United Methodist pastor and preacher William Willimon once said that he often wonders why people come to church to hear a sermon. He said that he, like most preachers, believe you come here Sunday after Sunday to be comforted. You have had hard, busy weeks. You have been under a lot of stress lately. Your children are not doing as well as you would like. Business is slow. Times are tight. You are having a difficult time taking care of your aging parents. And you have your own health worries. Your marriage is not quite like it used to be. You are still dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. And you are still struggling with forgiving that friend who let you down and loving a neighbor who betrayed you. So you get in your car every Sunday and drive to this place to sit in a pew to get a little comfort. You come to get stroked and soothed, pampered and pacified.
So I, along with hundreds of other moderate, educated, mainline preachers in pretty, downtown pulpits, seek to give you a dose of what we think you need and want each and every Sunday. We seek give you a little bit of psychology. We metaphorically pat you on the back from our pulpits on Sunday mornings assuring you that everything is going to be alright. We seek to give you a little bit of Jesus-loves-me-and-Jesus-loves-you-so-I’m O.K.-you’re O.K.-all-God’s-children-are-O.K. theology. Worship, then, is a little feel-good-pick-me-up to help us recover from last week and to help us get through the upcoming week, some chicken soup for the soul.
Then, we encounter a text like this morning’s gospel lesson. And we read the account of a preacher who is a far cry a moderate, educated, mainline preacher in a pretty, downtown pulpit. His name is John the Baptist. He’s a harsh man with a harsh voice crying out from the boondocks far from the lights of downtown.
No one ever called John the Baptist “moderate.” And no one ever called him “pretty.” And there was certainly nothing comforting about his message of hell, fire, brimstone and impending judgment.
John stood in the mud of the Jordan River and preached: “You bunch of poisonous snakes! There’s a bunch of dead stones in this muddy river. God is able to make a family out of these stones. There’s a heap of dry chaff, mixed all up in with the wheat. You know what God’s going to do? God’s going to start a fire to burn off the chaff. I wash you with water; and if this water is too cold for you… there is one who’s coming right behind me who is going to scorch you with fire!”
“You better get washed. You better get clean! If you’ve treated someone unfairly, go make it right. If you have prejudice in your heart, get rid of it. This may be your last warning. Today is the day. Now is the hour, for the ax, the judge, and the fire are coming!”
Now I think: “Who in the world would want to travel out in the middle of nowhere to hear a sermon like that? Who wants to look at someone who looks like John and hear him say: “I’m not O.K.! You’re not O.K.! None of God’s children are O.K.!” Who wants to hear him say: “The unquenchable fire is coming, so you better get ready!? You better stop being so arrogant and pompous, so selfish and so greedy. Because guess what? Someone’s coming and hell’s coming with him!”
Who wants to listen to a sermon like that? As it turns out, lots of people. Luke says: “multitudes.” And genteel, educated preachers in pretty downtown pulpits everywhere ask: “why?”
It just so happens that people do not necessarily go to church to listen to a sermon to be comforted. People come to church to hear the truth.
Multitudes went to into the boonies because that redneck preacher who looked like he could handle a snake or two named John the Baptist was telling people the truth.
That is why I believe you come to this place Sunday after Sunday. In a world of so much deceit and falsehood, in a world where people will tell you anything you want to hear to make a dollar, in a world where the rich and powerful control the media, you want to hear someone who unashamedly will speak to you honestly and truthfully. You come here out of a deep yearning to hear a word of truth from God because you know deep in your heart that it is only that truth that will set you free.
That is why more people went out to hear John preach in the desert than have ever come here to hear me preach in my pretty downtown church. Multitudes tramped through the briars and dust and went to hear a fire-breathing preacher who stood, not in a beautifully crafted and decorated pulpit, but in the muddy Jordan River, and spoke of axes, judgment and fire. They went to hear the truth. Even though they knew that sometimes, most of the time, the truth hurts; the truth is not an easy thing to swallow. However, they somehow instinctively knew that it was the truth that was going to set them free.
If John was here today, I believe he would tell moderate, mainline, mainstream preachers safe behind our protective pulpits like me sell you short. And maybe he would be right.
For every now and again, even I, slip up and accidentally step on your toes, a lot harder than I ever intend to, implying: “You’re not right. You need a bath. Some part of you needs to be cut off, removed; something in of you needs to be burned away. The racism and sexism, the homophobia and xenophobia, all of the pride and bigotry and hate inside of you needs to be destroyed so we can fulfill the greatest commandment of God and love all of our neighbors, our white neighbors and our black neighbors, our straight neighbors and our LGBTQ neighbors, our Christian neighbors and our Muslim neighbors, our rich neighbors and our poor neighbors, our English-speaking neighbors and our foreign speaking neighbors.”
And do you know what happens when I do this? You are often lined up at the front door to say, “Thanks preacher, I really needed to hear that!” “You really got on top of my feet today! Thanks for being honest.”
You lined up to thank me because you know that before something can be born anew and fresh within you, something old and rotten has to die. You know that before a church can experience rebirth and new growth, the archaic and the stagnant need to pass away. And you know that before we can truly be the church, we have to get out of the comfort and the security of the sanctuary, and go to the places God is leading us, even the dark, dangerous and dreadful places.
That is why people came to hear John preach. Because if you really listen to him you will hear him make two points in his sermon: “God is coming!” and “You can change!”
From his prolific sermon illustrations, the fire, the ax, and chaff, we know that what John was preaching was the death of something old and the birth of something new. You can get clean. You can be purified. You can be transformed and be washed white as snow!
This is why the multitudes traveled out into the boonies to hear John preach! Because when John preached with brutal honesty, when John told the people what they needed to change, what they needed to prune, cut off and burn up, the wilderness began to look something like the Garden of Eden. The muddy Jordan became the River of Life. Out of the dry dust, a flower began to bloom.
To put me through seminary, Lori worked as a social worker at a transitional apartment building for homeless families on the west side of Louisville Kentucky. Louisville’s west side was the oldest part and the ugliest part of the city. Century old houses which were once the homes of Louisville’s middle to upper class were now run down. Many condemned. Windows boarded up. Others were crack houses. Old, one-time majestic apartment buildings were now considered slums. Litter covered the sidewalks and filled the alleyways. It was the ghetto.
One Saturday I took the youth group from our church to do some cleaning and painting in the apartment building where Lori worked. As soon as we arrived, it began to snow. About six inches fell while we worked inside. When we walked outside to get into the van to drive back to the church, we marveled at the transformation. A gentle white blanket covered the ghetto and completely transformed it into some place wonderful!
Your sins, the psalmist promised, shall be whiter than snow! This was the message of John the Baptist. People flocked to hear John, and I believe come to worship every Sunday so they can hear the truth: that none of us are who we ought to be.
We come here to ask God to hold up a mirror in front of us so we can see clearly all of our shortcomings. We ask him to search us and know our hearts; test us and know our thoughts, see if there is any wicked way in us, and lead us the way everlasting. And chastened, we come to drop to our knees and ask God to take an ax and cut us down, or kindle a fire and purge us, so we can be reborn, so we can be cleansed and changed, so we can then change the world. John the Baptist promises the possibility of such a transformation.
Get ready. God is coming. This was John’s message. Let us hear this message today. Because there is not anyone here who is beyond the reach of a gracious God who comes to us, so that we might come to him.
John the Baptist preached that. And he is still preaching that. You can’t get to Christmas without first meeting him in the wilderness. Multitudes have. By God’s grace, so will we.[i]
[i] Inspired and adapted from a sermon entitled Here Comes the Judge by William Willimon.