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 do a Google search for “fruit for Christmas” and you’ll get 117 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 preached in Luke 3: 7 – 18. 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 he used were some pretty harsh words, but when people heard the words, they were cut to their hearts. We read the words of 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. Although, sometimes tough love can be the best love. We need tough love every now and again. Basically, though, John’s message boils down to 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 we’re changed by the way we live…produce fruit that shows our 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.
Perhaps we need to practice a little repentance as we prepare for the coming again of Christ. Maybe we already are! On Sunday, December 13th, the altar of First United Methodist Church, Monroe was filled with generosity. That day, the congregation celebrated “Christmas for the Children” and was, for me, I think, evidence of repentance. It was an overflowing generosity from this congregation…generosity borne out of a deep compassion for the poor and less fortunate. I was amazed as I saw each gift and considered its value, but its value was not in the money each person had invested. Its value is in the joy and hope it brings to every child who receives each gift. And, how many years has this generosity overflowed in partnership with the Salvation Army? Fifteen years together. That’s awfully good fruit!
You can watch the entire worship service by clicking here.
What an appropriate partnership, too. William Booth, along with his wife, Catherine, founded the Salvation Army in July 1865 to serve the poor in East End London. Before Booth founded the Salvation Army, he was a Methodist circuit preacher. Booth, like John Wesley before him, abandoned the conventional concept of a church and a pulpit, instead taking his message to the people. His fervor led to disagreement with church leaders in London, who preferred traditional methods. As a result, he withdrew from the church and traveled throughout England, conducting evangelistic meetings.
Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and drunkards were among Booth’s first converts to Christianity. To congregations who were desperately poor, he preached hope and salvation. His aim was to lead people to Christ and link them to a church for further spiritual guidance. Booth continued giving his new converts spiritual direction, challenging them to save others like themselves. Soon, they too were preaching and singing in the streets as a living testimony to the power of God. Generosity and compassion were changing the world. Methodists and Salvationists share a common thread of history of caring for the poor, rooted in the theology of John Wesley who said “does not God command us to repent and…also ‘to bring forth fruit meet for repentance’.” The fruit of our heritage, the fruit of our repentance, the fruit of our faith is generosity, compassion, integrity and contentment, and we bear this fruit, not only at Christmas, but every day that we live as disciples of Jesus Christ…as those who are preparing for His coming again. That’s our fruit for Christmas! Bear it…and, share it!
Until next time, keep looking up…