I would like to ask you to pretend for just a minute that one Sunday you decided to attend worship at another congregation several miles from here. Through the grapevine you had hear about a new preacher who was rather eccentric and unorthodox in his methods and preaching. Curiosity got the better of you, and so you traveled to witness this new guy and hear what he had to say.
When you arrived in the town where this occurrence was taking place, you had to inquire for directions. Everyone from the town knew where things were taking place, and one person was kindly enough to give you street names and directions. Dutifully following these, you headed to hear this preacher.
You arrived where this guy was supposedly preaching, and it wasn’t what you expected. Instead of a nice church building with paved, marked parking, you arrived at an empty lot. It was singularly unattractive. There was no place to sit. Looking around, you saw no sound system, no instruments, nothing that would even make you believe this was where a church gathered. Several boards looked like they had been hastily put together as a sort of stage, but you would be fearful of standing on it because it looked very unstable and like it could fall apart at the least bit of urging. Other curious folks started showing up, meandering around the lot showing the same sense of misgiving and trepidation you had.
As you mingled, you found you had the same questions they did. "What time does everything start? What have you heard about this guy? Can you really believe some of the things you have heard? Do you think he is really God’s messenger?" The murmurings grew louder around the lot as more folks arrived. Everyone was so busy, they hardly noticed the preacher walk through their midst and take his place upon the rickety stage.
"Who invited you to come here?" a voice suddenly boomed over the crowd. All the chatter stopped, and everyone focused their attention on the man now standing in front of them. As you saw him for the first time, your mouth was agape. Instead of a well-kempt, clean cut, nicely attired gentleman, this guy looked nothing of the sort. His hair was a mangled mess looking as if it hadn’t been combed or washed for days. His facial hair was uneven and tangled. His clothes literally looked like a patchwork of rags. His jeans had been patched and sewn several times. Even the patches had patches. His shirt was threadbare, and you could literally see his undershirt through it–an undershirt that looked stained and greasy. He had no socks and wore tattered sandals. His feet were dirty revealing toenails that had not been clipped and were full of dirt. This man was supposed to be a speaker for God? Your mind immediately doubted.
With no apology for his appearance or further words of welcome, the man renewed his questioning. "Who invited you to come here? You are nothing more than a bunch of self-centered, hypocritical beasts. You are lower than snakes, and yet you come here to hear a word of God from me? Do you think I will somehow save you from God’s wrath? Instead of standing here and listening, go and get busy. Turn your lives around from sin. Stop acting immorally. Start taking care of those who are less fortunate than you. Don’t act so innocent. God knows what you do and what you don’t do, and don’t stand there thinking that you are so high and mighty just because you say that you are a Christian.
God can take the very stones of the earth and turn them into Christians–real Christians who not only call upon the name of Jesus with their lips but who also put his teachings into actions. If you are not doing what Christ commanded, you are in serious trouble. If you are not bearing the fruit he has commanded you to bear, you will stand in judgement. For he is coming. He will harvest what he has sown, and if you are not bearing fruit, he will cut you down and throw you into the fire. Do not be a hypocrite any longer! Throw away your self-righteousness! Stop thinking that you and God are so buddy, buddy! Yes, He loves you, but He will not hesitate to dole out punishment! Prepare for His return!"
For a solid hour, this preacher continues on in this manner. There is a part of you that wants to leave, that wants to get away as fast as you can. Yet, there is another part of you which cannot leave. You struggle within yourself wondering if it is because if this guy is telling the truth or if you feel like you are watching a train wreck and cannot take your eye off of it. You stay until the bitter end, and you walk back to your car.
As you drive home, you resolve to attend your home church next week and report to your pastor what you have seen. And you think about your church and your pastor. What would happen to your church if such a man as the one you had just seen preached there Sunday after Sunday? Would it draw people into it? Would offerings increase, or would they dry up? Would people accept a scruffy looking, no a derelict looking man as their pastor? Would they take being shouted at week in and week out? Would your church grow?
Such questions I think are appropriate since we see such a model of preaching and teaching in our gospel lesson this morning. As you might guess, I am trying to draw a parallel in this fictional story between the preacher in the deserted lot and John the Baptist–for that preacher and John acted very similarly. John pulled no punches when he addressed his crowds. He didn’t sugar coat things for them. He didn’t make them feel warm and fuzzy. He didn’t make them feel loved by God. He took a verbal hammer and hit them right between the eyes with it. And I am sure that more than a few people walked away from there grumbling and mumbling under their breath. Several were probably worried about John for they figured he would eventually tick off the wrong person. Incidentally, John eventually did that, and it cost him his head.
Yet, I don’t think John was overly worried about such a thing. John wasn’t worried about what his preaching and teaching would cost him because he had a job to do. He was there to prepare the way for Jesus. He was there to make the paths straight. Now, you try making a path straight without doing some major lifting or some extensive construction work. See how far you get. Sometimes, in order to straighten something out, you’ve got to put some muscle into it. John did just that as he dealt with those whose hearts were crooked.
It’s a far cry from what we normally hear in our churches today. We tend to rail against churches who scare the fire out of people and make them fear judgment. I must confess that I am not one to use hell fire and judgment to invoke people to live Christian lives. My main reason is that I prefer to lead by example and teach that we are called to live Christian lives out of our love of God and not fearfulness of Him. Yet, there is a danger in such an approach if one is not careful.
Just this week, I came across a story told by Martin Marty, a Lutheran theologian and scholar. He wrote, "One critic said he had gone to many churches and heard the preacher say, "Don't try to impress God with your works" or "Don't attempt to please God with your merits" or "Don't try to keep the rules and regulations and thus win your way." He [the critic] looked around at nearly slumbering collections of utterly casual Christians and wondered, "Who's trying?"
Indeed, who’s trying? Who is trying to live the Christian life? Who is trying to uphold the moral standards taught by Christ, by the apostle Paul and by others who wrote the Bible? Who is trying to make a difference in dealing with injustice, with poverty, with the hungry–all things which Jesus strongly encouraged his followers to engage in? Who is trying to make a difference with reaching out to those who have not heard the word of God–to make disciples of all nations as Jesus called us? Who is trying to invite their friends and family members to attend worship and live in a responsible manner? Who is seeking to bear fruit and live lives of repentance?
Perhaps a church led by a John the Baptist will not grow and become a major power player in the world. Yet, we need to hear such a message from time to time. We need to be reminded that Christ will come again to judge us. We need to be reminded to leave our self-righteousness and hypocrisy behind. We need to be reminded that God can create Christians out of the stones of the ground if he needed to. And we need to be reminded that if we are living our lives as we are called to live them, he won’t need to. We need to be reminded that our faith is more than simply words on a page or words from our lips, but it is put into action as we are called to bear fruit. Amen.