When John the Baptist went down to the Jordan, people followed. He he washed a lot of old assumptions right out of people’s eyes. In the shock of new seeing we asked him, “What should we do?” His answer just drips with life. “Bear fruit,” he said. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
By telling us to bear fruit, John reveals that the primary task of being alive is to grow, not just as children in school, but always. To multiply our gifts. An apple tree does not produce a single apple then sit back and collect the royalties. It produces enough to keep a family through the winter, and then starts all over again when it bursts into bloom the following spring. If I cling to my fruit, it will only rot. Life is process, says the tree, and as life, I am process, too. I am put here to keep life going, to be delicious, to nourish those who come after me and as long as I do that, there will always be enough.
John, who does not mince words, and who indeed, calls us "a brood of vipers," suggests that most of us are not doing that. He suggests that most of us are more like snakes gone astray than we are like fruit trees. Like people, vipers can be both life giving, shedding their skins and starting fresh, or death dealing, hoarding earth’s treasure to themselves and brushing others aside with their poisonous kiss. The bad reptilian brain was carrying the day in Rome, John said. Don’t go there. Bear fruit. Dare to be a tree.
But the crowds persist, "What then should we do?" And so John built the image more completely. To be a tree of life, John says, is to understand boundaries. It is to be less restless, to live within our means, to share what we have. ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Note, however, that he did not tell them to stop being tax collectors and soldiers. God does not tell us to give up being who we are; God merely invites us to be generous with who we are.
There's a good reason to give things away. When I stop to help another, face to face, like a tree offering fruit to an outstretched hand, I realize that that hand is attached to another person quite as precious as I. When I share my fruit, the other ceases to be an object, a charity case or an uncertain Muslim; he looks into my eyes and, as who I am touches him, and we share stories, he becomes part of my world. Or as the saying goes in Fairbanks, where the winters are bitterly cold and people must stop and help one another on the road lest they freeze and die, “There are no enemies at forty below.”
Repent, says John the Baptist. Bear fruit. Grow until you become that tree that dispenses eternal life. Drink deep of God’s living water. Revel in the skin that God gave you. You can shed the old and still live. Be not afraid. Go out and listen to nature until you are alive with it.