“From Fear to Fruitfulness”
December 13, 2015
(Third Sunday of Advent)
By John Partridge
Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20 Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:7-18
We begin today with an easy question.
Have you ever been afraid?
Almost certainly, every single one of us can answer that “Yes” we have been afraid. But after that simple answer, things quickly get a lot more difficult.
We have all been afraid at one time or another. We might have been afraid of a bully, afraid of losing, afraid of looking foolish in front of our family or friends, when we were expecting babies or held them for the first time we were afraid of what the future might hold, we have been afraid as we watched loved ones spend their last moments on earth or as we attended their funerals and were forced to face a future without them, we were afraid as we sent our children off to school for the first time, or watched them leave for college, or move out of our homes as they started lives and families of their own. There are a great many moments in our lives when fear has crept in.
For the moment, I want you to find one of those places of fear inside of yourself and remember what it was like. Hold on to that feeling for just a moment, and imagine what the people of Israel might have felt as Zephaniah proclaims that God is about to bring judgment upon the nations of the world, Including Judah and Israel, because of their unbelief. At that moment, during the life of the prophet Jeremiah, the Scythians, a nation that had migrated out of what is now Russia, perhaps similar to the Mongols who would come later, had crossed into their nation and had destroyed the fortresses of both Ashdod and Ashkelon and only stopped at the Egyptian border when Pharaoh Psamtik paid them off. Soon, the Babylonians would rise to power, defeat the Assyrians and would also come into the lands of Canaan destroying cities, killing and capturing anyone who got in their way.
Fear was real.
And so, into that environment, Zephaniah pours gasoline on the fire of their fear by proclaiming God’s coming judgment. But… before he is finished, God also gives hope for the future with these words: (Zephaniah 3:14-20).
14 Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
18 “I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
19 At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the Lord.
Although judgment is coming, be glad. Although things look grim, do not fear. Never again will God leave you. Never again will you fear harm because God is the Mighty Warrior. God will deal with those who oppress you. God will rescue you and gather those who have been scattered. God says, “I will bring you home.”
Even though God’s people are afraid, and even though the worst is yet to come, God is already moving them toward hope and restoration.
Interestingly, in Luke 3:7-18, as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah, his message is very similar. John proclaims the coming of judgment but also offers helpful instruction… and hope.
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
I cannot remember a single time when I have taken classes on preaching or public speaking, when we have been advised to begin a message by openly insulting and taunting our listeners. In fact, I am virtually certain that this is a bad idea most of the time. But this is exactly what John does. I told the children last week that John was probably considered, by most people, to be pretty weird and this is yet another example of that. John begins by calling everyone snakes, and begins talking about judgment and the wrath of God.
According to John, no one can be saved because they were born in the church, born to people who went to church, or because they themselves go to church. For John, the only real measure of godliness is the fruit that grows out of repentance.
Today, some of us would almost certainly have a follow-up question because we wonder what the fruit of repentance would look like, and the people in the crowd felt exactly the same way. John’s answer to that very question is to share what you have with people who don’t have any. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. But even that isn’t enough because some people want to know specifics. Tax collectors, who were widely considered to be cheats, scoundrels, and collaborating with the enemy, are told to just do their jobs as honestly as they could. Soldiers, who were, in fact, the enemy, were told to do their job, not to take money they weren’t entitled to take, and not to accuse innocent people. It is interesting to note, that although both of these groups were widely hated because of what they did, John did not advise them to quit or to change jobs, but simply to do them honestly.
John then tells the people of the coming Messiah who will bring judgment as he separates the wheat (which is fruit) from the chaff (which is basically useless). Overall, John encouraged, admonished, advised and appealed to the people that they should hear the good news of the coming Messiah.
As we have been working our way through the Advent season, we have spoken often of repentance and the need to get our hearts right before God, but John tells us that repentance is just the first step. What comes next, producing fruit, is just as critical. Fruit trees without fruit will be cut down and burned in the fire. The wheat and the chaff will be separated and the useless chaff burned in the fire. John warns everyone, including us, that our purpose is to live a life of fruitfulness, to do our jobs well, but honestly, and to willingly share what we have with those who do not have.
But just in case we were still a little unclear on what a life of fruitfulness would look like, the Apostle Paul provides a little more detail in Philippians 4:4-7.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s addition to John’s teaching is to rejoice and give thanks always for the things that God has done and for the things that God is doing. But Paul also says that our gentleness should be obvious to everyone around us, and that is a harder thing for some of us to do. In our culture, many of us have found that weakness is scorned and strength is honored and so we, both men and women, have often cultivated a sort of public fierceness in order to appear strong. Paul’s instruction reminds us that gentleness is also necessary. Jesus was a stone mason. He worked with his hands and was no stranger to hard labor. Jesus was no wimp and was not afraid to defy the Temple guards as he overturned tables and stared down mobs that didn’t like his teaching. But at the same time, Jesus was known for his gentleness and self-control with women and children.
Additionally, the followers of Jesus Christ should not worry about anything but instead spend their time praying about their problems and giving thanks for what God was doing. Paul says that when we do these things, then we will find peace that is far beyond all human understanding.
And so the road that we travel from fear to fruitfulness may not be easy, but it ends in a truly wonderful place.
It is no coincidence that at the end of that journey, the person that we find is the same one of whom the angels sang…
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14, KJV)