A sermon preached at John Knox Kirk of Kansas City, Missouri, on December 7, 2014.
Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
So….John the Baptist.
As a preacher, John the Baptist wouldn’t have lasted a day
In the Presbyterian Church I grew up in as a child, in southwestern Iowa.
MAYBE he could’ve been the preacher down
At the Pentecostal Church of the Second Blessing
the one in the metal building, you know, out on the outskirts of town,
But NO WAY in my home church.
It’s not that we were some big, shoe-shined, tall-steeple, metropolitan church.
Mine was a typical Presbyterian church in rural America,
A church that had choirs for all ages,
And a good youth group
Church camp up at Knox Knolls…
And elders who looked like elders,
And deacons who acted like deacons,
And trustees—well, I was never sure what the trustees did,
But they sure looked sober and respectable doing it.
In short, as I heard people there say:
maybe we weren’t all that great,
But we weren’t all that bad either.
How’s that for a church motto?
Law-abiding, taxpaying, comfortably middle class. Don’t rock the boat.
That was my church.
We were the kind of church that liked our religion
in small, controlled, organized doses.
Nothing fanatical, please. But nothing very challenging, either.
Frankly, we seemed perfectly happy for God
never to say anything to us other than
what we expected to hear already,
And all that we expected to hear at my church
was “I’m okay. You’re okay.”
“God is nice; therefore, we should be nice to each other[i].”
So, if John the Baptist had pulled up one day as the New Preacher
looking like a cross between Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
And “captain caveman”—
–with his unkempt hair and scraggly beard,
and if he moved his wardrobe of one camel’s-hair outfit
into the closet of the pastor’s study,
and put his box of locusts
and jar of wild honey into the pantry—
–eyebrows definitely would have raised.
We’ve all seen eccentric preachers before,
But John would have taken the cake.
…And come to think of it, that cake might have been
the LAST thing he got to eat on his new job.
Whispers would reach crescendo,
Calls would be made, you know—
“Who did we offend to get a pastor who looks like THIS?”
Maybe they would have hung in through the first sermon,
But the first time John stepped into the pulpit and unleashed
One of his fire-breathing,
–that would have been the end of him.
The Personnel Committee would meet…and, POOF—no more John.
Now, here’s what always struck me about John the Baptist:
I think Barbara Brown Taylor is right when she says that:
“Self-appointed prophets tend to plant themselves
right in your way, so you have to cross
to the other side of the street to avoid them.
They get in your face and dare you to ignore them.”[ii]
That’s what people who claim to be prophets do.
They want attention. They demand attention.
But John planted himself in the middle of nowhere!
He set up shop in the wilderness, the text says,
And anyone who wanted to hear what he had to say
Had to go to a lot of trouble to get there—
–you had to trek way off into the blazing hot desert,
traverse relentless hills of thick sand,
and make your way down to the Jordan River
far away from any city.
And his message?
Well, compared to the other Gospels
Mark’s account of what John preached is rather tame:
“After me will come one more powerful.
I’m not worthy to stoop down and fix his sandals.
I baptize with water; this one is to come with the Holy Spirit.”
But a quick look at how the other Gospels capture this wild one,
and you’ll get a sense of just how volatile a character he was
So one translation goes like this: (The Message)
“You bunch of snakes!”
(How would that make for a sermon opening?)
“What do you think you’re doing
slithering down here to the river?
Do you think that a little water on your snake skins
Is going to make any difference?
It’s your life that’s got to change, not your skin!
If your life changes, people will be able to tell. You’ll bear fruit.
Is your life green?
Is it bearing fruit?
Because if it is deadwood, then it goes into THE FIRE.
Repent! The kingdom of heaven is near!”
That is how Eugene Peterson translates Matthew’s version of events.
All those people, traversing ALL that distance to hear the Baptist,
all to hear this somewhat off-putting, in your face sort of speech.
Why would anyone do that?
And its so jarring, every year, as we’re preparing our homes for Christmas
with trees and tensile and lights and presents
to be beckoned down this advent path
first to consider slowing down, being in God’s time
like we meditated about last week
and then this: to allow ourselves to confront some rather harsh situations
things that maybe we’d RATHER NOT DEAL WITH
thank you very much.
Or would we? I honestly don’t know.
Where are you this year: Would you rather have space in your Advent
for thinking about the real, human difficulties we all experience
trying just to fit in at school
Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland
as buzzwords for deeply traumatic upheavals
between people of color and the rest of society
two years ago this Sunday it was Shady Hook Elementary
not to mention hunger, losing a job, losing a loved one
Or should Advent simply be a time of Michael Buble crooning
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire
as we try to last to Christmas morning.
Its not an easy choice, if we’re honest.
Sometimes the world is just too much. Too much.
But if the choice is between the too much, and tuning out,
there’s no hope anywhere to be found at all.
And, honestly, I think that’s why John is so important for us.
John the Baptist is part of the first act in the advent narrative,
The forerunner of the TRUTH who is Jesus the Christ.
John is the first step in God’s great “experiment with the truth.”
But John is like a yapping little terrier,
Who nips relentlessly at our heals
As we attempt to slide past the message to get straight to Christmas.
John tells us the good news isn’t CHEAP news; it isn’t FAKE news.
For it to be GOOD news, it has to be REAL news.
For it to be GOOD news, it has to be REAL news.
And it has to deal with the truth of our lives, in its beauty, and in its pain.
In some ways John is like the Season of Advent itself—
–an annoying, unpleasant, yet persistent speed bump
on the road to celebrating the birth of sweet baby Jesus.
Advent is NOT just a time for preparing to celebrate the first coming of Jesus,
but as important is his SECOND coming.
A time when every hill will be made low and every valley shall rise up
Where this time of suffering and toil and lamentation
and societal strife will cease
a time of justice and order and peace.
Jesus has been born, died, raised.
We live in that reality, as we wait for all to be made better.
As we learn our part in making it all better.
So what does it mean for us to PREPARE, anew, this year
for God’s advent into our lives?
John is right:
We need repentance, conversion, and transformation.
We are NOT all of who we could be or should be,
And true, the fact that God’s grace has provided for those needs is GOOD news.
But, Man, it’s still a TOUGH message. Scathing the way John delivered it.
Yet crowds came.
People from Jerusalem and all Judea braved the elements
And journeyed out into the desert to hear John preach.
You couldn’t get that kind of preaching at First Church Jerusalem.
They came to hear John’s message of repentance.
People were being baptized.
Lives were being turned around.
In a world of fake,
And frenzy—John doesn’t just call for a change,
He SHOWS us the God who
Lives and loves and makes things better.
What is it with this language about repentance and fire
Jesus, comes with a baptism of fire and the holy spirit.
John says: right there: there is your good news. Right. There.
In this world of just too much, too much: Jesus is your good news.
Jesus. Fire and Holy Spirit.
There’s something about the gunk our life gets coated with.
The bad judgment,
The petty scrupulosity—
–it just builds up and builds up over a life
UNTIL it is so much that it BLOCKS our view,
Until we can’t see God,
And we don’t even know the truth
About ourselves anymore.
But you see, that’s what the fire of repentance is all about.
It’s NOT to punish you.
It’s NOT meant to burn for burning’s sake.
It’s to scrape off the gunk.
It’s to help us see God again through the gunk.
It’s to get us to know the truth about ourselves anew.
The fire of repentance is always a path to God’s grace…
This is why the lectionary planners lead us through the Apocalypse,
To get to the tranquil story of Newborn Jesus …
Writer and Preacher Fred Craddock often talks about “the moment.”[iii]
The moment we come face to face with real truth.
The moment, where everything, suddenly, is on the line.
That moment comes for all of us, Craddock says—
And then he tells the story of Glen Adsett,
Glen was a schoolmate of his years ago,
Who served as a missionary in China
In the middle of the last century.
Glen was under house arrest in China
When the police came one day and said,
“You can return to America.”
They were celebrating, and the soldiers said,
“You can take two hundred pounds with you.”
Well, they’d been there for years.
Two hundred pounds!
They got the scales and started the family argument:
Two children, wife, husband.
Must have this vase.
Well, this is a new typewriter.
What about my books?
What about this?
And they weighed everything and took it off
And weighed this and took it off
And weighed this and, finally, right on the dot—
Two hundred pounds!
The police came and asked, “Ready to go?” “Yes.”
“Did you weigh everything?” “Yes.”
“200 pounds?” “Yes, 200 pounds.”
“You weighed the kids?”
What do you mean, weigh the kids???
“…Weigh the kids.”
And in a moment,
Typewriter and vase
Treasures and keepsakes—and ALL became trash.
It was all stripped away in that one moment of truth.
John’s main message is, repent!
It’s a message we would do well NOT to explain away
In our modern blur…
In our desire not to talk about anything that
might rattle us….
The kingdom of heaven has come near.
The moment of truth is NOW!
The time is short.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Honestly, it’s a message that many mainline churches have shied away from,
Perhaps so because fundamentalist preachers have taken it up
and twisted it with a message of guilt and manipulation.
However, our neglect of John’s message has had dangerous results
In the life of the mainline church.
To say nothing of the lives of all of us.
To say nothing to all our thoughts and hopes for justice and peace.
Good news has morphed into news you can hear any place else.
“I’m okay. You’re okay.”
“we should be nice to each other.”
The teeth of the Gospel have been knocked out,
The bite removed,
and the RADICAL, transforming power of God
To pick us up, to dust us off, to wipe clear our slates,
and to turn us around, has been muted.
Lets face it—we’re afraid that a John the Baptist type tirade
Will offend people.
Modern folk do NOT like to hear about sin and repentance.
John’s message will anger some people we fear.
But I have a suspicion that there are folks all over—
There are some of us here TODAY—
Who are desperate to hear that God wants, expects
And, most importantly, makes POSSIBLE repentance.
We GET to START OVER!
God can take our broken lives, our broken world
Turn them around
And give us that sweet feeling
That our lives count for something—
–they are bearing fruit.
I don’t know about you,
but when I think about our broken world:
I’m ready for things to turn around.
And I get excited about being part of God’s healing work
in a world of such hurt, such trauma.
John spoke out of an implicit conviction that when the truth is spoken,
And when the truth is heard—
And everything is stripped away—
Hearts are changed,
Lives are done over,
So, John appears in the wilderness, and points to Jesus, saying:
Here is a TRUTH that BURSTS upon the world—
–explodes, intrudes, and changes everything in its path.
Here is TRUTH
—NOT an abstract IDEA, or CONCEPT—
–not facts or arguments or propositions–
–but a human being,
a speaking, moving person
who intrudes among us and…well, changes us
because of relationship, as all relationships do.
This Jesus: born unto us, lamb of God.
To get to it, to get ourselves in the right frame of mind,
we have to allow ourselves to be shaken
to turn our hearts and our minds to those things God cares about
to listen for where God’s heart aches
so we can go RIGHT THERE bearing God’s love.
The Kingdom of Heaven is near, my friends!
Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming soon….
I can’t wait.
[i] I am indebted to Michael Turner’s article, “Repent!” in Logos Pulpit, 4th quarter, 2004, and Rev. Mark Ramsey’s sermon “He Wouldn’t Last a Day” December 9, 2007, for the ideas developed here.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications, 1995, pp. 129-131.
[iii] Fred B Craddock, Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, 2001, pp. 22-23