Sermon / Pr. Ted Giese / Sunday December 4th 2016 - / Matthew 3:1-12 / A Sound and Good Warning
Mount Olive Lutheran Church / Pr. Ted A. Giese / Sunday December 4th 2016: The Season of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12. "A Sound and Good Warning"
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord. Amen.
Grace Peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Good Christian Friends. Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. This doesn’t sound good. However an axe isn't always a bad thing ... an axe in the hand of a firefighter who is chopping down your door to rescue you from the fire burning in your home is a welcome sight, or the axe in the hand of a father with his kids in the snow covered country side chopping down a evergreen tree for the family home in Advent preparation for Christmas also isn't such a bad thing, providing that they aren't trespassing and that they aren't chopping down the tree illegally. The axe in today's Gospel reading is not such a bad thing either, not at least for the Christian, the axe in today's reading is a warning. It is an image of alarm. And if you take the warnings, if your listen to the alarm, these kind of things are there to keep you safe.
God our Heavenly Father provides in Scripture images like the axe, images we can relate to: Axes, Trees, Fire, Fruit – What does your mind see when you hear the word axe in John the Baptizer's mouth, when you hear his other words? Does your minds make the axe sharp, the trees withered, the fire blazing hot, the fruit full of worms or golden in the early morning sun. Let's put a couple more words into the mix today: When I say Pruning Hook, when I say imagine A Vine with Branches - is the pruning hook delicate or sharp, is the Vine green, with leafy branches, or is it brown and spindly and dead?
Back to the picture of the axe. If the axe is a warning, and it is, what kind of warning is it? Today you might think of it as a red light or a stop sign. The red light is a sign to stop as is the octagon of the stop sign. If you are driving in the car and you disregard the red light, disregard the stop sign what will happen? If you are driving in the car and you disregard every single red light you encounter, disregard every single the stop sign you come across what will happen? You will have an accident, and furthermore that accident will be your fault. You may die, others may die. People will be hurt. Disregard enough red lights and you will die and they will pull your dead body out of the twisted wreckage of your destroyed car. When John the Baptizer says, "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." He is saying be warned! Stop what you are doing, obey the law or there will be tragic consequences. Not just the loss of life but the loss of eternal life. Take your foot off the gas pedal and hit the brakes. Don't be distracted by how well you think you are able to drive, obey the rules of the road.
In our Gospel we hear how the Pharisees and Sadducees had heard of the baptism of John the Baptizer; And we hear how John was surprised to see the Pharisees and Sadducees at the Jordan River seeking out this baptism of repentance that John offered in the name of the Lord.
John was surprised because the Pharisees and Sadducees were the kind of people who thought that they had everything figured out. They were the sort who thought their "driving" was perfect but as it turned out, and as John well knew, these Pharisees and Sadducees weren't perfectly following the "rules of the road." In fact they'd made up a bunch of new rules and they were following them.
John was surprised that they had made the trip down to the Jordan River from Jerusalem because his was a baptism that created the deep desire to repent and the Sadducees and the Pharisees believed that they were righteous with little to nothing to repent of. And when the Sadducees and the Pharisees wanted to repent they had the Temple, they were the Children of Abraham, they had box seats at the Temple, they had seasons tickets. Even still John knew that they were in danger. So John says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
The question hanging over the appearance of the Sadducees and the Pharisees was this? ... What did their arrival indicate? Were they coming to investigate and incarcerate John, to throw him in prison or maybe have him stoned to death on the spot? Or were they genuinely there at the river seeking what all the rest came looking for, a baptism of repentance, did they come to confess their sins? John says to them, “Even now the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Are you coming to warn me? Be warned, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Picture the axe with the Ten Commandment, which you and have not kept - which I have not kept - emblazoned on the head of the axe and you start to get a picture of what John is saying to them.
The Gospel today form the Gospel of Matthew says that John came to, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” How does Jesus come to you? Does He come with the axe? Looking for trees to chop down? Is the axe the only tool Jesus has at His disposal? After Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by the hand of John the Baptizer, during Jesus' public ministry Jesus tells a story, a parable about a tree, Jesus says, “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” The Lord is the vinedresser in this parable, in this story that He told. What then does this tells us about Jesus? What will Jesus be like? Psalm 145 tells us that, "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." Jesus comes to you with forgiveness, He comes to you with more than an axe He comes with a shovel and with fertilizer.
Think for a second about the parable Jesus tells about the fig tree? How many years did the man who owned the tree come looking for fruit? Three years, what does the vinedresser say? Give me one more year to produce fruit. That adds up to four years. Hold that in your mind. In the book of Exodus when the Ten Commandments are being given God says, "I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to a thousand generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments." The Lord is quick to love and His love is great. Which is He more quick to use? The axe or the shovel? What else is He prepared to do for you in your life today?
Because the Lord desires us to grow good fruit He comes to us also with a pruning hook, and with it we are pruned. In fact God is not only the vinedresser, Jesus also tells us that He Himself, Jesus is The Vine. We in Christ are not a tree alone, but in Christ Jesus, Jesus tell us that we are part of His Vine, Jesus makes us branches on His Vine: Jesus says: “I am The True vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the Vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I Am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, … bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
“Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Why do Christians experience illness and then recover? Why do we experience setbacks in our work and then success? Why do we experience loss and then fulfillment? Why do we find ourselves in pain in this life only later to find joy in every circumstance? We are being pruned. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” This is the fruit that God is looking for, it is also the fruit God grows in us in our Christian life. Jesus came that we would have these things – He did not come simply to use an axe on every tree He encountered He came so that the Father could pick up His pruning hook and work on producing good fruit in us – the sort of fruit that benefits our neighbors and everyone around us. Fruit produced by Christ Jesus in us not by our own working.
But you say, I'm not a tree that bears good fruit! I'm not a branch that bears good fruit. In my sin I have no love, no joy, no peace, no patience, no kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control. Christ Jesus had and has all of these things and at the tree of the cross Jesus took on your bad fruit so you can have His good fruit, so that the Lord can produce this good fruit in you. At the tree of the Cross, with Jesus hung there on it for you in your place the axe is used and the tree of the cross, the cursed tree that is barren of anything good, the tree of sin, that tree is cut down and thrown in the fire. Three days later after the wrath of God had been poured out: Jesus comes forth from the ashes - walks out of the tomb - no longer dead but alive. You are now baptized into this same Jesus and as John the Baptizer said, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." The fire we experience throughout our life is like the pruning hook: it is the refiners fire the one that burns away our dross, our impurities, leaving purity and precious gold. Golden fruit that gleam in the early morning light.
Yes, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, our Lord, we need not live our lives in fear: In your baptism you have joined a people of repentance, a people who can confess their sins to their Lord and receive forgiveness. Because of His Son, we are no longer alone we now have a Heavenly Father and the Axe is put aside in favor of the pruning hook – we have become branches on the Vine and we will bear fruit for it is the Father's will that we bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
The axe then for you is a warning. And just as you would avoid running a red light, for your own good and the good of your passengers and your fellow drivers, we likewise take heed of the warning of the axe. It is there to be, "a curb, a mirror, and a guide." It is there for our benefit, a sound and good warning. One that we can embrace without terror, or dread. The axe is there because God loves you, loves us and loves the whole world. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord, have mercy on us, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, “take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
 Matthew 3:10
 Luke 13:6-9
 Psalm 145:8
 John 15:1-5
 Galatians 5:22-23