repentance, they must embrace it and bear the good fruit that shows repentance. Later in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Lord Jesus himself issues a similar warning against false prophets:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
(Matthew 7:15-20, KJV)
In our Gospel Lesson today, John the Baptist proclaims the same imminent judgement that the Lord himself preached in the Sermon on the Mount:
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
(Matthew 3:10, KJV)
For four hundred years since the last prophet had spoken in Israel, there had been a prophetic silence, and now John the Baptist had appeared, one of whom the Lord spoke as “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9) and the Messenger whom God had prophesied through Malachi that he would send to prepare Christ’s way on earth (Matthew 11:10; Malachi 3:1). Isaiah had also prophesied “the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3). The prophetic predictions of God’s judgments on Israel and Judah for their rebellious idolatry had been fulfilled long before, and the prophesied restoration of Israel to Canaan had come to pass. The prophetic focus now more clearly illuminates judgment as an individual matter -either one is a good tree bearing good fruit, or a bad tree bearing rotten fruit. The coming of John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus illuminates the fact that bad trees will not be allowed to stay in the ground forever! The axe is laid to the root of every such tree.
GRACE GIVEN IN AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A REPENTANT WAY OF LIFE
A new opportunity is presented to everyone in Israel first through John’s Baptism of repentance, and then to all people everywhere through Christian Baptism: it is the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, to begin a completely new life in Christ as a good tree bearing good fruit. Baptism marks this turning point, revealing repentance and faith, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord Jesus himself submitted to John’s Baptism of repentance and added something far greater to it – his own Baptism of the new believer with the Holy Spirit and with fire, as prophesied by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11). Christian Baptism did not dispense with repentance, as though it were signified only by John’s Baptism, but incorporated it as necessary for the effective bearing of good fruit after Baptism. The Pharisee, the Sadducee, the religious person, especially, on account of the hypocrisy and pride to which they are prone, must show the fruit of repentance. The Holy Spirit indwelling the believer after Baptism works in him to bear the good fruit that is called the fruit, or harvest, of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22. What is this good fruit? It is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22, ASV). Bearing good fruit means that our thoughts, words, and actions reveal these virtues. It is the indwelling Spirit of God who produces all these virtues in us to replace the natural vices we otherwise show.
ASPECTS OF REPENTANCE
Repentance consists of a whole new way of life lived to please God and a mind renewed by God’s Spirit and his word. St. Paul indicates this in his exhortation to the Roman Christians:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
A mind renewed by God’s word and a life completely given over to God are essential to repentance.
Everyone has the choice to live a repentant life or not, but in this passage the Lord sets before us two images of those who reject repentance and the bearing of good fruit in their lives. The first is of trees about to be cut down because they are good for nothing else, and the second is of chaff, the useless husks of grain that have been separated by winnowing or threshing, being burned with unquenchable fire, which is itself an image of eternal hell.
The choice lies before each of us today, and every Christian, by virtue of his calling, should have opted to be a good tree bearing good fruit by the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. To do this effectively and lastingly, we must all cooperate with the Holy Spirit, following his direction in all we think, say, or do.
I end with Archbishop William Temple’s Prayer of Self-Dedication:
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Prayer 73, p.668, The Book of Common Prayer. ACNA, 2019. Traditional Language Edition, 2022)
 p.663, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007.