Date: April 1, 2020
Festival: Lenten Midweek 6
Text: Matthew 7:15-20
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #700 Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sometimes people have trouble picking out produce at the grocery store. Is that tomato not ripe enough, or is it too ripe? How’s the texture of this apple? As we stand in the store, we are primarily concerned about the fruit in front of us and not so much the tree it came from. Yet the quality of the fruit depends entirely on the quality of the tree! As we heard Jesus say in the Gospel, “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” [Matthew 7:17]. So, as we continue our Lenten sermon series, “Living among the Bible’s Trees,” we consider Jesus’ metaphor concerning diseased trees and good trees.
We Are Diseased Trees
Jesus’ words from our Gospel text come in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Saint Paul’s divinely inspired letter to the Galatians we read from earlier likely draws on Jesus’ words recorded here and in Luke’s Gospel account as well as similar teachings about faith and its fruit. It may seem like a no-brainer to us that it’s better to find grapes on a vine rather than on a thorn bush and finding figs on a fig tree rather than on a thistle plant. Yet what is important is to recognise the good or bad nature of the tree in its fruit and the good or bad nature of the tree as the cause of the quality of the fruit.
In the Sermon on the Mount and in the other places where Jesus speaks similarly, the Jewish leaders as false teachers in particular seem to be the target of what Jesus says. For example, in our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says to beware of false prophets and, later on in Matthew, Jesus calls the Jewish leaders a “brood of vipers” and says they’re evil. We like to think we’re different and better than these Jewish leaders since we know and believe Jesus is the Messiah, but in reality we are no different by nature.
Our mouths speak out of the abundance of our hearts, which Jesus says in this greater context of Matthew, “on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” [Matthew 12:36-37].
Our words give evidence either to the faith we have or lack thereof [cf. Romans 10:9-10]. That focus on words is not even to mention the thoughts that precede the words! Saint Paul lists for the Galatians and us the works of the sinful flesh, which are “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” [Galatians 5:19-21]. The list is endless. He warns the Galatians and us that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” [v. 21]. Similarly, Jesus said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” [Matthew 7:19].
That judgement is not only on Judgement Day that is to come, but, as John the Baptiser said before Jesus, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees” [Matthew 3:10]. Even now, judgement is happening, however that may look.
Jesus says “a healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” [Matthew 7:18]. In the greater context of this, Jesus also says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good or make the tree bad and its fruit bad” [Matthew 12:33]. Yet you and I can hardly make literal trees good or bad. If we can hardly make actual trees good to bear good fruit, we are even more incapable of making ourselves—as metaphorical trees—to be good to produce good fruit.
These “diseased trees” describe original sin. In the Formula of Concord, our Lutheran Confessions lay forth a helpful term in helping us understand this disease of original sin: “Our entire nature and person is sinful, that is, totally and thoroughly corrupted in God’s sight and contaminated by original sin as with a spiritual leprosy” [FC SD I, 6; emphasis mine]. As fallen creatures born in the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, that rebels against God in a constant state of being diametrically opposed to Him, this original sin of ours runs deep in our veins as a spiritual leprosy. It is the innate disease that we think we can be better gods than God. It is a spiritual disease, and Jesus describes us as diseased trees who only produce bad fruit.
To make this even worse, we cannot cure ourselves of this disease, though we deceive ourselves into thinking we can. We think that if we just do enough good works for the Lord, we will become good and acceptable to God. We think a person who does enough good in his life is a good person and goes to Heaven, forgetting that we are by nature sinful and unclean—by nature we are bad and diseased—and thus we can never do enough good. Indeed, the “good” we think we do is still bad, for we are diseased trees who can only produce bad fruit.
So, we cannot create the medicine. We cannot invent the elixir to cure us of our badness. We pop the pill of “good works” one after another as self-medication thinking if we just take enough, eventually we can make ourselves good enough to get into Heaven. We’re addicted to it. But here’s the pill Jesus gives you that’s hard to swallow: You can never make yourself good enough.
Becoming Good Trees
Both Jesus and John the Baptiser call for fruits in keeping with repentance, and both of their disciples baptised for that purpose [Matthew 3:8; John 4:2]. Only a good tree can produce the good fruit of repentance. You cannot make yourself into a good tree, so somebody else has to, and that is just what Jesus did. For the sake of Jesus’ death on the tree of the cross, God Himself changes you from being a diseased tree bearing bad fruit to being a good tree bearing good fruit, which is fruit in keeping with repentance.
In the first reading, St. Paul says you are called to freedom and that Christ has set you free by the truth of His Gospel [cf. John 8:32, 36], which is His Word that He, true God in human flesh, died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine. Christ substituted Himself there on the cross for you. Unless you reject God’s enabling call to repentance, God frees you from your addiction to sin. God forgives your evil, sinful nature and all your actual sins of thought, word, and deed. By the power of His Word and the death and resurrection of Jesus, God cures you of your disease—He makes you into a good tree so that instead of bearing bad fruit, which brings condemnation, instead He enables you to bear the good fruit of repentance.
This is why we have the reading and preaching of the Word in our churches. This is why Pastor Mat and I work so hard to bring you His Word through the Internet during these temporary, trying times—because God’s Word continues that change in you in your hearing it. God sends His Word to you to do His good and gracious will. In your hearing, the Holy Spirit convicts you with the Law to bring you to repentance and to trust in the Gospel of Jesus Christ who forgives you all your sins.
This is brought to you in the Sacraments as well. In the Holy Eucharist, Christ gives you His true body and blood present in the bread and wine to receive His actual holiness and righteousness, making you right with God the Father. We cannot partake of this sacrament right now during this pandemic, but you still have Holy Baptism, the power of the Word that used water to purge you of your sinful disease—to cleanse you from your spiritual leprosy. In Absolution, which you heard earlier, Christ the Good Shepherd speaks His Word of forgiveness to you through His under-shepherd, the pastor.
In both the hearing of the Word and the receiving of the Sacraments, we come before God in repentance, trusting in these means of grace to strengthen our faith to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Yet what does this look like in our lives? It looks like change.
Repentance in Practice
As St. Luke uniquely reports, John the Baptiser tailored his teaching about this to the different vocational groups he baptised, such as tax collectors and soldiers [Luke 3:10-14]. The tax collectors were advised to no longer collect more money than they were authorised and the soldiers were advised to no longer extort money with threats and false accusations but rather to be content with their wages. They were to change. In repentance, the Holy Spirit enables you and me to change.
Luther gave similar advice in repentance. He advised that you consider where you have failed in your vocations and also to go through each of the Ten Commandments to consider how you might have violated them. For example, you can pray, “How have I failed as a spouse? I yelled at my wife the other day. I was impatient with her and wrathful toward her. Lord, forgive me for my impatience and anger. Help me to be better. Amen.” Then you do the same with your vocations as child, parent, student, employee, etc. And as you trust in the Lord, He helps you to produce good fruit according to these vocations—to change for the good of your neighbour.
Or we could pray through the Ten Commandments, “I took the Lord’s name in vain yesterday. Lord, forgive the venom of my tongue and for profaning Your holy name… I profaned the Sabbath by sleeping in and not going to church because I see that I love sleep and sports more than I do the hearing and preaching of Your Word. Lord, forgive me for this idolatry and create in me a clean heart to love and cherish the hearing and preaching of Your Word. Amen.” And you similarly trust the Lord to help you keep His commandments.
Remember, though we are by nature diseased trees bearing bad fruit, God changes us into good trees bearing good fruit. It is always the work of God. God does this work in you through His Word as it is read and preached and given to you in the Sacraments. Repentance is God’s work; it is God’s work in you not only to give you forgiveness, but also for you to bear the good fruit of the Spirit, which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” [Galatians 5:22-23].
This is a hard thing. We don’t like to repent because to repent means to admit we were wrong and God is right—that God is always right. It is to desire God’s power to utterly change you, and we don’t like to change! We want to remain bad trees! That is to say, we think we’re fine the way we are, and we even justify it, saying, “This is how God made me. Certainly, this can’t be bad!” If you were fine just the way you are, Jesus would not have died and risen to redeem you from your sins—to save you from yourself.
Repentance is to pray the Lord’s Prayer with genuineness of faith, “Thy will be done.” This means God’s will, not our will! In this prayer, we pray, “Lord, do what You want, not what I want!” That is a prayer that goes directly against our disease! In our disease, we only desire our will. But in repentance, we pray against our will—we pray against ourselves, “Lord, I was wrong, even though I despise admitting this. Change me. Renew me. Do Your will in spite of what my will desires.”
And by His grace He does just that. Not because of anything you have done even as the good tree He has made you, but solely because of Christ, the Vine who sprouted forth from the stump of Jesse to graft you into His good, holy self, who took your disease of sin upon Himself for it to die with Him and rose again with your disease to remain dead and eradicated in the tomb forever.
Because you are grafted into Christ, to paraphrase from our Saviour: though you will die, yet shall you live since He is the resurrection and the life [John 11:25]. Even more, you shall live to see and to eat from the Tree of Life in the coming of the new creation—for all eternity to consume and to produce nothing but the Lord’s goodness [Revelation 22:1-5]. Amen.