Monday, November 30, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Fruitfulness

Preached on November 29, 2015, First Sunday in Advent

Scripture reading: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 1:5-25

My parents were married in 1951, on the 17th day of February. I was born in 1951, on the 24th day of November. That means I was born nine months and seven days after my parents’ wedding day (forty-one weeks). And I seem to remember, once, a long, long time ago, someone saying to my mom, “You were a fertile myrtle.”
Photos Taken at Desert Aire WA: November 2015
I was their first fruit. And, as their first fruit, the timing of my arrival was as quick, and as precise, and as respectable as anyone could wish.
I gave this sermon the title “fruitfulness” because I was afraid to call it a fertility sermon. And then I know so little about either one.
Fruitfulness and fertility can be a painful and embarrassing subject, whether we are talking about Sarah and Elizabeth, or Abraham and Zechariah, women or men. The opposite of being fruitful and fertile is to be barren.
Some of the most important stories in the Bible are about barrenness, and fertility, and fruitfulness. The stories tell us of babies promised and delayed to the point of impossibility. The stories tell us of babies in danger. God himself came to earth as a special kind of impossible baby who was nearly killed by the soldiers of the king.
The truth is that this goes far beyond the subject of motherhood and fatherhood. Human beings have, in their heart, the desire and longing to be fruitful. We think about being productive, of having something to give, of making a difference.
The Bible is full of the thought of every kind of fruitfulness. One of my old favorite verses in the Bible comes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, 17:7-8: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” This fruitfulness is not about babies.
Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit; fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) This has nothing to do with babies, either.
The desire to be fruitful seems to be a part of our simply being God’s creatures: be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 1:28) But God has a purpose and plan for all his creatures and (as human beings) we give thought and prayer to God’s purpose for us. For Abraham and Sarah a child was not only part of their desire for parenthood. The baby was also part of God’s promise for something much bigger. Remember God said to Abraham: “I will bless you so you shall be a blessing...By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves.” (Genesis 12) Fruitfulness is about blessing: making life full and happy. Sarah’s baby was all about the fullness and happiness of the world.
The Bible is the story about God’s love and it is also about our inclusion in God’s love. In that story, there are very important promises about babies. But it is not so much that the promises are about babies. The real point is that the babies are about promises. The promises are about God’s love for the world, God’s love for people, and God’s love for us.
The sin that spoiled the world was the desire of our first father and mother (Adam and Eve) to be free from love. They didn’t want to escape from love, but they also didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love.
They didn’t want to be dependant on God’s love alone. They wanted something more to fall back on.
They wanted to know everything for themselves. They wanted to know about good and evil, which was another way of wanting to know what was good for them and what was bad for them. They wanted to judge their options for themselves. They wanted to be qualified to make their own choices, to prove themselves, and to be in charge of their own fruitfulness. They would have the power to decide what their fruitfulness would be, and how to achieve it.
Because they didn’t want to be tied to the love of God they took actions that carried them outside of the story of God’s love. They didn’t lose God’s love. God still loved them. They were like intelligent plants that uprooted themselves from the soil of God’s love. They were like children who ran away from home.
The scars of their uprooting and the scars of their running away became our spiritual genetics. It was the loving gift of God to our first father and mother to give them this awesome responsibility: to decide what we, their children, would be in their footsteps.
Every parent has some responsibility in that direction, but no parent since the Garden of Eden has had such great power to channel the nature of all their children down to this day. God loves us infinitely, but our inherited instinct is either to run from love, or resist it, or control it, or make our own substitutes for it.
Until we have a new life in Jesus, until we die and rise with the one who died and rose for us, we are part of the old human race that doesn’t know how to be at home in the story of love. We need to be born into a new life with the God who became a baby for us in Jesus. In Jesus God has recreated a new human race that can bear the fruit of love.
Instead, we run. We resist. We control. We make our own substitutes. We bear fruit but we are not fruitful. We are like the root stock rose bush growing in my back yard. It was full of leaves and full of luxuriant growth, and it only bore one rose last summer.
The story of God’s love in the Bible shows us that, in the world as it is, and in us when we have at least one foot firmly planted in this world, fruitfulness is a miracle. Fruitfulness is really not our thing. Fruitfulness is God’s thing.
God promised Elizabeth and Zechariah a baby who would be named John, and who would be called John the Baptist (meaning that he would baptize people). This baby would grow up to be part of the story of restoring God’s love to the world and making a new and fruitful world through the kingdom of Jesus.
The message was, “He will go on before the Lord…to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous: to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17) John would grow up to play his part in the love of God. That love, in Jesus, would restore relationships, and enable people to live with wisdom, and to be ready to be taken into God’s story of love.
What makes a person fruitful? I remember a man who was very successful in industrial construction. He had over a hundred employees. He turned the business over to his sons and they led the business into bankruptcy. (Well there was a recession going on.) This man and his wife were lucky to have saved their own home from being lost to the banks.
This man and his wife were wonderful Christian people. They were gracious people. They were loved by their family, and by their community, and by their church.
They were smart and talented, and I will remember their intelligence and talent. But I will also remember their faith and their love. They were my friends. The fruit, for me, was that I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I was with them and they ere with me through some difficult times, but the fruit wasn’t exactly to be found there. The fruit even a matter of owing anything to each other for the sake of our friendship and love. The fruit was simply a matter of love.
In the Bible, fruitfulness is not a matter of achievement, at all. Fruitfulness is not a matter of productivity. Abraham and Sarah developed great wealth even though they were nomads. Zechariah and Elizabeth had an important role in their society. Their fruitfulness was not in that wealth or in their role. Abraham and Sarah had an impossible baby. Elizabeth and Zechariah had an impossible baby. Neither baby was an achievement or a possession. Both babies were miracles.
If you read more of the stories of these people you will see that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promises. Abraham laughed in an earlier chapter of Genesis. Zechariah doubted and questioned God’s promises and he got a scolding for it and, since he didn’t know when to shut up, God shut him up for a while.
They were all people of faith, but they were not people of perfect faith. They were also people of doubt and questions. I think the true faith that God looks for is the kind of faith that keeps having faith, even in the midst of doubt. After all, real faith is faith placed in God much more than it is any faith that we might place in ourselves.
Have you ever laughed at God or thought he was talking nonsense? If you have then you have the faith of Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth. You have a faith of Biblical proportions. Then, for you, faith means trusting that God’s faithfulness is greater than your faith. God’s faithfulness is what matters. The author and preacher Timothy Keller writes this: “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” That is fruitfulness.
Henry Nouwen wrote about fruitfulness. Read his book “Lifesigns”. He sees the fruitfulness of love coming in three ways: weakness, thankfulness, and caring. God is the one who leads the way to this fruitfulness of love.
God bore the fruit that saves us by becoming weak. God became the baby in the manger, and he and his parents had to run for their lives in order to survive the soldiers of King Herod. God became a carpenter, and next he became a migrant teacher with no roof over his head. At last God became a victim of injustice, with a mockery of a trial and an illegal execution. God was dead and buried in Jesus. God became weak. That is how God was able to rise from the dead to give us victory in life and death.
We bear fruit when we become weak. You bear fruit when your children know that you become afraid for them. You bear fruit when you say, “I’m sorry.” You bear fruit when you act on the conviction that the needs of other people are more important than your own; that the needs of other people are stronger and your needs are weaker.
God also bore fruit by being thankful. In the sixth chapter of John, a crowd had come to Jesus in a remote place and there was no food for them to eat, except for the fact that one boy had brought five small loaves of barley bread and two small dried fish. Jesus gave thanks for the boy’s food and fed the crowd of thousands. (John 6:1-13) Before Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back to life, he thanked his Father for listening to his prayer, even before he prayed it. (John 11:41-42) When God came down to live in front of us, in Jesus, he gave thanks. The fruitfulness of God’s love comes from his thanks.
There is a Christian singer/songwriter called tobyMac. Is real name is Toby McKeehan. I don’t think I have ever heard a thing he has sung or written, but there was a quote from him on Face Book that says this: “There are people out there who would love to have your bad days.” Maybe this would not be true for all your bad days, but most of us have homes, and food, and warmth, and fellowship. Many of us can walk, and talk, and hear, and think. And we have known love.
Thankfulness is the way to enjoy giftedness. Thankfulness is enjoyment. Thankfulness gives us the peace and freedom to bear fruit; that is, to give love and caring to others.
God bears fruit by caring. This means taking care. Jesus didn’t control people. He did command people, but he also gave them freedom. He gave them choice. He asked the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) He asked the lame man, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) In the Book of Acts we can read about how (after Jesus rose from the dead) the apostles told the story of God’s love in Jesus. On one occasion, Peter described Jesus this way, “He went around doing good.” (Acts 10:38)
We bear fruit by finding ways to take care of other people, and our community, and our world. We may have abilities and resources that enable us to do this in special ways, but we may not have special ways. We may not have any other ability than to take care of what we see and hear any way we can.
We bear fruit by taking care, even if we don’t think it will accomplish anything. We bear fruit by taking care, even though it will do nothing for us. Paul wrote, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) The love of God bore fruit by caring; by taking care of those who did not know how to appreciate him.

The time to celebrate the birth of Jesus is on its way. This is the celebration of God’s fruitfulness. In Jesus we can see God’s weakness, God’s thankfulness, God’s caring. This bears fruit in us and through us. God’s fruit helps us die to our unfruitful nature and be reborn into the new fruitful world of Jesus and his kingdom.

1 comment:

  1. Weakness, thankfulness and caring.
    I will make a note to read the book you mention.
    Thank you.