Bearing Fruit in Dry Times
by Jack Wald | August 8th, 2010

Jeremiah 17:5-8

Throughout church history, whenever there has been persecution of the church, it has been a minority of the church that stood with Jesus. Most of those who call themselves followers of Jesus have denied their faith in order to protect their possessions, jobs and lives. Historically, only a minority of the church stands with Jesus during persecution.

So look around the room. Look at the people sitting beside you. If we are like the rest of the church in history, more than half of us will deny Jesus if we are forced to choose. Who would stand with Jesus? Would you deny your faith in Jesus to save your home? Your job? Your family? Your life?

I like to think of myself as a strong person, someone who stands up for my convictions but then Peter was a strong personality. He stepped out to walk on water. He pulled out a sword to defend Jesus when he was arrested. Peter was confident he would not deny Jesus: (Mark 14:31)
Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”

But hours later he denied three times knowing Jesus and wept afterwards at his betrayal.

So look around; look at yourself. How would we stand up under persecution? How would you stand up under persecution?

I began this series of sermons: Water for a Parched Tongue in a Dry Land, on June 20th by preaching from Psalm 1. Both Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 use the picture of a fruit tree planted by the side of a river. In such an environment, the roots of the tree go down and find the water that allows it to bear fruit.

In Psalm 1 we read:
He (the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord)  is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

Jeremiah uses the same image but adds a detail upon which I want to focus this morning.
He (the one who trusts in the Lord) will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.

What I like in this passage in Jeremiah is the line that says
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.
That’s the kind of tree I want to be. I don’t want to be a weak-kneed Christian who wilts under pressure. I want to be a Christian who stands with Jesus no matter what.

All fruit trees need roots that do down into the soil to find water to sustain the tree. When there is regular rain, the roots do not need to go very deep. Water is plentiful and the tree produces fruit year after year.

But when drought comes and water is hard to find, only a tree whose roots have gone deep down will find the water needed to make the tree flourish and produce fruit. Trees with shallow roots have leaves that wither and when it comes time to harvest fruit, the tree has not produced anything worth picking.

This is the advantage of a tree planted by the side of a river. Even in drought years where the river is just a trickle, beneath the surface there is water where deep roots find what the tree needs to produce fruit.

On the cover of the bulletin there is a picture of an apricot tree in the wilderness, but prospering because it sits by the side of a river. That is the image on which I want to focus.

When it is easy to be a Christian, when the culture supports going to church and being religious, when the government protects your right to meet and may even give tax deductions to encourage churches, in this environment it is easy to produce fruit. Rain is frequent and fruit is easily produced.

When it is easy to be a Christian there are a lot of people who go to church. When it is culturally convenient to be a Christian, lots of people go to church. When it does not cost much to be a Christian, many people go to church.

In such an environment you go to church on Sundays, meet with your small group during the week, go to a Men’s Prayer Breakfast or Woman’s group, attend periodic conferences that encourage you to live a Christian life, read Christian books and magazines, and listen to Christian worship music. In this environment producing fruit is not difficult.

But when the culture turns against the church or when the government turns against the church, then the number of those going to church declines.

There is a strong bias against Christian faith in American academia. In much of the media this bias against Christian faith dominates. Europe has shifted to secular societies and the US is following course. The morals and values of the culture are shifting and even large parts of the church are shifting with the culture, shifting away from Biblical truth to the cultural truth of the moment.

A church or a member of the church who stands up for Jesus and the teachings of Scripture is increasingly viewed as an impediment to the progress of enlightenment. It is becoming a dry time to be a Christian.

The culture and government can move against the church but that is not the only source of drought. Our personal circumstances can take a bad turn and this will also lead us into a season of drought.

What happens when your financial situation turns upside down and you lose your job? What happens when illness strikes and you or one of your family become seriously sick? What happens when life is no longer moving along smoothly? Will you continue to produce fruit in the drought of disappointment, illness and tragedy?

What does someone look like who is like a tree that produces fruit even during a drought?

Langdon Gilkey was a young American teacher at Yenching University near what was then called Peking, China. In 1943 the Japanese military under wartime pressure rounded up all foreigners into an internment camp where they were kept for two and a half years. He continued his education after the war and became a prominent theologian.

In 1966 he wrote his most popular book: Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure, based on a journal he kept while at the internment camp. The prisoners in the internment camp represented a cross-section of humanity. There were businessmen, professors, missionaries, importers, lawyers, doctors, junkies, prostitutes, little children, the old and infirm.

When they moved into the internment camp an immediate problem was that the toilets overflowed. The latrines were not equipped to handle two thousand people and something had to be done, a task no one wanted. Among all these people, who took on this odious task? Some Catholic priests and nuns, aided by some Protestant missionaries, waded in with mops and cloths tied around their faces to clean up this mess.

Some of the missionaries in the internment camp were absorbed into their own communities, tied up in their legalism and unable to associate with the “sinners” in the compound. Others were able to interact and make a positive difference.

One of the missionaries in this camp was Eric Liddell, famous for winning a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Olympics. He was made famous all over again in 1981 when the movie, Chariots of Fire, portrayed him and other members of the British Olympic team.

Gilkey wrote about him, “It is rare indeed when a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known… In camp he was in his middle forties, lithe and springy of step and, above all, overflowing with good humor and love of life. He was aided by others, to be sure. But it was Eric’s enthusiasm and charm that carried the day with the whole effort. Shortly before the camp ended, he was stricken suddenly with a brain tumor and died the same day. The entire camp, especially its youth, were stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.”

Eric Liddell and the others who faced the ordeal of the internment camp and yet were able to care for others and not be consumed with their own suffering, who were able to take on unpleasant tasks that needed to be done, these people were trees planted by the river who yielded fruit during the drought.

Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish monk who during the Second World War was arrested by the German Gestapo and ended up in Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. His life was a life of service but the part I want to tell began five months after he came to the concentration camp.

In July 1941, a man from Kolbe’s barracks vanished, prompting the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men from the same barracks to be starved to death in order to deter further escape attempts. (The man who had disappeared was later found drowned in the camp latrine.) One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place.

The ten men were led into the basement room, the starvation room. As the hours and days passed, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening in the death cell. Past prisoners had spent their dying days howling, attacking one another, clawing the walls in a frenzy of despair.

But now, coming from the death box, those outside heard the faint sounds of singing. For this time the prisoners had a shepherd to gently lead them through the shadows of the valley of death, pointing them to the Great Shepherd.

A prisoner named Bruno Borgowiec, who survived Auschwitz, served as attendant to the death cells. Each day he had to remove the corpses of those who had finally withered away. He also was supposed to empty the waste bucket, but each day the bucket was dry. The inmates had drunk its contents in a futile effort to slake their thirst.

On August 14 there were four prisoners still alive in the bunker and it was needed for new occupants. A German doctor came with injections of carbolic acid to kill the remaining four. When they swung the bunker door open, there, in the light of their flashlight, they saw Father Maximilian Kolbe, a living skeleton, propped against one wall. His head was inclined a bit to the left. He had the ghost of a smile on his lips and his eyes wide open, fixed on some faraway vision. He did not move.  The doctor injected the three prisoners lying on the floor and then Father Kolbe. In a moment he was dead.

Kolbe was a tree planted by a river that yielded fruit in a dry season.

Not all of us will face such an extreme situation, but we choose for or against Jesus all the time. We do not have to wait for a dramatic, life-threatening situation to decide. “Will I stand with Jesus?” is not a question to be decided at some time in the future. It is a decision we make all the time.

When someone offers to help you cheat your way through an exam, do you take the offer or do you choose to stand with Jesus? When you are tempted to have sex and are not married and many of your friends are having pre-marital sex, you have to choose to satisfy your sexual desire or stand with Jesus. When you sit down at the computer and see an ad enticing you to click and be taken to a pornographic site, do you click on the site or do you turn the computer off and stand with Jesus? When you are in a relationship with someone who is not a follower of Jesus and want to get married, who will you choose, who will you love more, that person or Jesus? When you are offered a business contract if only you will pay a bribe, what choice will you make, pay the bribe and get the contract or say no and stand with Jesus. When you are tempted to speak poorly of someone in order to put yourself in a better position at work, what will you choose, the promotion or Jesus? When someone gives you too much change, what will you choose, the little bit of extra money or Jesus? When you get up in the morning and head to the computer to see what people have to say to you on email or facebook or whatever else you use to communicate, you have a decision to make. Will you open your computer or your Bible? Will you choose to see what people think of you and have to say to you or will you choose to see what God has to say to you and what God thinks of you? Will you stand with Jesus or choose the world?

You cannot say, “ I will not deny my faith,” and then deny it with the choices you make day by day. Who will stand with Jesus?

How can we become like a tree planted by a river that produces fruit when times are good and when times are difficult?

Psalm 1 reminded us that the man or woman who is like a tree planted by streams of water does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers. But instead his or her delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night.

When I first moved to Morocco and Annie was still working in the US, I spent six months living with a couple who were like trees planted by the river who produced fruit in dry times. Some of you know Ruth and Habib.

It did not matter what time I woke up in the morning, I would find them seated at the dining room table reading the Bible, Ruth reading her Bible and Habib reading his Bible. I have visited them in California and because of jet lag wake up very early in the morning and although I might be up earlier than them and go out for a run, I would come back and find them seated at the table, reading their Bibles.

If you want to be like a tree planted by a river, yielding fruit even when there is a drought, there is no shortcut. There is no magic fertilizer that will transform you. The consistent practice of reading the Bible and meditating on what you read is what builds up a deep reservoir that carries you through difficult times and allows you to produce fruit in a drought.

But it is more complicated than simply reading the Bible and meditating on what you read. I have known Christians who read their Bible everyday, morning and night and they are tight, legalistic, dry Christians who produce stingy fruit even in the best of times.

To become like a tree that is planted by the river and produces fruit when there is a drought, it is necessary to meditate on the word of God and also to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Reading and meditating on the word of God gives us knowledge but then we need to do something with what we learn.

Paul talks about two stages of salvation in his letter to the church in Rome. The first stage is justification. This is what happens when our name is written in the Book of Life. This is our conversion, when we enter into a relationship with God through Jesus. We are accepted by God as holy because the perfect holiness of Jesus covers over our sin.

But then begins the second stage, sanctification. When you become a daughter or son of God, the Holy Spirit indwells you and begins to work, with your cooperation, to transform you to actually become a holy person. This is very encouraging because when we are discouraged by our seeming inability to make progress, it helps greatly to know that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. We are not doing it on our own.

As God works in our lives, it helps to remember the creative power of the Holy Spirit, In Genesis 1 we read: (Genesis 1:1–2)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

The Spirit of God hovered and then the creativity of God exploded into an extravagant array of plants and animals full of colors and wild designs. We live in a world full of beauty and imagination. We are not all the same. We are not boring. We are the product of a creative God and this same creativity is at work in us, making us holy.

When we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this work, then wonderful things happen. The creative power of God works in our lives. We read the Bible and meditate on its meaning. We open ourselves to an examination of ourselves and see where we need to grow. We are not static. We are not stuck in a rut. We are moving and growing, being shaped and opening up to ourselves and to the world.

A follower of Jesus who reads the Bible and meditates on the Bible and is open to the work of the Holy Spirit leans forward into the new work of God. Such a follower of Jesus has not arrived but is in process. Such a follower of Jesus gains new spiritual insights regardless of how many years he or she has been a follower of Jesus.

And when this happens we grow into trees that are planted by a river that produce fruit even during a time of drought.

So here is the challenge for you and for me: how will you choose the rest of today and into the coming week? What are the situations you will encounter that will be decision points for you?

There is not someone standing in front of you with a gun asking if you are a follower of Jesus, but you will face the choice of following Jesus and your decision now is just as important as any decision you will make in the future.

Some people, when they come to a fork in the road, choose the easiest path, but that path is not always the one that leads to life. Following Jesus is not always easy. But following Jesus leads to life and the one who chooses Jesus will never regret that decision. The one who chooses the easier path will always, eventually, regret that decision.

Choose Jesus. Stand with Jesus and be like a tree that produces fruit even in a drought.