Nobody’s Favorite Preacher

Text of the sermon that should have been preached on Advent 3C (December 13, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS. But there was snow and ice.

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9 (The First Song of Isaiah)
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist is like the Advent bad penny — He’s the crazy prophet who turns up year after year like clockwork, preaching his message of doom and gloom. He’s a jarring note in this season of peace and goodwill. Maybe that’s why the hymnal doesn’t pay much attention to John.

I have a suspicion, though, and it’s no more than that, that every preacher secretly envies John the Baptist. Not because he had a nice home — we know he lived in the wilderness, probably even in a cave. Not because he ate in fancy restaurants — he foraged for locusts and wild honey. Although, I bet we could find a fancy restaurant in New York City or somewhere like that that serves bugs. Not because he wore Armani

John definitely didn't look as fly as this guy!

John definitely didn’t look as fly as this guy!

suits with full quill ostrich boots — I mean, we know he wore a camel-skinned cloak.

Preachers envy John the Baptist because he preached a tough, blunt, uncompromising message and still the crowds kept coming.

I was chatting with a classmate of mine not long ago, who was lamenting how careful she had to be not to say something in a sermon that would offend someone. She learned that lesson the hard way when she preached a sermon that some of the congregation didn’t like. They thought it was too political and someone told her that they had just about walked out in the middle of the service.

Another preacher recalled what his mother said to him after he told her that he was going to seminary after college. She said she didn’t think he would be a good preacher and wouldn’t last in ministry. He was kind of taken aback and asked, “But why?” She said, “Preachers have hundreds of bosses. They spend their whole lives trying to please people and have to watch what they say. People get upset when you tell them things that they don’t want to hear. Preachers sometimes slip up and say things they shouldn’t. You’re careless about what you say. Preaching isn’t for you.” (long pause)

At the time he told his mother, “Thanks for the encouragement!” But later he said that if he had it to do over, he would have asked her, “Well, if that’s true, why did so many people go out to hear John the Baptist preach?”

By the way, this fellow is now recognized as an outstanding preacher, one of the top ten preachers in the country by many. So much for his mother’s advice.

This is exactly why preachers envy John the Baptist. Maybe his mother Elizabeth gave him the same kind of advice, but he ignored it. He preached sermons that were blunt, brutally honest, never pulled any punches, and still the people came.

In our tradition preachers get to enjoy what is called “freedom of the pulpit.” What that means is that we’re supposed to preach the gospel as we understand it and as our conscience compels us. Or as my preaching professor would say, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion? Preach that.” But this “freedom” that we enjoy is largely theoretical. Offend too many parishioners and we’re free to go and enjoy the freedom of some other church’s pulpit.

John the Baptist never had to worry about that. He preached whatever he felt like and nobody could fire him. (pause)

But that didn’t mean that they had to keep on hiking out to the Jordan River to hear him. It’s a long haul from Jerusalem to the Jordan. It’s twenty hot, dusty, dry miles one way, and the road back is uphill every, single step of the way.

power-hour-427965Back at the height of his television ministry, Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power had an audience in the millions. But I sometimes wonder how big it would have been if people would have had to walk 20 miles to hear him. Would his message have moved anyone to make the trek all the way to the Jordan River?

John the Baptist moved people not because he preached soft “I’m ok, you’re ok, God loves you anyway” sermons. John moved people because he preached not what they wanted to hear, but what they really needed to hear. And yes, it was blunt. It was hard-edged. It hit them right between the eyes. “You brood of vipers, God is cutting out the dead wood, the fire is ready!” I mean really. John calling the people “You brood of vipers!” is like a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP. And he makes no apology for it.

There is always someone who says, “People don’t come to church to hear the truth. They come to be comforted and have their prejudices confirmed. They come to be stroked.” And you know, maybe some people do. And that is ok. We all need to be comforted now and then. But to say that’s the only reason people ever come to church is really an insult, not to the preacher, but to the congregation. (Pause and look around)

I don’t think that is why you come here week after week. I don’t think I’m as blunt or direct as John the Baptist, but I hope that I don’t feed you a steady diet of comfort and consolation either. I don’t think that I do.

Right after the Clinton impeachment hearings back in 1998, a preacher made a snide comment about lawyers in a sermon. And during the greeting line after the service, he saw one of the lawyers in the congregation headed his way and he thought, “Uh-oh! He’s going to let me have it.” But instead the lawyer said, “Thanks for that. We deserve every bit of it. It’s great to come to church and hear the truth.”

Now there’s someone who would have trekked out into the desert to hear John the Baptist.

So what was it exactly about John’s sermons that people found so compelling? Unfortunately, we don’t have a complete transcript of even one of his sermons. But he seems to have hammered home two simple points — 1) God is coming, and 2) you can change.

One of the things we love about babies is how fresh and pure they are — no history, no mistakes, no past to overcome, no regrets. We all wish that we could go back to a condition that is something like that — just wipe the slate clean and start over. And guess what? John the Baptist says that “You can!”

As a very amateur photographer, I don’t really like this time of the year. Everything

Snow! It's like new life!

Snow! It’s like new life!

seems to be dirty shades of brown. It’s not very interesting. But you get a few inches of snow, and the dinginess is transformed like magic! Everything is bright, clean, and fresh. It’s like the prophet Isaiah said, “Though your sins are like crimson, they shall be white as snow.”

John says, “That’s a promise.” When he preached, the desert began to look like the garden of Eden.

We need someone like John the Baptist once in a while to hold up the mirror so we can see ourselves as we really are. Granted, it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience, but it’s one that we definitely need. It enables us to see parts of ourselves that need to be pruned and purged, need to be cleansed and changed.

John’s message sounds harsh and judgmental to our ears — not at all like good news. But as someone has said, the gospel often has to sound like bad news before it can be good news. And good news was exactly what the people who made the long journey to the desert heard. John’s message was good news to people who yearned for God’s coming, who hoped for God’s coming, who wanted to be ready for God’s coming.

John assured them that no one is beyond the reach of the God who comes to us so we can come to God. That was John’s message long ago, and that’s the Advent message today. God is coming. You can change.

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