Summary: John the Baptist (and John Wesley, too) said that repentance would bear fruit in a changed life. Preparing for the coming of Christ means living and life of repentance and bearing the fruit that reflects that repentance.
Merry Christmas. Here’s your orange. No joke. An orange was a pretty common Christmas gift in years gone by, especially during the Great Depression. A child would awaken on Christmas morning to find a stocking stuffed with an orange, and apple, perhaps a banana, a few nuts, and if especially blessed, some hard candy. That was Christmas…that, and a trip to church on Christmas morning. Yet, that fresh fruit represented a sacrifice for the parents. Not much fresh fruit in the wintertime, unless you lived in southern California or Florida. If there were other gifts they were usually homemade or handmade. And, they were special. It was a time when it truly was the thought that counted. Getting fruit for Christmas was a big deal, and might I suggest this morning, giving fruit for Christmas is a big deal.
When I say fruit, I’m not talking about apples and oranges, although go online and type in “fruit for Christmas” on google, and you’ll get 111 million results, and at least the first three pages will be websites selling fruit baskets for Christmas, so there must still be lots of fruit given at Christmas time. No, I’m talking about the fruit of repentance of which John the Baptist speaks, and which we read a few moments ago. John the Baptist was working to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, and part of the preparation was repentance.
John the Baptist preached repentance, and the words we heard today are some pretty harsh words, but when people heard the words, they were cut to their hearts. We hear this gruff character with his wild clothes and wild diet proclaiming what sounds like to us a “turn-or-burn” message. Seriously, nowhere in the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People does it ever suggest you begin your message by calling your audience a bunch of snakes. But, it worked for John! People were responding to his message. When you boil his message down to its essence you find a very simple imperative—repent. Repentance prepares the way for the coming of Christ.
What do we mean by repentance? Well, John the Baptist was not “politically correct” in the way he talked about repentance, but that doesn’t change the necessity of repentance if one was going to be ready for Christ. God is a holy God, and God desires a relationship with us, but we let sin get in the way. Repentance is an acknowledgement that we’re on the wrong path. That’s what John was saying to his first century audience, and when they heard John, they knew something was missing. They all wanted to know, “What should we do?”
When we talk about repentance, we’re not simply talking about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s not enough to feel sorry in your heart for wrongs committed. It’s not enough to regret choices made that didn’t honor God. Something needs to be done. Outward actions must accompany inward decisions. Repentance is not simply a private, personal choice that one makes in the quietness of a solitary moment. Repentance means changing directions. Repentance is not simply coming to the realization that “I’ve made some bad decisions…I’m sorry for getting in this mess!” No, repentance means ‘turning around’, getting on a different road, getting things right with God.
What should we do? That was the question the people asked John that day, and John was more than willing to answer them. John says to prove that you’re changed by the way you live…produce fruit that shows your heart.
Now, wait a minute, preacher. What’s with this fruit thing you’re talking about? Producing fruit? Aren’t you getting mighty close to works righteousness? You’re not telling me I have to work my way to heaven, are you? No, no, no! Fruit doesn’t guarantee our salvation. What John is implying, and what the Bible teaches is that fruit comes as a result of our salvation. That’s exactly what John Wesley taught, too. He talked about producing “fruit meet for repentance.” It was for him about turning from doing evil and learning to do well. That’s what John the Baptist told the people gathered around him that day, “Stop what you’re doing and do something else instead.” “If you’ve got enough food and clothes, give some of it away.” “If you’ve been dishonest, don’t be dishonest anymore.” “If you’ve been discontented with anything, don’t be discontented any longer…at least not about those things.” An inward attitude should be reflected in an outer change. The inward attitude should be reflected in the fruit our lives bear. To say it another way, fruit is the tangible way to measure the work of God in the body of Christ.
If I may be practical for a moment, I see four specific fruit John mentions that reflect a changed life. First, there is generosity. Do you have two coats? Give one away to the poor. Generosity shows our preparation for the coming of Christ. Second is compassion. Do I have food? Share it with the hungry! Third, I see integrity. He spoke to the tax collectors and said, “Don’t collect more taxes than you’re supposed to. Be honest.” And, to the soldiers, he said, “Don’t extort money from people or lie about them.” Don’t do what you’ve become accustomed to doing. Do life differently. Finally, I see contentment. John says to the soldiers, “be content with your pay.” Generosity, compassion, integrity and contentment—those are certainly very practical ways to live a new and different kind of life. Each of these certainly indicates a change in the direction of a life.