John stands in the Judean Wilderness preaching to the crowds and then at the Pharisees, an investigatory delegation of which had just arrived. In the midst of referring to these supposed paragons of righteousness as a Brood of Vipers (was this an old Essene vs. Pharisee rivalry bubbling up?), John tells them to Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
I am struck by the order "produce fruit." The production of fruit requires the good soil of repentance; indeed, repentance is all we can bring to the process, repentance and a life lived in penitent righteousness. As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, he planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but only the Lord made it grow. The Lord gives growth and so he is the ultimate source of the fruit (with the Lord as its head, 'the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow" [TNIV]
But when we deal with God and the growth that he gives, we must also deal with God's timing. Ours is not the God of short term profits and he provides the fruit how he wishes, when he wishes. Today's image is from the Chiostro dello Scalzo in Florence, one of a set of monochrome frsecoes by Andrea del Sarto and Il Franciabigio painted in the early 1500s for a lay group of men devoted to Florence's Patron Saint. The set tell the story of the life of the Baptist and today's js the first, depicting the annunciation to Zechariah as he ministered in the temple. Luke sets up this encounter thus:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Barrenness, the ultimate and for many the most frustrating absence of fruit. Yet God, in his time, brings from this righteous couple tremendous fruit ("among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist," says our Lord).
In Deuteronomy, Moses sets before the people a choice, life or death, and tells them that if they choose life, if you love the Lord their God, and walk in obedience to him, then they will live and increase. There is no timetable on when our repentance and our righteous deeds will bear fruit, or if we'll even know it when they do. All we can do is choose to obey.
I am struggling to remember that my task is the obedience, His is the increase. I am challenged by the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth who were faithful without any assurances (at least, until the angel showed up but then Zechariah suddenly wasn't so resolute); I am challenged by their faith and by the tremendous way God honored them.