I am really glad that I am not a Christmas tree because being a Christmas tree is not an easy way to live. In fact I would say it’s downright dangerous. I’m not talking about artificial Christmas trees; I’m talking about real Christmas trees. Did you ever think about that? Before you get into someone’s house you have to go through many years of cold winters growing on a tree farm usually in some faraway place, and every single summer someone is paid to cut through your branches with a big long machete. Back when I was in high school like our guests from Wisconsin Lutheran today I spent four summers shearing Christmas trees by walking around each tree three or four times and cutting through those branches with that big long machete, as I tried to help it keep a Christmas tree shape so that many years later someone could cut it down with a saw — and drag it through the woods on its back — and tie it down really tightly on a car with all kinds of rope or cram it in a trunk — and then finally force it into a tree stand where it never seems to be completely straight…
And all that would happen only if it didn’t get messed up in the first place by a person like me making a wrong cut one of those years, meaning that the owner of the tree farm would just have to chop it down and throw it away, because if it didn’t look like a Christmas tree that someone would actually want to have as their Christmas tree, it was completely worthless. I just think it’s good that Christmas trees don’t have feelings, because if Christmas trees had feelings, they might try to get us to think about how rough they have it. They might just say, “Feel sorry for me. It’s dangerous being a Christmas tree!”
Friends in Christ, can that kind of danger possibly be more dangerous, however, than the kind of danger John the Baptist was talking about when he said in verse 9 of our lesson, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” You and I are the trees John the Baptist is talking about, and that means that if we are not the kind of Christmas trees that God our Father would like as his Christmas tree, we will be chopped down and thrown away. Maybe that kind of thought can make you think the same kind of thing a Christmas tree might think. “Now I’m feeling sorry for me. It’s dangerous being a Christmas tree! The fruit of my life in the things that I do and think and say is certainly not “good fruit” many, many days of my life. What else can I do but join those crowds of people in asking what they asked of John, “John the Baptist, what should we do?”
What we should do is remember what it means to do what John said when he said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” This is the key to our message today. There are two sides to living lives of repentance, and remembering both parts of what it means to live a life of repentance will help us not be afraid of these words we are sharing today, but to instead be joyful because of these words we are sharing today. One side of repentance is indeed to be sorry for every single thing we do in our lives that should cause God to put the ax to the tree and remove us from his sight like a Christmas tree that gets kicked to the curb when it’s not needed any more. However, the second side of repentance is believing that Jesus Christ let himself be kicked to the curb, even though he was the kind of tree more perfect than which there could never be. He let himself be put on a tree – the tree where his life was taken so that life could be given. Because Jesus by that death paid the price to God the Father for everything you and I have need to repent of, God the Father looks at you and me as a perfect Christmas tree – holy and righteous and straight in his sight – a promise from God that we believe and trust and cherish, which the Bible says is also part of repentance – knowing that everything we repent of has been disposed of.
It’s the work of Jesus our Savior that John was talking about when in the last paragraph of our lesson we hear about the people wondering if John himself might be the Messiah promised throughout the centuries. John made it clear that he was a repent-er who needed and believed in the perfect Christmas tree, as well. “One more powerful than I will come,” John said, “the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That was a reference to what would happen three years from then after Jesus had completed his work and risen from the dead and returned to heaven and then sent the Holy Spirit in the form of what looked like tongues of fires on the heads of his disciples on the day we call the Day of Pentecost, when those disciples were able to speak in foreign languages to people they told to repent and to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
And then in verse 17 near the end John the Baptist described the saving work of Christ not in the form of an ax, but in the form of a fork – a winnowing fork. “His winnowing fork in in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The ax is meant to be a warning to us, but this fork is really meant to be a comfort to us, because what it means is that as the perfect Christmas tree Jesus is dangerous, too. He is dangerous to those who oppose him. A winnowing fork was an old tool that farmers used to lift up the grain after they had harvested it and put it on a floor either outside or inside a barn. They would lift up the grain with the fork and all the good, heavy kernels would fall to the ground to end up being ground into flour, while all the other stuff that would get mixed in with the grain – the chaff – would fly away in the wind, never to bother the grain again.
Because Jesus entered the danger of our world, we are not in danger as we live in our world, even though there is danger all around us. But as human Christmas trees who are looked upon as perfect Christmas trees because we repentantly believe in the work of Jesus, we can also be valuable kernels of grain to others around us and make them happy that they know us, as they deal with spiritual dangers and concerns and temptations in their own lives. What I mean by that is think for a moment about the types of things John told the people to do when they asked him what are the kinds of fruits of repentance that will keep the ax from the tree and instead help us show gratitude for the grace and love of God. If you have extra clothes or extra food, John said, share with those who don’t. If you are a tax collector, who at that time could be tempted to cheat the people, or if you are a soldier who could be tempted to exploit the people, be fair in what you collect, be careful in what you say about others, and be content with the amount of money you have.
What is John the Baptist saying to you and me with those answers? Isn’t he simply saying, “In whatever situation of life you are in, live like a person who knows that your eternal situation is all taken care of?” If you are a student right now, if you are a parent right now, if you are single right now, if you are in charge of others right now, if you have more limited physical abilities right now, right now share of your time and your possessions. Right now be fair in how you treat others and be content with how God has treated you.
The fancy word for this is “vocation” or “calling.” In whatever calling of life you find yourself, remember the main calling God has given you. He has called you his own, making you a child of God. And because he looks at you as the perfect Christmas tree, seek to bear the fruit that perfect Christmas trees bear – fruit that thinks of others before themselves, fruit that wants to make others happy, fruit that knows that serving someone else means I’m serving my Lord, who has so wonderfully served me – and always doing this not because I am trying to get some special Christmas present from God, but because I have already received more than I could ever hope for, because God has given me the faith to believe in the one that John the Baptist said was coming – and that the Bible says is coming again.
So it is dangerous being a Christmas tree! There are many ways we ourselves – or others – can damage our branches and make us look spiritually ugly. But Jesus Christ makes those branches beautiful again every day as we daily repent, telling him and others how sorry we are for what we have done and telling him and others how happy we are for what he has done. The more we live lives focused on the Christmas Tree that Jesus is rather than the Christmas tree that we are, the more dangerous it will be for any thought or person that tries to take our Christmas joy away, even if it is the devil himself. Let Jesus take on the danger for you. There is no danger in that at all! Amen.