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Please turn your attention to our Gospel lesson for today, the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus reminds us today that the claim that we are teachers and followers of Christ will be shown to be true or false by our fruit.
My grandfather had two fruit trees in his back yard. When you looked at them during winter, they looked very much the same. Just by looking at the bark and the way the branches had grown, you couldn’t tell what kind of fruit trees they were. As they began to leaf out in the spring you could begin to guess that they were different kinds of fruit trees. But it wasn’t until they began to produce fruit that you could tell for sure that one was a pear tree and the other was an apple tree. By it’s fruit you could recognize what kind of tree it was.
Two times in our gospel reading for today Jesus makes the statement, by their fruit you will recognize them. The first time he says this he is talking about someone who claims to have a message from God. The second time he says this he is talking about those who claim to be his followers, his disciples.
Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets. They are very dangerous. They are more dangerous than criminals, or robbers, or active shooters. They don’t just steal your possessions, or hurt or kill your body, if you don’t recognize and avoid them their false teaching can kill your soul and keep you from spending eternity with Jesus.
We need this warning to beware of false prophets today, not because there are more false prophets than there were in the past, there have always been false prophets as we heard in our reading from Jeremiah. We need this warning in our world today because so many people don’t think there is such a thing as a false prophet. I hear it, and I’m sure you hear it more than I do, even from people who are active in the church, that as long as people are in a church, as long as they believe something, they will be saved, after all, they say falsely, all religions get you to the same place. Such a statement is an example of rotten fruit.
When it comes to someone who claims to be speaking for God, the fruit Jesus is talking about is their message. It’s not how big or small the tree, or the congregation is. It’s not how many or few the branches are, how many congregations make up the church body. It’s the message, the doctrine. We can tell whether a prophet is a true prophet or a false prophet by their fruit, their doctrine. Does it agree with what the Bible says or not?
God told the people of Jeremiah’s day that they could tell who was true and who was false because the false prophets were telling those who were living contrary to God’s commands that they were at peace with God. If they were true prophets who stood in my council, God says, they would have caused my people to hear my words, and they would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds. The fruit of a true prophet, especially in our world today, is calling what God calls sin, sin, even when it’s unpopular to do so.
The fruit of a true prophet, especially in our world today, is also saying what Jesus said about salvation. Just a few minutes earlier in his Sermon, Jesus said that the gate and the path into God’s kingdom and eternal life is narrow. All religions don’t get you to the same place. Jesus is the gate. It is only through him that anyone can enter eternal life. No one comes to the father except through him. Any other teaching is bad fruit, that if eaten, is poison to your soul.
There are some very important questions to ask anyone who claims to be a spokesperson for God, or any religious group or congregation you are thinking about joining. The first and most important question to ask is, “do you consider the Bible to be the inspired word of God without error.” Anyone, or any religious group that does not confess that the Bible is God’s inspired word without error has rot in their tree and cannot produce good fruit. Watch out. Avoid it.
If they confess that the Bible is God’s word without error, the next question is, “do you believe that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus alone.” Anyone, or any religious group that does not confess that salvation is by grace, 100% God’s work, and that the only reason we are saved is because of what Jesus has done for us has rot in their tree and cannot produce good fruit. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Run from them for your spiritual lives!
Having warned us to watch out for false prophets and to make sure we test them by the fruit of their doctrine, Jesus gets very personal. He knows that inside of each of us lives a Pharisee that is thinking, “I thank you Lord that I know the truth. I thank you Lord that my church has the right doctrine. I thank you Lord that we are doing great things in your name- we have missions all over the world, we are reaching 100s of thousands through our newest work in Vietnam. We have wonderful schools like Trinity and NELHS that teach the Bible as your word without error and Jesus as the only way to heaven. I come to worship almost every Sunday and I do all I can to make sure others have a nice place to come to worship if they want. I’m thankful that we are not like so many others.” We are truly blessed. But that pharisee inside us needs the warning my mother used to give – “be careful that you don’t pat yourself on the back so hard that you break your arm.”
Jesus is saying, don’t just watch out for false prophets, watch your own heart. Make sure that your tree isn’t filled with the rot of selfishness and pride. It’s possible to have a tree and its fruit look good on the outside but be rotten on the inside. It’s possible to be like a whitewashed tomb, Jesus says. It looks beautiful and clean on the outside, it might be very expensive marble, but inside is rot and stench. It’s possible to do all kinds of good things, but to have a bad motive.
Jesus says, not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons in your name and perform many miracles in your name?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.
Jesus elaborates on this statement as he tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. He tells the goats on his left that they didn’t feed or clothe him; that they didn’t visit him in prison. And remember, they object. They insist that they made sure that they cared for the needy and visited the prisons. But what did Jesus say before he condemned them? You didn’t do it for me. You may have done these things in my name. You may even have cast out demons and performed miracles in my name, but you didn’t do these things for me. You did them for yourselves- to be noticed, to win the praise of people, to be able to brag that you congregations were better, or bigger, or faster-growing than others. You did it from the rotten tree of selfishness and pride and so the fruit you produced was rotten in God’s eyes.
Jesus tells the sheep on his right that they did feed and clothe him, they did visit him in prison. Do you remember their response? When did we do these things? And Jesus answered, when you did them for the least. When you did them not expecting anything in return. When you did them not wanting to be noticed or to receive any praise from people. When you did them because of all that you knew I had already done for you. Then you really were doing them for me.
All of us here today say, “Lord, Lord.” We call Jesus our Lord, our Savior. So, it’s a frightening thing to hear Jesus say, not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven. If we are here saying, “Lord, Lord,” only because we want to look good to others, or only because it’s the right thing to do, or because someone made us come, just saying the words is bad fruit. Our worship might look good on the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside.
Each day we need to examine our hearts. Each day we need to recognize that little pharisee that lives inside of us, who wants to tell us that we are better than others, that we deserve to go to heaven because of all the things we do for the Lord. Each day we need to drown him in the waters of our baptism as God’s word reminds us that we needed saving just as much as anyone else, that we were born dead in sin just like everyone else, that no matter how many good things we do in Jesus’ name, we still sin daily and deserve nothing from God except his just decree – I never knew you, depart from me you evildoers.
Then, each day, we need the reminder that in baptism God adopted us as his dear children. The Holy Spirit of God worked through the word to move us to see that God punished Jesus in our place, and that through his blood shed for us on the cross all our sins are washed away. The Holy Spirit enabled us to simply say, “Thank you Lord. I deserved punishment but through Jesus you have given me forgiveness instead. I deserved death, but you have united me to Christ and his resurrection so that, in him, I can live a new life now, and live with him forever in your presence.
As we have this daily reminder of our sinfulness and of God’s undeserved love for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit continues to enable us to produce good fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As it was with the early Christians, the fruit of the Spirit will make us stick out and be noticed. The fruit of sound doctrine will bring us ridicule and persecution. But the fruit of the spirit will draw people to us as they see that we have what they need and want, and then we get to tell them about Jesus.
It’s difficult to tell what kind of fruit a tree will produce by looking at the bark and branches. Make sure that you test the fruit of doctrine that any person or group claiming to speak for God produces. Make sure their doctrine agrees with Scripture so that you aren’t exposing yourself to poison fruit, to a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Make sure that your own tree is not filled with the rot of pride and selfishness. Daily confess your own sins. Be reminded daily that you are saved only because of what God has done for you in Jesus. Then you will produce good fruit that brings glory to God.