Isaiah 11:1-10 & Matthew 3:1-12

Roots and Fruits

As many of you know we have apple trees in the garden at the vicarage. When we first moved in there were three trees. Two great big trees that produced heavy crops of cooking apples and one, spindly little tree that produced a meagre crop of eating apples. I was talking to Gill Ireland about them, and she told me that they had always felt it was worth keeping the little one as, although the apples didn’t store very well, the tree did crop early in the year. Well, we did keep it for three years, with the crop reducing year by year, and it becoming ever more obvious that the tree was on its last legs. Until, this autumn, it was time to put it out of its misery, and down it came. You can’t even tell where on the lawn it was, unless you know where to look.

On the other side of the garden are the currant bushes, redcurrants and blackcurrants. Last weekend it was time to prune them, to cut back some of the new growth, to pick replacement shoots for branches that have stopped producing, and generally to get them fit to be as fruitful as possible next year. I’ve got one of those garden incinerators that look a bit like an old metal dustbin, stood on little legs, with holes round the bottom and a lid with a little chimney in the middle of it. There’s nothing like a clear, cold November day with lots of prunings and a fire to burn them up in.

Two years ago, when I did this pruning I didn’t burn all the prunings. I took some of the shoots that I had pruned off one of the blackcurrant bushes and planted them in the ground. Last winter I transplanted two of these new baby plants into the bed and gave them their first prune. Now I’m quite excited because they’re well established and have grown some promising new growth that looks like it will fruit, for the first time, next year.

An axe at the roots. A knife to prune. A shoot with the promise of new fruit.

A shoot with the promise of new fruit. That’s what Isaiah was talking about in the reading we had from his writings. He was a messenger from God, a prophet, who was describing a vision of the future that was linked to the history of the people of God. He lived at a time when immoral and wicked Kings were on the throne, and the people of God were following the example of their leaders and rejecting God. Some of Isaiah’s writings were warnings that God was going to withdraw his protection from the people, and cause them to be defeated and taken into exile, because of their unfaithfulness. In the chapter before he even uses the image of lofty trees being felled and forest thickets being cut down with an axe. We’ll come back to this.

But, for now, our focus is on the promise of the future. The Kings of Israel had not always been evil. There had been a hero King, a man after God’s own heart, a king called David. David who had defeated Goliath as a boy and gone on to forge the people of Israel into a true nation, with a capital in Jerusalem. David’s father was called Jesse. So, in that first verse, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse” Isaiah is recognising that Jesse’s line, through David will be cut off, it will become a stump. But, that’s not all, a shoot is going to grow from that stump, a shoot with the same DNA, bringing the royal line back to life, with all its original heart for God restored.

A new branch is going to bear fruit, and what fantastic fruit. Isaiah talks about the characteristics of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the Lord, right judgement, righteousness and faithfulness, there will be peace and reconciliation between creatures and between nations. This is even better than black currants. These fruit will grow and come from the life of this shoot because of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit working in the life of this person.

We look back, from our perspective hundreds of years later and we see the beginning of the fulfilment of this prophecy in Jesus’ life. He was, in his humanity, a descendent of the line of David. He was the only human being in history whose heart was completely in tune with God’s heart, because he was God’s son. In the next section of Matthew’s eyewitness account of the good news of Jesus, the bit after what we read this morning, we see Jesus being baptised and the Holy Spirit descending on him, empowering him and filling him, equipping him to bear the fruit that God had sent him to bear.

We have to be real and acknowledge that we haven’t yet seen the completion of the fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision. Jesus did show wisdom and knowledge, good counsel, righteousness and faithfulness, but we have not yet seen the overwhelming peace that brings all people together. That is what we continue to look forward to at his return, even as we celebrate his first appearance on earth as a baby.

As we do that, we are encouraged to look at our own lives.

From Matthew we read about John the Baptist. He was another prophet, a messenger from God, looking forward to Jesus ministry on earth and on into the future. The beginning of the fulfilment of this prophecy was just around the corner, just about to happen, as we just noticed, Jesus is about to be baptised and to begin his public ministry. As part of the call to God’s people to be ready for the soon arrival of Jesus, John is calling them to repent, to turn away from the things they were doing wrong, and to seek God’s forgiveness. He had a particularly strong message for the religious types who thought that they had it all sorted, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He tells them that they need to produce “fruit in keeping with repentance”.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of someone apologising to you, saying sorry, because they had to, or someone had persuaded them to, but you could tell that they didn’t really mean it. “I’m sorry if you took offense” is a typical sorry / not sorry turn of phrase isn’t it. You know when someone’s really sorry don’t you – they change their behaviour, they’re upset, they try and make amends. It might still be difficult to forgive them, but you can usually tell if they’re sorry or not. They produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

It’s the same for us before God. When we baptised Louie earlier, on his behalf his mum and dad and godparents turned away from sin, rejected evil, repented. When he grows up he will need to decide for himself whether he wants to continue to do that. We all have to make that decision. We have all done things wrong, gone our own way, rejected God’s ways. But it’s not just about saying the words, it’s about living the life, bearing the fruit of repentance. And that can be difficult, we have to swallow our pride and acknowledge that we were wrong, that we aren’t as good as we’d like to be thought.

We might have to prune away areas of our lives that lead us to sin. Places we go, people we meet, things we read or watch, things we eat or drink, patterns of thought. All things that might need pruning, which might be painful, but which can bring a greater harvest of repentance, forgiveness and new, peaceful, life in Jesus. And then, as a bonus we discover that we are also growing the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Also better than blackcurrants.

However, if we refuse to do this, if we refuse the pruning and the promise of fruit, then there remains the warning of the axe. Both Isaiah and John talk about the axe that cuts down the unfruitful tree.

This teaching is echoed by Jesus later in his life when he’s teaching his disciples about remaining in him, about being connected to him as the fruitful grapevine is connected to the main vine. Jesus talks about unfruitful branches being cut off and put on the bonfire.

The common thread is one that recognises that God gives us a choice and, when time ends, will honour our choice. If we choose to be part of what God’s doing, to live in God’s kingdom, to be connected with Jesus, and to bear good fruit then that will be our destiny for all eternity, we will get to continue doing that beyond this earthly life, beyond time itself. If, however, we choose not to be part of what God’s doing, to be disconnected from Jesus, to be unfruitful, then when our time on earth ends, so will we, because we will not be connected to the source of life.

The choices that Louie’s parents have made for him today are real choices, that have real consequences. In time he will have to decide whether or not he wants to own those choices for himself, just as we all do. It is my hope and prayer that he will choose to remain connected to Jesus, that the axe will come nowhere near him. I’m sure that at times in his life he will face some pruning, but it is my belief that as he embraces that, so his life will be more and more fruitful in the good things of God’s kingdom.

As we go through Advent, preparing to celebrate Christmas, we all have the opportunity to prepare for Christ’s return. To make sure that we are fully connected to Jesus, that we produce the fruit of repentance where we need to, and that we are working for the complete fulfilment of Isaiah’s great vision, the coming of the peaceful kingdom of God. It’s going to be better than blackcurrants.

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