Luke 3: 7-18
When it comes to epitaphs—you know, the sayings some people add to their tombstone—some of them are downright startling. I remember going through the cemetery in Princeton New Jersey while I attended Princeton Seminary. One of the headstones had this startling sentence: “I told you I was sick.” Ouch. Talk about reaching out from the dead! Tim Hawk of the New Jersey Advanced Media wrote this about that cemetery and others:
We live to leave a legacy. In this short life, we hope to have an impact on the lives of those close to us and those we encounter for a fleeting moment. Whether it’s with our family, friends or in the community, our personality will follow us to our grave.
When it’s time to cash in one’s chips, how do you want to be remembered? What would be your epitaph?
- “Devoted husband.”
- “Gone but not forgotten.”
- “Forever in our hearts.”
- “Beloved wife.”
What phrase would be your lasting memory?
Gravestones tell a story. More than the deceased’s name, age and date of death, the engravings often give us insight about how they lived or how they died. Some even reveal funny sayings or phrases leaving us wondering what they were like when they walked with the living.
Established in 1757, the Princeton Cemetery is the final resting place of Revolutionary War soldiers, scientists, musicians, writers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grover Cleveland, the 24th president of the United States, and Aaron Burr, the third vice president are also buried there. But among the breath-taking monuments and picturesque views lies, [are words] etched forever in stone. Here are three:
- “I told you I was sick.” “Life is short, eat dessert first.”
“She was not afraid of bears.
That cemetery is worth a visit!
In truth, many people in our day do not choose big headstones with memorable epitaphs. So for us, we may not want to consider what is etched in stone on our behalf, but what is indelibly placed in people’s minds. How might you like to be remembered? What good deeds for your community, your church, your family or your nation might be remembered about you with gratitude? The fiery prophet John the Baptist proclaimed to those who came to be baptized by him: “Bear fruit.” “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance.” In other words, do the works to show others the change that is in your heart. Or, “Let there be evidence that you are wanting to make a difference in this world.” Words are cheap; actions matter. As I learned from a man with citrus trees in his yard, the purpose of the trees was to bear fruit. Fruit trees are not grown to be shade trees or just for beauty; they are grown to bear fruit. That is their purpose.
Pastor Rick Warren created a publishing bonanza with his 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life. Its subtitle: “What on Earth am I Hear for?” The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives as some good guidance with its words “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” I once had an elder ask me, “What are your goals in life?” And I said, “To be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” He said, “You’re already doing those, you need some new goals!” What are your goals in life? One of them, says John, is to “bear fruit.” In God’s eyes, you are a blessing not just by being; but once we know that, a major purpose in life becomes “bearing fruit.” Even a blessed person can wear on one’s nerves if they never get out of bed or off the couch! I remember a woman in our congregation who, because of chemotherapy, had to stay in her home because her immune system was compromised. Did she just sit? No, she systematically went through our list of shut-ins, and our prayer list, and called them to visit by phone! And here I am talking about it because it is part of her legacy. Will others be able to say, at the end of your life, that you made your community, or family, or church, or friends a little better because of who you were and what you did? As Mary Ann and I guided our children to this stage in their lives, we fulfilled some of our hopes: 1) That they would find good employment; 2) find a wonderful person with whom to share their life; and 3) and that they would contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them. Instead of just coasting through life at whatever age, think about your legacy; think about “Bearing fruit.”
As one starts to read the Gospel of Luke, they can get lulled into “sleeping in heavenly peace” as angels appear; babies are born (both John and Jesus), weary parents make their journey to Bethlehem; and shepherd go to see the Christ Child. Then in comes “Wreck it Ralph,” only this time it’s “Wreck it John.” John the Baptist, who seems like a prophetic bull in a china shop, thunders a warning from God: “God” he says in so many words,” is not pleased with the levels of sin without acknowledgment or repentance, so there could be estrangement ahead! John illustrates it with an ax cutting at the root of a tree. Those who keep on their own chosen path may be cut off from blessings; cut off from encouragement; cut off from the one who gave them life. They cannot claim to be ‘chosen people’ as if their genealogy earns them favor. Instead of having the habits of highly successful people, John’s listeners—and perhaps we—have developed habits of highly sinful people, and it doomd the relationship with God.” John tells them what they—and we—need to do. If we were to boil down his response, it would be “Live Differently! Share instead of hold; earn instead of cheat; repent instead of deny!” Today, John steps out of the pages of Luke and preaches to us and to others: That message could be delivered to our national leaders who may badly need to change: to local leaders who have recently shown unyielding stances against others; and to state leaders. Maybe you need to hear John too, or a family member needs to hear John. I know there are days when I need to repent. Making a rugged self-examination is not just a Twelve-step activity; it is an activity of Godly people. When I am on certain roads, warning strips strategically placed at the sides of the pavement rumble through my car, telling me I’m going off the road. John the Baptist is our rumble strip, warning us that we might be off the road. Some arrogantly answer John, “Leave me alone! I’m saved!” Or “I’ve already been baptized!” To that John says, “Act like it! Live Differently! Bear good fruit!” So today: what might you need to change in your life? What relationship needs attention? Are you emulating good role models in your life, or poor ones? The political climate is so toxic in our nation and in other nations as we move toward Christmas. Who gets your respect for truth, for integrity, and for Christian actions? Which ones do you follow; which ones do you reject? In addition to Jesus, pick high quality people and see how they deal with issues and conflicts. Notice their work or their generosity. Choose the qualities that you want to exemplify, and take any bushel off the light of Christ so his light can shine in the darkness. God is watching. God’s eyes flash at the sound of lies. May each of us work on our relationship with God Almighty, rather than facing the ax. Let us pray:
Almighty God: as troubled as we are with our nation and the world, we know that you judge us one by one. Help us to be a prophetic mouthpiece in written and spoken ways when needed, and a bridge over troubled waters where we can. Remind us that the reasons for our names to be included in the book of life are still unfolding. We will seek to bear good fruit in the garden of your world. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 16, 2018