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Read John 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10 here.
What does an apple make you think of?
I learned something about the word apple this week. It didn’t always mean this specific kind of fruit. In Old English, apple was the word for fruit in general. Over time the meaning narrowed until it came to mean just this one kind of fruit. That’s why we imagine that the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple, but in the book of Genesis, it doesn’t say apple specifically. It’s more likely that it was something else, maybe a fig or a pomegranate.
Learning that the word apple used to have a more general meaning makes the word pineapple make so much more sense, doesn’t it? It’s a spiney fruit.
And hopefully now when you look at the card in our bulletins this week, you’ll see it as more than just an apple, but as the fruit that John the Baptist is talking about in his words from our reading from Matthew 3:
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Bearing fruit worthy of repentance means not settling for pacifier peace. How do we stop babies from crying? We give them a pacifier. It’s a handy thing to have, but it doesn’t always work. If a baby is really hungry, it doesn’t take too long for them to figure out that the pacifier isn’t going to satisfy their hunger. If the diaper needs changing and things are uncomfortable, the pacifier won’t solve that problem. It’s only good for a temporary peace. It’s pacifier peace.
Pacifier peace is not peace that makes a change or solves a problem. It’s quicker and easier. It might lull us to sleep. It might make us comfortable for a bit. But there’s still work to be done.
One of the ways we know that something needs to change is that we don’t have peace.
In our reading from Isaiah 11 for today we get a vision of what peace could look like when Jesus, the Prince of Peace, returns and reigns over all the earth. He describes a peaceful kingdom in which animals that are normally enemies are able to live together in peace.
Artist Edward Hicks created a series of paintings based on these verses. Maybe you’ve seen this is the one. There are 62 different versions because painting was one of the ways Hicks pursued his quest for inner peace. The idea of making 62 versions suggests that maybe Edward Hicks was wrestling with God over the meaning of these verses, kind of like the way Jacob was wrestling with God in the story we read from Genesis 32 (v22-32) a few weeks ago.
We’ve talked before about the deep peace that comes from trusting God. John the Baptist calls people to take the step that leads to that peace, turning to God and confessing our sins. In our gospel reading today, Matthew tells us that “. . . the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat 3:5-6)
Not just a few people. All of Judea. Crowds might have been drawn to see a strangely dressed man with fiery speech, but these crowds were also being baptized. It was a sign of their spiritual hunger. It was a sign that people needed change.
One of the ways we bear fruit worthy of repentance is to identify in ourselves the things we need to change, and turn to God or turn back to God and ask for God’s help in making that change. When we are having trouble finding peace, we need to ask God to help us change.
Some of the leaders of the temple came out to see what all the fuss was about. John the Baptist says the same thing to them that Jesus would say later on: You brood of vipers! Calling someone a snake is an insult that goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden where the snake encouraged Adam and Eve to disobey God. On the day when Jesus calls the leaders snakes, he tells crowds and the disciples:
“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses.[a] 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. 5 Everything they do is for show.” (Matthew 23:3-5)
Ouch! John the Baptist’s words are similarly biting. John’s words in the Message version are also funny:
“Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference? It’s your life that must change, not your skin! And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.”
Those leaders were standing on their traditions without letting God into their hearts, and continuing to live lives that lacked integrity. They may have thought everything was fine, as long as they could keep things going and keep the peace, but the response to John the Baptist should have been a sign to them that everything wasn’t so fine, and they were only achieving pacifier peace. When John the Baptist says “bear fruit worthy of repentance” he is challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees to make more than pacifier change.
My parents applied this idea in their parenting with me and my brother. When our arguments were not getting settled, it was time for a family meeting. Our lack of peace was often a symptom of a deeper issue that very often came from not really listening to each other.
One time my brother’s anger seemed entirely out of the blue to me. I couldn’t think of anything I had done to deserve it and I thought he just needed to stop being so difficult. But I had gone into his room and gotten into his personal belongings. I had thought it was no big deal, but to him was a huge invasion of his privacy. His anger was born out of being hurt that I didn’t respect his privacy, but also out of fear that I would do that again. He felt violated and unsafe, and I needed to understand that and make sure I didn’t do it again. My parents taught us that we needed to be willing to talk about our issues and find resolution. Though those were often some very difficult conversations, they were important.
Pacifier peace is easier, and sometimes necessary when it’s not the right time for a deeper discussion. Not settling for pacifier peace can mean we have some difficult work ahead. Christians are in the midst of a challenging season, one in which we cannot settle for pacifier peace. We’re used to doing the things we do, and we tend to approach situations as pacifier problems, when what we need to do is wrestle with God until we have a better understanding of the real needs and how to accomplish God’s purposes.
One of the ways we settle for pacifier peace is by ignoring a problem. We have said to people, why can’t you just let that go, like I was saying to my brother. The reason he couldn’t let it go was that there was more to the problem than I had realized.
We need to pay more attention when people can’t let things go and listen more deeply. One of my professors used to tell us to watch for the circling bird. The circling bird is the thing that someone keeps bringing up. They can’t let it go because it hasn’t been sufficiently addressed, and they’ll keep coming back to it until they find peace.
We’ve had some circling birds here in Sterling. How many of you have seen the Sterling Seven? For weeks those seven turkeys have been wandering around. This picture is from Sunday November 10 when they were hanging around here most of the morning. They’ve been showing up all over town and all over Facebook, but it wasn’t until KAKE news came to investigate that people started putting the stories together and realizing that something needed to be done because they were more than a cute photo opportunity. They’ve caused damage, and shooing them away was only pacifier peace. They’re now being relocated to the Quivera bird refuge.
In the Old Testament, the prophets were challenging the people not to settle for pacifier peace. False prophets were telling them what they wanted to hear, and the people would rather listen to them than to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the others who were telling them that they needed to change. Jeremiah challenges the false prophets, He says, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jer. 6:14)
Making lasting change takes work and practice and perseverance, so that we can bear fruit. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah, in our reading from chapter 11, tells us about some ways the Spirit helps us bring peace. He’s prophesying about Jesus who’s Spirit lives in us:
Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—
yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in obeying the Lord.
He will not judge by appearance
nor make a decision based on hearsay.
4 He will give justice to the poor
and make fair decisions for the exploited.
Wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Delighting in obeying the Lord. Not judging by appearance or judging by hearsay, giving justice to the poor and making fair decisions for the exploited.
It’s important that we pay attention enough to these to spot the circling birds, to not settle for pacifier peace. What are the things that are coming up over and over that keep us from having God’s perfect peace? Or that are the signs that others are in need of peace?
We see the signs of that need in the high rates of suicide, and the numbers of people who turn out for demonstrations over the issues that need to be resolved. We are a nation strongly divided partly because we aren’t really listening to each other.
One of the ways we know something needs to change is that we can’t find peace.
It will take some work.
Like the lady who made the cakes for all the events at our church in South Carolina. She was well known for how good her cakes were. Her grandson told us her secret. She would bake a cake and test it, and if she wasn’t happy with it, she would bake another one. Before she would settle on the one that came to church she might have made four or five cakes. She couldn’t simply settle for that first cake. And we cannot settle for pacifier peace. It might be ok for the short term, but it won’t last.
John the Baptist pointed out the need for change, and he baptized with water. Only Jesus could baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. We need to turn to Jesus to let the Holy Spirit work in us to make change and to bear fruit that will last (John 15:16). Let’s spend some time in prayer this week making apple pie, humbly asking God to help us see what needs to change, writing it down, and continuing to pray and take action to make those prayers bear fruit in our lives and in our world.