Very few people like an overbearing person. Perhaps you have experienced just such a person in your life–you know, the type of person who thinks he or she knows everything there is to know about life and how you should run your life a certain way and these are the things you should and shouldn’t do. Anyone ever run into such a person?
I don’t know why it is that as a pastor I have run into my fair share of such folks, and no, I’m not talking about people I serve in congregations. I’m talking about people I meet in the course of my life outside of church. More than a few times, I’m minding my own business, and someone strikes up a conversation with me. We exchange pleasantries and perhaps talk about the weather. Sooner or later, if we have a prolonged exchange, the person will ask me, "So, what do you do for a living?"
I usually think, "Oh, boy, here we go." I think this because there are generally two responses. The first is a, "Oh really reaction, and then the conversation dies a quick death." The other is a, "Oh, you’re a preacher. Now, let me tell you what’s wrong with this world." In the next few minutes, I am subjected to this person’s personal theology and how this world would be better off if folks just did x, y, or z. After their diatribe, they will usually end with, "Don’t you think so?"
I’ve made the mistake once or twice of disagreeing. That’s never a pleasant experience after that. Usually, I don’t get a word in defense or otherwise before the person launches into a second diatribe as to why I should believe exactly as they do complete with Bible quotes, television preacher quotes, and a bit of internet speak thrown in.
I’ve learned it doesn’t necessarily pay to argue with such a person. Usually, this type of person is so focused on his or her world view that any alternate does not compute, and no matter what you say or how you say it, nothing will become of it. Sometimes a silent nod is a great way to end the conversation and get away. Perhaps you have had a like experience. And perhaps, just perhaps you have walked away thinking to yourself, "I never, ever want to be like that."
Certainly, most of us don’t want to be like that, and so we head right to the other direction. Instead of being firm in our convictions and willing to state what we believe and why, we just kind of go along with the flow. We become agreeable just to avoid conflict and avoid any sort of awkwardness of dealing with someone who is strong willed. We acquiesce to certain things publically and then go on a private rant later amongst those who agree exactly as we agree. It just seems to be easier that way.
Yet, this too poses problems, for it allows those with strong opinions and strong beliefs to dominate in the public sphere. It allows them to set the policy and direction of our communities, states and nations. Before long, those with opposing opinions and beliefs are at one another’s throats, and things become polarized. Those who might have been able to bring a different perspective–an alternative perspective–with a little more grey area are shut out and shut down and left caught between the two poles.
Neither approach seems to be a viable approach. And neither approach is frankly Christian in my estimation. After all, we as Christians are called to be out and about in the world. "Be in the world, but not of the world," Jesus said. We are also called to make disciples of all nations teaching them everything that Jesus commanded us. We cannot do this by remaining quiet and agreeable. It is our job to teach and proclaim in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Yet, how do we do such a thing without coming across as arrogant, as a know-it all, or as overbearing? Is it possible to stand firm in one’s convictions, state them plainly without judgment, and still remain connected to someone we may disagree vehemently with?
I think so. I think it’s very possible, and believe it or not, I’d like to point to our Gospel lesson this morning to illustrate this. And, believe it or not, I’m going to use John the Baptist as an illustration.
Now, this might seem quite strange. At first read, John comes across as an arrogant overbearing type of personality. Listen to his words once more, "You brood of vipers! (I’m sure John didn’t have any friends in sensitivity class.) Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor"; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ 10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
John isn’t holding back anything here. He’s laying all things out on the line. Powerfully. Forcefully. Perhaps even arrogantly. John knows what is expected of those who are God-fearing people. He knows what it means to act with justice. He knows what it means to live a life dedicated to God. He’s not ashamed to share it with others.
Yet, John is also humble. Some might not get that picture of John the Baptist as he stands in the Judean countryside yelling at people and telling them to repent. Yet, listen once again to what John does.
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John doesn’t hold back the truth when folks start asking him about whether or not he is the Messiah. "No," John says, "I’m not. There’s someone greater than me who is coming." Think about that admission. Think about it hard. Does someone who is arrogant really believe there is someone who is greater than them? Does someone who is overbearing believe there is someone who has better answers and more knowledge?
Not usually. Hardly, in fact. John knew he wasn’t the be-all and end-all. John knew there was someone greater, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it. He wasn’t afraid to let others know he was limited. He wasn’t afraid to be humble.
And so, as I look at John the Baptist this morning, I see a role model for those of us who are called to be engaged in working in the world. I see someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for the convictions and beliefs in God–someone who is full of strength. And I see someone who is humbled by the fact that he knows he isn’t the greatest. Strength and humility coming together at one and the same time. Go and do likewise. Amen.