St. Matthew 7:15-23
August 10, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The best peach I ever ate was on the side of the Great River Road bicycle trail somewhere outside of Grafton, IL, and it was a thing of beauty. I was on a bike ride by myself one hot, August afternoon, and I came across a little produce stand. There were fruits and vegetables stacked up in a shed that looked like it was about to fall over. The peaches looked particularly good. I asked the owner if I could buy a single peach for a snack. She responded that they only sold by the bushel or half. Maybe it was the disappointed look on my face—I’m not sure—but she invited me to the back room and said that the ones out front weren’t ripe yet, but she had some that were too ripe to sell, but were perfect to eat. She gave me two at no charge.
I thanked her, of course, and headed back to the trail. The peaches were a thing of beauty. They had that perfect blend of yellow to orange to deep red. They were firm, yet gave a little when squeezed. And, above all they produced the most heavenly, floral, peachy aroma when held up to the nose. On the first bite the pulp and juice mingled into a sweet and sour combination that only God in His own counsel would think to create. After two bites, the nectar was running down my chin, until only the pit remained. I’ve probably had hundreds of peaches in my life, maybe even thousands. But that’s the peach I remember. It was a thing of beauty.
Jesus says, Be on guard from the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are savage wolves; from their fruits you will recognize them. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? In the same way every good tree bears healthy fruit, but the rotten tree bears evil fruit. A good tree is not able to bear evil fruit, nor a rotten tree to bear healthy fruit (vv 15-18).
Our Lord warns against false prophets, that is, false preachers. They are inwardly savage wolves, though they appear to be pious sheep on the outside. Again and again, the theme of the Son of God’s preaching is that outward appearances often hide something completely different underneath.
In the case of preachers, there is a lot of false theology hidden under an attractive exterior. Inwardly savage wolves dressed as sheep, Jesus says. There are a lot of sweet talking, finely dressed, compelling preachers filling this world. They have a great show; their words are saccharine sweet. Crowds flock to them. By all outward marks, they appear to be the doormen to the kingdom of heaven. But inwardly are savage wolves.
There is something inside of such preachers that is insatiable, a hunger that begets hunger. Every preacher has it to an extent. An ego. Some preachers get into this business to be loved and accepted. Others discover after a short time that this gig has some benefits. Because when you say something as simple as, “Good sermon, Pastor,” our heads begin inflating as if they were being pumped with helium. It feels good to get compliments like that. Conversely, every congregational criticism feels like a personal snub.
It’s quite easy to develop an appetite for personal adulation, and most preachers will quickly learn how to indulge the flesh of their hearers to earn high praise. On the other end of the spectrum, preachers will use any perceived slight as an occasion to make the Gospel sting just as much as the Law—a little unrighteous retribution. The savagery of such preachers is the need to feed the ego, the unending hunger that this preaching and Office is all about me.
From their fruits you will recognize them, says Jesus. What does the fruit of inwardly savage preachers look like? When a preacher thinks his preaching is all about him, he will preach that the Gospel is all about you. You will be the star of every sermon. You will be the one who follows Jesus’ example to improve your living and your love. He will give you checklists and tips and guidelines. But very little Jesus.
One pastor has come up with a pretty nice diagnostic tool to evaluate sermons. First, does the sermon mention Jesus? This will eliminate a fairly large slice of so-called Christian sermons off the top. Second, if Jesus is mentioned, is He the subject of the verbs? This one will clear out the majority of what’s left. It’s the evil fruit that falls from rotten preaching. You end up being the doer of the verbs, while Jesus plays a passive role, almost as an afterthought. Last, if Jesus is the subject of the verbs, what are the verbs? Is He commanding, guiding, instructing? Is He forgiving, renewing, comforting, consoling? Is He doing the verbs that Scriptures gives, or is the preacher inventing something whole cloth by taking Jesus out of His Scriptural context?
Preaching that focuses on you and what you can do for Jesus is like hanging plastic fruit from a dying tree expecting to be able to make apple pie next year. It doesn’t cure the root problem. Neither false preachers nor rotten Christians can be measured by their outward appearance, but their inward health is shown by the fruits they produce. Every tree not bearing healthy fruit is cut down and cast into fire (v 19).
In the same way, every good tree bears healthy fruit. Jesus uses two different words for “good.” The word that I translated as “healthy” is the Greek word kalos. Normally it’s translated as “good” (Jesus calls Himself the kalos Shepherd). But it’s richer than just good. Kalos is good, beautiful, fitting, right, noble. Kalos is a thing that’s everything it’s supposed to be. Kalos is the one peach on the side of the road that you’ll remember 15 years later in a sermon. Every good tree bears kalos fruit.
The irony of outward appearances is that the sweetest, most beautiful fruit that has ever been is yielded by what looks to be a rotten, dead tree on a hill outside Jerusalem. Upon two leafless branches crudely fixed together is hung the good One. His beautiful feet are held to the wood by a nail. Good fruit is not gathered from thornbushes, but the fruit of this tree is crowned with thorns. The cross appears to be the fruit of evil men, but it is the noblest tree that has ever been planted in the earth, because it bears a Righteous Fruit.
Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!
On the Last Day, many will make a claim to outward appearance and outward deeds. Not all who say to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who yields the will of My Father who is in Heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by Your name, and by Your name cast out demons, and by Your name do mighty works?” And then I will confess to them, “I never knew you, depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness” (vv 21-23).
Compelling prophecy, spiritual spectacles, and mighty works are not what count in heaven’s kingdom. What counts for something—what counts for righteousness in heaven’s kingdom—is the mighty work of God.
Jesus’ words here are unfortunately translated in just about every English translation. Translators have some variation of, “He who does the will of my Father, etc.” will enter the kingdom of Heaven. In most cases the verb means simply, “to do.” But translators need to read a little farther in their dictionaries and mind the context. In agricultural contexts, the same word means, “to yield,” as in, “a grape vine yields a harvest of grapes.” A vinedresser doesn’t get a yield of grapes by commanding the plants to make grapes, but he tends the vines, trims them, cares for them—and grapes grow because that’s what grape vines yield.
In the same way, Jesus says that those who yield the will of the Father will enter into His kingdom. The good and gracious will of God was accomplished on the tree planted outside of Jerusalem, where He broke and hindered every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature—the inward rot—which do not want His kingdom to come. He also produced the beautiful fruit—the righteousness of Christ—that keeps you rooted firm in faith until He comes again. You do not do the will of the Father; He does His will in you, through the fruit of Christ. It’s a things of beauty.
The Work of God Yields a Work of Beauty in You
In Holy Baptism, Christ grafts you into Himself, the True Vine. You are not a tree unto yourself, but are drawn to the cross. He gives you the fruit the hung from the cross—His true body and blood—to feed and nourish you. The kingdom of heaven is an ever-growing family tree rooted in the cross of Christ.
As a branch, you produce your own fruits—fruits of faith. Being grafted into Christ means that the work you now do is the yield of God’s will. He is the one who calls you to your stations in life, who enables you to serve your neighbor with gladness in whatever way he needs it. He supplies you with His grace with His righteousness. He feeds you with His body and blood. And so your life and work is now a kalos fruit—a things of beauty before God.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard