I believe with all my heart that each of us is created good. Very good. I also believe many forces in this world try to trick us into being people we aren’t. Some tricky forces even make their way into our hearts…making us people who are fearful and violent rather than faithful and at peace. Jesus, being both human and divine, is the one who helps us back to being the very good people we are. That’s the story we prepare our hearts to hear this Advent.
Matthew 3: 1-12
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 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.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 9 and do 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. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His 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.”
I love this story. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Yet as often as I’ve read it, I hadn’t noticed until this week that John the Baptist gets something wrong. He says, “I am not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.” That’s not true. He says it in the context of being a messenger of repentance. I wonder if he’s thinking about all the things he’s let into his heart that are not good. He does use some pretty harsh imagery for trees that don’t bear fruit and chaff burned off from the wheat. He’s wrestling with his own demons here- that’s the only way he would know the power of repentance.
Over the years I’ve defined repentance in several ways. At its core it means: turn around- go in the opposite direction. Using John’s imagery, it means being able to recognize when we’re NOT producing good fruit. Because when we can recognize it’s happening, we can start producing good fruit again! Being the people we are created to be.
A lot of people who read this text focus on the Pharisees, or the very cheery advent term “you brood of vipers.” These are folks who think their lineage (born into wealth & influence) makes them better than others. This is a problem, but I don’t think wealth & influence is the core issue. I think what John the Baptist eludes to himself is the problem. People who don’t believe they’re worthy of dignity try to take it from others. That’s the core motivation for greed and violence.
This is my theory about why we can’t achieve world peace. I believe that deep down, people in power who choose greed and self-indulgence, even to the point of enacting policies of violence against others, don’t actually know their own worth- they’re trying to fill a spiritual void with earthly things. Bullies have been bullied, we know this, or at least they think power is something outside of themselves to be gained by taking it away from another.
Bullies are not alone- most people I know have a really hard time accepting their worth. Jesus created us good, very good, we don’t need to prove ourselves to anyone else. It’s the destructive forces in this world, like greed and fear and hatred that try to convince us otherwise. I’d go as far as to say this is what makes humans spiritual equals. All of us struggle at times to claim ourselves worthy of producing good fruit.
When we hear God’s voice, calling us the very good humans we are, that’s when repentance happens. THAT’S when we say, “God, I’ve gotten it wrong. I don’t need to steal someone else’s dignity to find my own. YOU produce good fruit in me, I will cultivate what you have sown. Let that be enough.” But cultivation is hard work. Those evil forces don’t rest. Bearing good fruit is labor, and labor hurts.
When Jesus said YES to his path on earth, he knew he’d have to sacrifice his power to give us ours. And by enduring the evil forces of this world on our behalf, he redeemed humanity’s chance at getting it right. He gave us back the ability to see clearly- to understand in our very spirits that our worth is NOT of this world. Our worth is revealed in the good fruit of hope, peace, joy, and love.
This is what it means to bear fruit worthy of repentance. To admit when we are wrong, when we’ve hurt another. To turn over a new leaf when we are not producing good fruit. If we ALL knew the power of repentance, (leaders & everyday citizens alike) I believe we’d experience true peace. But not everyone is ready to hear the voice crying out in the wilderness, not all are able to be their truest selves just yet.
We can get focused on world peace, something abstract and likely not within our reach to change. But we DO have agency over our hearts & our everyday decisions. Let’s use this Advent season to be people who reflect on the fruit of our lives. What forces are at work trying to make us OTHER than the good people God created? These forces aren’t mysterious- they’re often mundane. When I lose my patience with my kids, it’s because I haven’t prioritized rest, prayer, play, and nutritious food. Those are the ingredients I need to bear the fruit of peace in my home. So why don’t I? That’s the question a repentant spirit will ask.
What ingredients do you need to grow good fruit of hope, peace, joy, & love? What forces must you say NO to in order to prioritize the health of your very good mind, body, and soul? “God, help us cultivate what you have sown, let that be enough as our Advent prayer today, amen.”
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Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.