Many years ago, on a cold morning, a newspaper boy in a large city was out on the street, selling his papers. He stood barefoot, warming his feet on a grating that had a bakery below.
A woman came along and, seeing how the boy was shivering, asked him if he owned any shoes. "No," he said. She then asked if the boy would like a pair. "Yes!" he replied enthusiastically.
So, the woman took him to a nearby department store and bought socks and shoes for the boy. At that, the kid excitedly ran out of the store and resumed selling his papers. He didn’t even take the time to say thank you. The woman was a little disappointed by this ingratitude.
But just as she was leaving the store, the boy ran back into the store and asked, “Lady, I wanna ask you a question. Are you God’s wife?”
She stammered, “No, but I am one of His children.”
The boy replied, “Well, I knowed you must be some kin of His.”
People can tell when we have a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ!
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is doing his special ministry of preparing people for the entry of Jesus into their lives. John calls the people to repent, to turn away from their sin so that their hearts will be emptied of evil and they can be open to the forgiveness that comes to all who receive Jesus as the God and Lord of their lives.
To signify their changed lives, John calls the repentant to be baptized in the Jordan River. Crowds show up in droves to hear John’s preaching and to be baptized.
John should have been pleased. By the standards of the world, he was a great success. He set up shop to preach and lots of people were heading for the desert outside of Jerusalem to hear him. He called people to be baptized and they lined up by the hundreds.
But John was suspicious. He didn’t want to be the latest fad, the spiritual flavor of the month. John wanted people’s lives to be changed as they surrendered themselves and their sins to God.
So, John started chastising the crowds: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that are worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ [It isn’t enough to say, “My mom and dad always went to church.” Or, “I’m a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.” John goes on to say...] for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham...”
It’s all very good for us to express sorrow for the ways we’ve hurt God or others, as the crowds who thronged to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. But, John says, unless we change the direction of our lives, our repentance is nothing more than a hollow religious act.
When we truly repent, we become like the woman who bought the shoes for the newspaper boy. By our changed lives, others see that we’re kin to God.
That’s why to one group of people after another in today’s lesson, John says, “Live your repentance. God has planted the seed of love and forgiveness in your life. Now bear fruits of repentance.”
There is nothing odder or more appreciated than the life of a person genuinely changed by the love of God, somebody who is bearing the fruit of genuine repentance.
An acquaintance of mine once told me about a habit she has. These days you know, it seems that young people are so dependent on calculators that many are flustered by having to count out change at retailers’ cash registers. My acquaintance says that often, a young person working at register will give them too much change. This person will say, “Excuse me. I think you’ve made a mistake.” And just as the young clerk is about to get defensive, she’ll explain, “You gave me a dollar too much.” When this happens, the mystified clerk will say something like, “Thank you so much. If I had been off, I wouldn’t have made my bank and been here all night long trying to figure what went wrong.”
And don't be surprised if some people will go out of their ways to test our commitment to the repentant life of a Christian. Walt Kallestad is pastor of Lutheran Community Church of Joy in the Phoenix area. He tells about being on his way to a meeting one day when he decided that he needed to pick up a soft drink at a convenience store. He pulled off, made his purchase, and was barreling down the road when he realized that the clerk had given him too much change. It was a mistake on the clerk's part. Nine people out of ten probably would have just gone on to their meeting and forgotten about the whole thing. But it bothered Kallestad. So, he turned around and went back to the clerk. "You gave me too much change," he said. "I know," said the clerk. "I was at your church last Sunday and heard you talking about the importance of honesty in business dealings. I wanted to know if you were for real."
I really do wish that those of us who follow Jesus would confound and mystify the world like that all the time, defying people's expectations that we Christians will hypocritically be as dishonest and unethical as the rest of the world. I wish that I woulddefy those expectations more!
Can you imagine the positive impact we could have on people if, with any consistency, we did as John the Baptist suggests today: bore the fruit of repentance, living as people grateful for Jesus, the Savior to Whom John pointed?
True story. Little Marty Rayner had returned from a secret mission with an unexpected item, a gift for his friend Kenny. Marty’s mother, Diane, watched her son wrap the gift in bright Christmas paper. Because Kenny’s family was poor but too proud to accept gifts they couldn’t reciprocate, Marty sneaked across the pasture, under an electric fence, and up to Kenny’s front door. He pushed the doorbell and then, ran like the wind.
The two boys were like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, always getting into little adventures together. Marty was deaf in one ear, but never complained about it. Kenny never seemed to mind his friend’s problem. Marty had bought a compass for Kenny with his own money and after Diane had explained about Kenny’s mom’s “admirable pride,” Marty decided that nobody ever needed to know who had left a Christmas present on Kenny’s front porch.
Diane was proud as she watched her eight year old son share a gift with no expectation of being rewarded. She thought to herself, “This must be what Christmas is all about!”
But when Marty came back from his errand, he was wobbly, his eyes filled with tears. What was wrong?, Diane wondered. As Marty came into the kitchen, Diane saw it: a bright red welt emerging on his face. In a hurry to escape from Kenny’s house undetected, Marty had run straight into that electric fence. It had knocked him down and stunned him. As Diane hugged her sobbing boy close, she wondered, as I suppose any parent would, how God could have let a boy doing something so wonderful be hurt like this.
Christmas day came. Diane and her family opened their Christmas presents. She could see that happily, the burn on Marty’s face, extending from his mouth to his ear, wasn’t serious. But even then, she wondered how God could allow such a cruel thing to happen to somebody who was so giving.
Later on Christmas morning, Kenny came to visit Marty. Kenny showed off his new compass and Marty just smiled and congratulated his friend. He never did tell Kenny that he’d been the one who gave this Christmas present Kenny so cherished.
“That’s when Diane noticed it. As the boys were talking closely with one another, Marty seemed to be hearing with the ear that was totally deaf. [There had been a Christmas miracle.]...the school nurse confirmed that Marty had full hearing in that formerly deaf ear. The doctor could only guess at what had happened—when Marty hit that electric fence, the doctor surmised that somehow the electric current had shocked that ear into hearing.”
I wish that I could tell you all this morning that if we live our faith the way Marty did, then miracles of healing and provision will come our way.
But that’s not the way things work in this imperfect world.
We bear fruits of repentance—we perpetrate acts of love and kindness and service—not so that we can earn heavenly miracles or get dibs on God’s love. We serve others because of the incredible service God has already done for us.
God isn’t a miserly old coot from whose clenched fists we have to pry love or blessings.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we live our faith because on the first Christmas day 2000 years ago, God already gave us the best Christmas present ever: His love and the possibility of new life through Jesus Christ to all who repent and believe in Him.
Jesus loved us enough to bear a cross for us. He loves us enough to share His victory over death with everyone who will genuinely turn from sin—repent—and follow Him.
Little Marty had no thought of his deaf ear when he gave that compass to Kenny. His eyes and his thoughts were on one thing only. He was thinking of the baby in the manger. He was thinking about Jesus.
This Christmas season, I hope and pray that all of us—including me—will put our focus on Jesus where it belongs.
When that happens, we might find ourselves doing odd and amazing things—like making anonymous gifts to needy neighbors or inviting unchurched friends to worship with us.
But however we respond to Jesus’ love, may this Christmas season find us all moving...
- from feeling our faith to doing it...
- from believing to living...
- from being blessed to being blessings.
By our service in the Name of Jesus, let’s show the world that we really are kin to God…and that by the same grace that saved us, they can be kin to God, too. Amen
[You might want to see this cartoon.]