Fruits Worthy of Repentance

The Rev. Wes Conn
Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church, December 13, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



I’ve been collecting nativities for as long as I can remember. I used to plead with my first-grade teacher to laminate (yes, I just said “laminate”) my paper nativity cutouts. My childhood self once caused quite a stir over the nativity at church. You see, I could never wait to put Jesus in the crib; I insisted on having Jesus in the manger as soon as the crèche was unboxed. My church, however, knew the value of Advent and thus waited until Christmas to place Christ in the church nativity display. One Christmas I became so obstinate in my pursuit to have the baby Jesus immediately added to the church’s crèche that my parents, likely out of desperation, asked the pastor to make an exception. I must have made quite the compelling argument because the wooden figure of Christ made its way into the church’s nativity well before Christmas that year.

The words of the Prophet Isaiah have been calling out to us now for three Sundays; we read them as our lessons and hear them in our Call to Worship, saying “Be prepared. Make a way in the wilderness for the Lord. Ready a highway in the desert for our God.” Easier said than done. Being prepared is work. Our students might have something to say about this as they conclude exams and submit papers, all of which they’ve been preparing for quite some time. And I think we all might have something to say about the effort and emotion of preparedness in a pandemic: empty shelves, tired Zoom rooms, and life-saving pieces of cloth that we dare not leave our homes without. For so many of us, there are things for which we might never be prepared: a positive Covid test, the loss of a job, or the death of someone near and dear to us.

We are now three Sundays into the season of Advent, the time of preparation and expectant waiting. In theory, our preparing-the-way should be well underway. Our Gospel lesson today reminds us that we have an obligation here and now. The text begins with fiery words from John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers,” he shouts. That’s not how most professors of homiletics suggest starting a sermon, but it does get one’s attention. Luke’s rendering of this story says that John the “baptizer” is preaching to the crowds, and it seems today that we are a part of the crowd. And with only one Sunday left in Advent, we would do well to listen to what John has to say.

Advent is a time of preparation and waiting, yes. But it’s for whom and what we are preparing and waiting that matters. It’s easy to look at Advent as a simple countdown to the 25th of December. Who hasn’t spent Advent preparing to recreate the warm fuzziness of a past Christmas? Or perhaps used Advent as a time to avoid the despair so often felt in this season? The disruption in our lives right now is the perfect context for getting at the real preparation work of Advent, and now is the right time to hear what John has to say about it.

John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, is warning of a coming judgement. His warning echoes the cautionary visions of the prophets: The time to shape-up and change is now — the axe is lying at the root of the tree; the winnowing fork is ready to separate the wheat from the chaff. John’s preaching of judgement makes clear that things are not as they should be. The hills are not made low, the rough places have not been made plain, and the paths are crooked. Visions of justice and equity remain just that: visions. The last are not first, and the first are not last. John knows that there is work to do.

The crowds, like us, are waiting on the Messiah. The immediacy with which John preaches makes it apparent that this crowd is getting too comfortable in their waiting. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” exclaims the locust-eating preacher. It’s easy to wait for God and the Messiah to come straighten the paths, smooth out the rough places, and make low the high places. This, however, is what John is warning against: the axe is at the root and the winnowing fork is ready — now is not the time for idle waiting. There is not someone else who is coming with a wand to wave everything in order.

John, in his street-preacher voice, spoke with great alarm to the crowds: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John’s words are clear. The crowd has a hand in bringing about the world that is promised by the Messiah. The crowds have a part in ushering in the justice and peace for which they hope, so the crowds ask John, “What then should we do? What are fruits worthy of repentance?” John replies,

“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise… and tax collectors: collect no more than the amount prescribed for you; soldiers: you are to extort money from no one.”

These are the fruits worthy of repentance, says John. To prepare the way means to realign oneself with God. In fact, to “repent” in the original Greek means to “turn around.” And this is what we must do: turn around, go back whence we came, to God. John’s demands on us radicalizes Jesus’s command to love God and love neighbor, and he says this is what is worthy and right. We are called to let our lives be a display of change, of repentance. He says there is no time to wait; we must love now. Do good now. Hope now.

We know what is expected of us. This is not the first Advent and it won’t be the last. Jesus has taught us what is required for fruits worthy of repentance. Our lives, priorities, commitments, relationships, actions, prayers must all reflect an unrestrained concern for one another and for God.

The Rev. Peter Gomes, another fiery preacher, echoed John’s words when he said, “A responsible believer, an Advent believer, is one who acts as if the new age is here and now, and who accepts responsibility for bringing in that age. We do not wait for Jesus to come on the Advent tide: we act now, following what he has taught us, bearing in this world and time the fruits of repentance.”

To this day I remain true to the younger version of myself, displaying prematurely in each of my nativities the Christ tucked in the straw-filled manger among the ox and ass. I want and need Christ to be here now, and as a matter of fact he is. And that is all the more reason for me to bear fruits worthy of repentance, to make the rough places plain, to find the high places and make them low.

The work of Advent is about taking stock of our lives, asking ourselves hard questions, and about being our prayers. We’ve been praying for a lot this year, so our fruits of repentance should be many. We know what God’s kingdom looks like, so this Advent, let’s be it. As our familiar pilgrimage blessing says, “let’s be for ourselves and for others: A defense in emergency, a harbor in shipwreck, a refuge on the journey, shade in the heat, light in the storm, a staff on the slippery slope, joy amidst suffering, consolation in sadness, safety in adversity, caution in prosperity, that we may safely arrive where we are boldly going.”


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