Seeing the Fruit
I’m going to start this sermon by breaking one of the cardinal rules of preaching. It’s a rule that I learned from my preaching professors in college and seminary, and it’s a rule I try to follow every week.
It’s a rule that Thomas Long, a preaching professor who has taught at Princeton and Columbia, explains like this: Introductions have the job of pricking the ears of the hearers. They serve the same purpose as a drumroll or a trumpet fanfare; they provoke curious interest about what may come next. Or as one of my colleagues in ministry has put it, “We are simply trying to get people to hear what we have to say.”
So one of the cardinal rules of preaching is that the beginning of every sermon is meant to grab people’s attention. But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, I’m going to take the exact opposite approach. I’m going to begin this sermon by doing something so boring that you’re more likely to fall asleep in your seat than you are to listen all the way to the end of this sermon.
So what am I going to do? Well, I’m going to take you on a trip back in time to your third-grade life science class…and talk about the life cycle of a plant. But I’m going to do my best to make sure I don’t sound like Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Ben Stein’s work as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever want him as a teacher.
So let’s get started with the life cycle of a plant. The life cycle of any plant begins with – Anyone? Anyone? – A seed. The seed is planted into the earth, and under the right conditions, the seed will sprout roots and grow into a tiny, immature plant called a seedling. The seedling will continue to grow into the plant’s stem. The stem will grow branches. The branches will grow leaves, and buds or blossoms. The buds or blossoms will produce fruit. The fruit will release its seeds. And if the seed is properly planted the cycle will begin again.
But why should anyone worshiping with us right now, whether you’re here in person or joining us online, care about the life cycle of a plant? Well, to answer that question I’ll stop doing my poor excuse of a Ben Stein impersonation, and I’ll remind you what we’ve been talking about during our sermons over the last couple of weeks.
We’ve been talking about one of Jesus’s most memorable teachings. It happened when Jesus’s closest followers, his disciples, came to him one day and asked Jesus to increase their faith. In his response, Jesus compared their faith to a mustard seed. And to better understand what Jesus means in this analogy, it’s important that we all know at least a little bit about the life cycle of a plant.
And we need to know about the life cycle of a plant because our faith begins just like that mustard seed. It appears to be small and fragile but, with God, our faith has the ability to become something incredible. But just like a mustard seed, our faith must be planted somewhere if it’s going to grow. Our faith must be planted in our daily life, where we are right now, if it’s going to take root. And once our faith takes root, it’s going to grow.
But here’s my question for you today: How do you know if your faith is growing?
How do you know if your faith is growing?
I mean, with an actual plant it’s pretty easy to tell. If you plant a tomato plant in your backyard garden, you can stake a yardstick into the ground behind it. You can check back every few days and watch as its stem grows. And soon enough, you won’t need the yardstick anymore. You’ll see the branches growing out from the stem, you’ll see leaves growing on the branches, you’ll see blooms growing there too, and you’ll see tomatoes replace the blooms.
But it’s not so easy to see if someone’s faith is growing. It’s not like I could stop you every time you walk into our building and make you stand next to a growth chart by the door, or ask you to step on a scale so I can check and see how much your faith has grown. And if I even tried I can tell you exactly what would happen: I’d be unemployed and have a big old black eye.
So if you can’t tangibly measure your faith, how do you know your faith is growing?
Well, for a lot of people, growing in your faith means that you simply become a better Christian. So if you’re growing in your faith it means you get better at the stuff that Christians do. You get better at reading your Bible, and you really start to clean up whenever there’s a Bible category on Jeopardy. You start praying more, and you get comfortable adding little flourishes of Elizabethan English into your quiet times. You start to learn a few more hymns, and you almost feel devout enough to join the choir. You come to church every Sunday, unless the pastor’s on vacation – because we all know that one doesn’t count. You get comfortable wearing stuffy suits or itchy dresses because momma always told you to wear your Sunday best. Instead of saying, “Goodbye,” you start saying, “Have a blessed day.”
But is that really how you can tell if your faith is growing?
Because I gotta tell you, if that’s what it looks like to have a growing faith, then my faith is as tall as a California Redwood. I mean, I’m so good at Bible trivia games that I know when the publisher has made a mistake. And I can pray some pretty eloquent prayers, even if I do get my thee’s and thou’s confused from time to time. I know the first verse and chorus of enough hymns to…“keep me singing as I go.” And you probably do too if you know the name of that hymn. I only miss church when the preacher’s on vacation…because, obviously, I’m the preacher. And even though I don’t particularly care for suits and ties, I’ve got a closet full of them. And I’ve been known to say, “God bless you,” even when it doesn’t involve a sneeze.
So truth be told, I really don’t know why I’m even standing up here preaching this morning. After all, many of you are every bit as good at these things as I am. So why should I spend any more time talking about measuring your faith when I’m standing in the midst of other redwoods?
But before I wrap up this sermon, let’s at least take a couple of minutes and see what the Bible has to say about all this. I’m sure it’ll only confirm my suspicions.
So let’s turn together to the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 1, and we’ll start reading in verse 10. It says:
10 Hear the Lord’s word, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to our God’s teaching, people of Gomorrah!
Umm…I hate to say it, but after reading that verse, I’m afraid things might not go as well here as I expected. After all, Sodom and Gomorrah were kind of wiped out by God’s wrath. But since we already started, let’s see what else this passage has to say. It continues:
11 “What should I think about all your sacrifices?” says the Lord. I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts. I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? 13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—I can’t stand wickedness with celebration! 14 I hate your new moons and your festivals. They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing. 15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood.
Now, I don’t know if you were listening to that passage or not, but God just told the people of Israel that he hated pretty much every aspect of their worship. Everything that the people of Israel did for their faith – all their offerings, all their prayers, all their holiday celebrations – were repulsive to God. Or to put it another way, if Isaiah was writing this passage today it would sound more like this:
I hate your worship services. Your prayers make me sick. I loathe your music, even when you sing Amazing Grace. Your sermons are sacrilege. Who asked for your offerings? Your Holy Communion stinks. I want none of it.
So what this passage in Isaiah is saying is that everything we typically use to measure our faith is wrong. Just because you read your Bible, say your prayers, and come to church; it doesn’t mean your faith is growing. Because this passage makes it crystal clear that those aren’t the things that matter most to God.
But fortunately for us, this passage goes on to tell us what does matter to God. So let’s continue on in Isaiah 1:16-17. It says:
16 Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
Isaiah 1:16-17 (Common English Bible)
Listen to it again: Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
This is God’s measuring stick to see how our faith is growing…and it doesn’t include any churchy kind of things. Now don’t get me wrong, the churchy things are still important to our faith…but they’re not the fruit of our faith.
Praying, reading the Bible, coming to worship, and participating in worship; these are the things that enrich the soil our faith is planted in. These are the things that provide the nutrients that we need to grow. But these things mean absolutely nothing unless we grow. Or to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how well you can quote scripture if you don’t live out its message.
It doesn’t matter how well you can quote scripture if you don’t live out its message.
You can tell me all day long Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, where Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.” But it doesn’t matter if you’ve never fed someone, or given them a drink, or invited them into your home, or clothed them, or cared for them, or visited with them.
And it doesn’t matter how many hymns you know, or even how well you can sing them. Because you can sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” – which happens to be one of my favorites – until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t live out that love then what’s the point?
It doesn’t matter how eloquently you pray, how generously you give, or how immaculately you dress if those things don’t change you when you’re not in church.
Because your faith isn’t measured by what you do in church on Sundays, your faith is measured by how you live every single day.
Your faith isn’t measured by what you do in church on Sundays, your faith is measured by how you live every single day.
And I gotta tell you, if what God says to Isaiah is the measuring stick for our faith, I’m pretty sure my faith doesn’t look like a majestic California Redwood. If I’m being honest, it probably looks more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. Because what God says in this passage is hard. Listen to what God says one more time. He says:
Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
When was the last time you helped someone who is oppressed – someone who is restrained or held down by someone with power? When was the last time you defended an orphan – or helped any child who’s in need? When was the last time you pleaded for a widow – or a person who lacked a voice in our culture? When was the last time you did something good for someone that could never repay you? Or helped someone that you’d never see again? Or even listened to someone who didn’t share your opinion?
And I know what you want to ask me. You want to say, “Preacher, are you sure this is how I know if my faith is growing?” Because everyone sitting in this room can admit it’s a whole lot easier to dress up and play church than it is to help the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. But Isaiah makes it clear that this is what really matters to God, this is how God measures our faith.
Now this is the point where I’d usually wrap up my sermon, but I don’t want to leave it here. After all, all I’ve really done so far is step on your toes, and make you feel a little guilty. And if that’s all I do then I didn’t do anything to help your faith grow.
So instead of stopping here, I want to encourage you and give you a little hope. Because we can’t go back in time and undo the way we’ve lived out our faith up to this point…but we can do something about how we’ll live out our faith today and tomorrow.
So if you look at your faith, and realize that you haven’t done much to help other people – especially those in need – it’s not too late. But you have to commit yourself to doing it. So make that commitment right now. Commit to help the oppressed, to defend the orphan, to plead for the widow. Commit to find ways that you can help other people.
So don’t leave this service today feeling bad about your faith. Go from this place convicted and convinced that your faith is going to grow.