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Testing Fruit. 8th Sunday after Trinity, 2017. Matthew 7:15-23 (Romans 8:12-17)

wormy fruitEighth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Matthew 7:15-23

August 6, 2017

“Testing Fruit”

Iesu iuva

 

A guy was sitting on the couch watching television.  His wife came in and said, “I’m going to make a fruit salad.  Do you want some?”  The husband looked up at her and said, “Sure!  Thanks.”  So she went back into the kitchen.

 

A little while later she returned with two bowls.  She handed one to him and then sat down with her bowl, eating.  The man’s eyes were glued to the tv.  He reached into the bowl and put pieces of fruit into his mouth without looking down at the bowl.  After a couple of bites he gagged and spit out the fruit onto the carpet.  Looking down into the bowl, he saw something that did look like a salad made out of fruit.  There were pieces of orange, lemon, and lime.  There were apples, strawberries and pears.  There were crabapples from the tree in the yard and some berries that looked like they belonged on a shrub or a hedge.  It even looked like his wife had cut a monkey brain fruit into pieces and thrown that in.  Then there were mushy brown bananas, half dried grapes with bugs on them, wrinkled, moldy blueberries, pieces of melon that let off a strange odor.

 

The husband looked at his wife.  She had the spoon halfway to her mouth and had stopped it there when her husband spat out the bite of fruit salad.  He said to her, “What is this?  Why did you put crabapples and moldy fruit in this salad?”

 

His wife said, “I couldn’t find enough normal fruit to put in there.  Then I figured, it’s close enough.  Fruit is fruit, right?”

 

Have you ever met a person like that, who figures all fruit is basically the same and you can just eat it all without worrying about it since it’s all going to the same place, whether it’s sweet, sour, or rotten?

 

Probably not.  Getting a fruit salad like that would be a sign you were dealing with a crazy person.

 

When I was a little kid and had to go grocery shopping with my mom, I remember her showing me how when she bought eggs she opened the carton up and examined each egg to make sure she didn’t accidentally get a bad egg or one with a crack in it.

 

We take such care to make sure that the food we put on our tables is wholesome!  Animals do this too.  When your nose smells rotten meat or vegetables, your body reflexively seizes up, pulls away; your face tightens.  We are wired biologically to run away from bad food; our nervous system knows before our brains do that bad meat, bad eggs, bad fruit have the power to kill us.

 

I think it was this week that I was walking into a nursing home to give someone the Lord’s body and blood, and I had a conversation that reminded me of this. I think it was this week, but it could have been almost any week, because this kind of thing happens to me so often.  A bunch of folks were sitting in wheelchairs outside by the door.  A lady said, “Hi, father!”  I said, “Hi!”  She said, “I noticed the Roman collar,” pointing to my neck.  I said, “I always thought it was an Anglican collar.”  She said, “You’re a Catholic priest, right?”  “No, a Lutheran pastor.”

 

“Oh,” she said.  “That’s really close.”

 

Someone says this to me almost every week, if not every day.  People from other churches say it; people from St. Peter say it.  As if the reasons the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church or the other protestant churches are minor and obsolete.  I often just smile in response.  If I start to disagree, people quickly get a faraway look in their eyes that I know very well—the look that is probably saying, “It’s close enough.  After all, fruit is fruit.”

 

The Lord and teacher of Christians is not silent about this, though.  Don’t worry too much about false prophets; you can’t tell them by their fruit, because it’s all basically the same.  You might think that’s what Jesus taught from the way those who claim His name talk and behave today.  But actually the shepherd’s voice calls to His sheep: Beware of false prophets.  They are coming to you dressed in sheep’s clothing, when inside they are savage wolves.  You will know them by their fruit.

 

If you are like me, you might not see at first how this applies to most of the preachers you see, since most of them don’t claim to be prophets.  When we hear “prophet,” we think of a man who can see the future, who can probably work miracles, who knows things hidden from normal people.  A biblical prophet is different from a pastor in that God speaks and reveals things to him directly.  He doesn’t only learn his message from studying the Scriptures and having it passed on to him by others, like pastors today.  Often God will reveal to him something that is going to happen in the future.  But prophets and pastors have the same calling in the sense that they are called not to proclaim their own thoughts and dreams but only the Word of the Lord, so that they are like mouthpieces of God, if they are faithful.  And pastors, like prophets, also proclaim things that are hidden, that people cannot discover unless it is revealed by God.

 

When we learn the basic parts of the Christian faith and come to the second article of the Creed, one of the things we learn about Jesus is that He is called “Christ” because He was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit as our priest, as our king, and as our prophet.  Jesus is the great prophet who proclaimed and revealed in His own life what people could not discover on their own.  He revealed that God is triune—one God, yet three distinct persons. He proclaimed the true way to salvation—not a set of practices or a form of meditation that promised to unite you with God, like the Buddhists—He taught that human beings are so corrupted by sin that there is nothing good left in us.  We have no desire to come to God or know Him, and no ability to do so, and no righteousness with which to stand in His holy presence and plead our case.  And Jesus, the true prophet, revealed how we are saved, which human beings could not know unless He revealed it.  He taught that we are saved by God’s grace alone, who provides the righteousness that covers our sin.  And He revealed that righteousness in Himself—in the way He lived, with perfect love toward God and our neighbor, and in the way He died as a curse for our sins, covering our guilt and removing from us God’s just condemnation.

 

Jesus is the true prophet; all other true prophets are reflections of Him.

 

And the wonderful teaching tucked away in the questions and answers our synod adds to the Small Catechism of Luther is that Jesus continues to be our prophet.  He continues to proclaim the Word of God to us today from heaven, so that we might know the truth, and the truth might make us free.  You and I have never seen Jesus’ face, but you have heard His voice, because Jesus continues His prophetic office from heaven by sending ministers who proclaim not their own words, but His.  When a minister absolves you of your sins, it is not him loosing you from them—it is Jesus your prophet; and when a minister faithfully proclaims the Word of Jesus recorded in Scripture, it is not him you hear, but the same Jesus who taught in the synagogues, the temple, in the wilderness among great crowds.  When the pastor baptized you, Jesus called, “Come, follow me,” just as He said to Peter and Andrew as they mended their nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

 

Jesus speaks through the ones He sends who are faithful to His call, whether they are apostles, prophets, evangelists or simply pastors, teachers.  Apostles were called directly by Jesus, and prophets receive a direct revelation from God.  Pastors are called to their ministry indirectly; God calls them through people.  Yet all are called by God.

 

But there are preachers and prophets whom Jesus calls false.  They may be called by God, or they may pretend to be, claiming a vision and deceiving people.  Either way false prophets and false teachers come with a word that is not God’s.  And Jesus warns to beware of them, be on guard against them, because they are like greedy wolves, although they look like they are sheep of Christ’s flock.

 

This year as we commemorate the 500th year of the Reformation, we cannot avoid the painful reality of what the Reformation represents.  The Roman Church at that time regarded Luther as a false prophet who led entire nations away from the true Church, and away from Christ and the possibility of salvation.  On the other hand, we regard Luther as the reformer of the Christian Church, raised up by God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that we are justified and saved not by works, but solely by God’s grace, solely through faith in Christ, who alone atoned for our sins.  But if we are right, it means that for centuries the true Gospel of Jesus was buried under false teaching.  It might have been taught here and there by laypeople or priests who told troubled dying people to look to Christ crucified and trust Him alone for salvation.  But the official teaching that the Church proclaimed, taught the priests, and that the priests taught the people, was that Jesus did not do enough to save us.  We must contribute our obedience and good deeds if we want to please God.  If what we believe is true, then for hundreds of years even in the visible Church most people were damned and lost, because false prophets had suppressed the truth.

 

If that is true—and it is—we cannot afford to fall asleep, or let the clergy worry about doctrine.  We must watch out for false teaching and false prophets.  You must watch and be certain that what I or any other pastor preaches to you is not his word but God’s in every part.

 

You must examine the fruits of those who preach.

 

You can’t tell a wolf if it looks like a sheep until it eats you.  But you can tell what kind of a tree you have by the fruit it bears.  Nobody gets clusters of grapes out of a thicket of thorns and briars, Jesus says.

 

You can’t tell whether a preacher is faithful by his life, unless he is an obvious unrepentant sinner.  But if he is imperfect, that is no different than every Christian.  You have to examine his fruit.  The fruit of a preacher is his teaching.

 

I am always amazed at how some people can go into a grocery store and pick up a plum or a mango or an avocado and determine by touch and maybe by smell whether it is too ripe, too underrripe, or just right.  To me, you know a fruit is good when you bite into it.  The problem with this method is obvious.  And the same thing is true with testing the fruit of preachers.  You don’t want to eat the fruit of a false prophet—to hear it, take it into you, believe it, live according to it.  Sometimes people say that they listen to preachers who teach false doctrine, like just about every preacher on the radio and television, and discern the good from the bad.  It may be a useful way to practice discernment occasionally.  But would you eat an apple that is full of worms and try to eat around the worms?  Jesus doesn’t say, “Listen to every preacher and take the true and throw out the bad.”  He says a prophet or preacher is either false or true, good or bad.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Good fruit is not when a pastor preaches some of God’s Word purely with only a little error.  Teaching is either God’s Word or it isn’t.  If I tell you everything in the Bible is true except for the part where it says God created the world in 6 days, I am telling you the Bible is not true.  A false prophet bears bad fruit even when some of what he preaches is true and seemingly just a little is false, just like a beautiful, sweet apple with just a few little worms in it is no longer a good apple.

 

But just like you can’t tell a false prophet by how they seem or how they make you feel, you can’t tell their fruit by how they make you feel either.  In the grocery store, people test fruit with their nose or their fingertips, but a preacher’s fruit is tested by God’s Word.

 

This is why we learn the catechism, and why we need to keep it in front of us.  The catechism is a summary of the Bible.  But the catechism is not the Bible; its authority comes from being faithful to Scripture.  In order to be able to recognize the bad fruit of false prophets, we need to know the summary of the teaching of Scripture in the Catechism, but we also need to constantly hear and read the Scriptures.  A preacher is not only false when he teaches against the main doctrines of the Bible, but when he contradicts it at any point, because when a preacher does this he contradicts God.  He is no longer acting as God’s mouthpiece and saying the Words of God, but adding his own words.  Similarly, a preacher is not true and faithful if he holds back part of the teaching of God’s Word and never talks about certain doctrines.

 

Even though a true preacher must faithfully teach all of the doctrine in God’s Word just as God gives it—and that means you must know that doctrine and grow in the knowledge of the Scripture if you are to guard against false teachers—all good fruit, all faithful teaching shares certain things in common, and so does all bad fruit and false teaching.

 

To see this, consider with me please the preaching we have recorded in Scripture of the man Jesus called the greatest of all the prophets who came before Him.  That is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  I refer to him because a few chapters before the Gospel reading in the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear John use the exact same words Jesus uses in this reading when He says: Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (v. 19)

 

In chapter 3, Matthew records that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching.  His message was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.

 

Matthew tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (3:4)  John does not have the pleasing appearance many people probably expect from a preacher.  His way of life is a little frightening, off-putting.  If a man wearing a camel hair garment in the desert, eating only grasshoppers and wild honey came and preached to you, besides thinking that he was crazy, you probably would also be afraid that he might call you to live a similar kind of life, where you have to give up all kinds of comforts.

 

Nevertheless, we are told Jerusalem and all Judea…were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

 

Then we hear that the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the normal religious leaders in Israel that people normally listened to, also came out to John’s Baptism.  John does not smile and feel flattered about this, or try to thank them for coming, or even welcome them.  He says You generation of vipers?  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (3:7-10)

 

Finally, John’s sermon ends with another proclamation different than his strict call to repentance that we have heard up until now.  He says, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (3:11)

 

John is a true prophet.  He bears good fruit, even though one can hardly imagine him smiling a lot, even though his message is strict, even harsh.  He is not polite and nice like we expect preachers to be, welcoming and sweet.  He is strict in his preaching and strict with himself in his mode of life.  He doesn’t fit in in society.  These are not necessarily qualities a true preacher must have—but they show that common expectations of preachers among us are not proofs that a prophet is true or false.  If John is any indication, a preacher can be what we would call “mean”, “harsh”, and yet be a true and faithful prophet.

 

But John’s fruit is his teaching.  What do we hear him teach?  What is the pattern of his preaching?

 

First, he calls people to repentance, to a change of mind.  He preaches that people are by nature children of the devil, even the people that seem most religious and good.  Faithful preaching does not build up people’s trust and confidence in their own goodness; it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves and tell them that the way to have a blessed life is to follow a few rules from the Bible.  Instead, faithful preaching confronts us with God’s judgment that is upon us and destroys our sense of ease and comfort with the way we are.  It tells us, Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Faithful preaching calls us to repentance, which means not merely that we recognize that nobody is perfect; it means that we hear from faithful preaching that we must become good in God’s sight, that we must do not only outward good things, but that these must come from a clean heart that loves God in reality and truth.  Faithful preaching makes it clear that this repentance, this fear of God’s wrath, this wholehearted turning away from our love and trust in ourselves, is not just a matter of the mind and understanding.  Faithful preaching tells us our whole selves must change from pride to fear of God, from self-will to fear of God, from self-love to love of God and our neighbors, and this cannot just be a matter of talk, but must show itself in our lives.

 

But John also preaches something else as well.  He baptizes those who are trembling over their sins with the promise that they are cleansed and forgiven.  And he proclaims one coming after him who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  He points them to the one whose power and glory will come to help them.  He preaches Jesus, who gives us not only outward cleansing, but the Holy Spirit, who imparts true righteousness, holiness, who renews us, and as Paul says, does not make us slaves of fear but makes us confident that we are children and heirs of God.

 

False prophets, on the other hand, teach people, one way or the other, that there is good in them, and that they must contribute something besides Jesus to their salvation.  This is why on that day, the day of judgment, many will say to Jesus, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons, and do many miracles?  And Jesus says, I will say to them, I never knew you.  Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness!  False prophets on the day of judgment will try to tell Jesus how much they have done for him, because they do not know him, nor He them.  We know Jesus when we know ourselves, when we see that his suffering and agony was the price to redeem us from sin; and then we know Jesus, not as the one who we do things for, but as the one who has done everything for us.

 

Our time is full of doctrinal indifferentism.  That means people think it doesn’t matter much what doctrine you hold.

 

But our Lord is not indifferent.  He is full of zeal for our salvation.  In reality and truth He bled and died for our sins.  In reality and truth He feeds us with His own body and blood.  He does not trade in lies or appearances, but realities and truths.  He feeds you the body and blood that cancels your sins and in reality and truth pours out His Spirit on you, the Spirit who cries out, “Abba, Father” not out of sentiment, but because He has made it so.   And because He is not indifferent to our well-being He tells us the truth and tells us to avoid the lies false prophets tell in His name.  He tells us the truth of our helplessness in sin, and He tells us the wonderful truth, sweet and blessed, that we are sons and heirs of God through His pain and agony alone.

 

Just as Jesus wants you to be certain of your salvation, He also wills that you be certain that you have the truth of His Word, and that the one who preaches to you speaks not the words of men but only the words of Jesus.  He doesn’t want you to eat rotten fruit, pick it from a rotten tree, or treat the savage wolves who come from Satan to destroy you as though they’re no different from His faithful servants.  May God work in us this certainty during this year of the reformation, and give us zeal to know the truth that makes us confident that we are not lawless but righteous and heirs of His kingdom.

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

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