Bearing Fruit in the Wilderness
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18
When I think of John the Baptist, there are a few aspects of his life that stand out, one of which is where he chose to call home: the wilderness. There are various things we think of when we think of ‘wastelands’ or ‘wildernesses’. Dryness – certainly true in some wildernesses: the Atacama Desert, for example, has never experienced rain, with some areas – scientists believe – having never experienced rain in around 40 million years. Emptiness is also a word that springs to mind – the Rub’ al Khali – aka. the Empty Quarter – is the largest sand desert in the world, covering 650,000km of the Arabian Peninsula, and consisting of little more than sand. Often, wildernesses are not the best place for growth, both physical and – arguably – spiritual. Robert Bogucki, an Alaskan fireman, found this out when he set off on foot into the Australian desert in an attempt to become closer to nature. He was found 43 days later, having survived by drinking muddy water and eating flowers, 20kg lighter. Moreover, the authorities concluded that he had got himself lost deliberately, and so asked him to foot the $72,000 bill that had been accumulated by the rescue effort.
Sometimes, our walk with God can feel like a walk in the wilderness – empty, lifeless, impersonal, with no perceivable growth. Some of you may indeed be Christian by name or by baptism, but feel like you’ve never experienced a relationship with God deeper than church every Sunday morning. In the passages we read today, John points to the solution – we need to bear fruit. Often, however, this seems impossible – how can we bear fruit in an environment which seems so much like a wilderness?
The concept of bearing fruit appears a lot in the Bible, from Jesus’ parables in which he talks of those who remain in Him ‘bearing much fruit’, to the fruits of the Spirit – which, thanks to an annoyingly addictive song from Messy Church, I know by heart are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. But why is it a problem if we are not bearing these fruits – these outward signs of inward grace – that show that God is making a difference in our lives? One reason, John points to, is that we can get complacent. Even in John’s time, people believed that because Abraham was their father – that because they were part of God’s chosen people – they had already been given the holy thumbs-up. John brings their perceptions – and ours – crashing down, reminding them that God could create more people for Himself from the rocks on the ground if He wanted to. This speaks worlds to us today as Christians – we have done nothing to come close to earning the right to become children of God; our salvation is not guaranteed by the name or identity we go by.
God’ attitude to bearing fruit has always been direct – a lot of the descriptions about it in the Bible use agricultural imagery. Jesus describes how the withered branches of the vine are burned (John 15:6); John relates how the trees that do not produce fruit will be cut down, and how the chaff – that is, the waste from the harvest – will be burned also. Fire – in Biblical imagery – usually means judgement. Judgement is not something we like to talk about in the church. It’s a hard concept to grasp: that God, who we know as loving – who we know at this time of year as a small baby in a manger – would be the same God who promises to come and judge the world. Yet John references ‘the coming wrath’ even in this passage, and in Zephaniah 3:8, God promises to pour out His wrath on all the nations.
Yet without God’s righteous judgement, what was there for Jesus to save us from; what was the point of Him coming at all? At Christmas, we sing that ‘long lay the world in sin and error pining’, and celebrate ‘the dawn of redeeming grace’, without ever really thinking about the reality of that sin, or what God might be redeeming us from. The reality is that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’ – us included – and that is the point that many people miss. The people who approach John believe that they are somehow exempt from God’s wrath, when in actuality, God is coming to judge the whole world, Christians included.
That’s the bad news. The Good news is that Christ did not choose to remain as a lone, fruitful vine, stood at the edge of the wilderness whilst His children struggled to bear fruit alone. Instead, He stepped into the wilderness of this world in order that it might bear fruit. John speaks of the axe being ready at the foot of the unfruitful trees, but before the axe falls, he announces the coming Messiah, whose power is greater than anyone else’s. Teachers – or Rabbis – at this time would not be paid in money by their students, but in service. Yet untying the sandals of their teacher was considered too menial – too base a task – to allow their students to do. John is placing himself below even that level, and we too are with John in this, compared to the glory of Christ.
We have never earned our right to become children of God. We cannot produce fruit on our own, in the same way that a tree cannot produce fruit – even if it tries really hard – if it is not connected to the earth. Without Jesus, the wasteland cannot bear fruit, and yet that is exactly the reason Jesus came. In Isaiah 40:3 is the familiar prophecy which points to John the Baptist, and yet there is something interesting in the way that it is phrased. Instead of saying ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord”‘ – which I had always thought it said – it reads ‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord”‘. The path that Jesus chose to walk was in the wilderness, amongst His people – as Isaiah 43:19 puts it, God proclaims His purpose thusly: ‘I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’ Jesus came to give life, and abundantly so. He came to take away our punishment and, as Zephaniah puts it, to gather the exiles – us, who were separated from God by our sin – and showering them with praise and honour instead. God loves us so much that – despite our inherent inability to produce fruit – He cut off His own Son’s life so that we could be transplanted back onto the vine.
So what should our response be to this? If you’ve felt yourself wandering from God – or if you’ve never accepted the forgiveness that Jesus Christ bought for you on the cross – then repent by all means – turn 180 degrees back to God – but don’t stop there. In the words of John the Baptist, ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ Keep following Jesus – He wants to work wonders in your life, and produce spiritual fruit in such abundance that when people look at you, they see the hands of God at work. I want to finish with the story of a man called Robert Robinson. Robert Robinson was a clergyman from 18th century England, who was also a talented poet and hymn writer. Despite these accolades, Robinson left the ministry a few years down the line and moved to France, descending into a life of sin. One night, he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite, who had recently become a Christian. She asked his opinion of a poem, and proceeded to read him the first stanza: ‘Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise.’ As she read the words, Robinson began to cry – when the woman asked why, he confessed that he had written the poem, and yet now felt that he had wandered so far from God since then that he could not find his way back. The woman responded that the answer was in the third line – ‘streams of mercy never failing’ – and that those streams were flowing in the streets of Paris that very moment. Those streams are flowing here at St. Laurence’s too, right now. If you’re looking for a way back to Christ, follow the streams of mercy – flowing through the wilderness which many of us find ourselves in – all the way back to the cross, where the way to God was bought by the love of Jesus Christ.