What Do You Think Of John's Preaching?
Well, what do you think of John's preaching? He's there in the pulpit every year during this Advent season. Only his pulpit isn't anything like our pulpit. John's pulpit is a patch of sun-baked ground near a cool river. When we hear him in Matthew and Mark we are given details about his peculiar wardrobe and diet: clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist and his food was locusts and wild honey. But that is not here in Luke's account of his preaching. For Luke only one thing matters—John's preaching.
His is a strong voice filled with conviction. His message: baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John makes no mention of the kingdom of God. For Luke's Gospel, Jesus is the kingdom preacher. John's preaching doesn't point to the kingdom; it points to Jesus who is the kingdom preacher.1 But there is something else about his voice. It is a voice of urgency and indictment spoken not only to Pharisees and Sadducees but includes all people. And the people respond, notes Fred Craddock, as snakes scurrying before a spreading fire, running to escape "the wrath to come."
What do you think of John's preaching? For me it produces some measure of discomfort. I was taught that preaching was to be, above all else, good news. That people approached worship weary and exhausted seeking refreshment and strength in the sermon to make it through another week. Preaching that was harsh, moralizing or pulsating with warnings of God's wrath did not belong in the chambers of worship. If the true treasure of the church is the gospel of God's grace, why doesn't John make this his "pitch?" But here is John with an extended, bony finger swinging an ax with the other hand.
John's preaching strips the people down as furniture is stripped of its old finish. He hurls insults on his audience and threatens them with horrifying judgment. His message creates a moment of truth and dissolves any illusion of innocence before God—any illusion whatsoever. Maybe that is what John wants to do. Before the promised Messiah can be received as good news, the crowds must first perceive their need for the Messiah. Only by relinquishing any illusion that we are worthy does the gospel becomes good news. People who present themselves for baptism simply as an exercise in piety suddenly feel the cool, sharp edge of the ax. Standing before God with nothing, their claim to Abraham as father no longer a "get out of jail free" card, the people inquire of John, "What then should we do?"
There was something about John's preaching that promised life. Different sorts of people were there that day; different faces gathered around this itinerate, desert preacher. Rich people, tax collectors and soldiers. To most people they would appear as just faces. Frederick Buechner2 has observed that faces, like everything else, can be looked at and not seen. They are without personalities, without histories. There is nothing to remember them by. They are anonymous strangers. As far as you are concerned, they simply don't matter. Except that they mattered to John. They mattered to John because they mattered to God. They all sought the same thing: life. Dissatisfied with their old way of living or simply convicted for the first time of their emptiness before God, the people wanted life. And they felt that John could give it to them. "What then should we do?" they asked.
John instructs the people how they should live. The rich are to share what they have with those who have nothing, tax collectors are not to collect anymore than what is due, soldiers are to avoid extortion by threats or false accusation and be satisfied with their wages. Simply, John offers the people one principle for life: love neighbor as oneself. As one biblical scholar puts it, there is a responsibility to live in a way that recognizes that God truly is in our midst. John isn't offering a formula for coming clean before God. Live right and you are included in the Messiah's "who's who" most favored list. Something much deeper is going on. John is sharing how we are to wait for the Messiah. We wait as if his coming was the most important thing in the world. We sweep the interior of our life and throw out the trash as we would clean our homes for an important guest. Cleaning house doesn't save us, but it does demonstrate our desire for the guest to come.
Trouble was, the people reached toward John, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. It wasn't enough to live right. Something about John's preaching had made this clear. We do not know what they saw when they looked at John. You can discern a great deal about someone by looking. We don't know what they saw, but we know what they heard. They heard the preaching of a man who didn't care what the world thought of him. He cared only that they might hear the truth in a world where truth is in short supply. So the people reached out from their emptiness toward John believing that he could satisfy their thirst for genuine life. John discerns their expectation of him and quickly answers that he is not the one. John could not give what the people thirsted for. But John gave what he had. John gave witness to another who was coming, one more powerful than John.
Now anyone there that day for John's sermon would probably have told you that what John did was turn the people around. As Barbara Brown Taylor once said, that is not a bad definition of repentance: to turn around, to go another way, God's way. John's preaching was not a lesson in pulling ourselves out of death's grip. John sought to turn people toward a new way of living that would give witness to the coming of God who saves. As God reached down from the heavens to breath life into the nostrils of Adam so the Messiah will come to breath new life into those he loves. The Messiah would baptize with fire to burn away the chaff of sin as a refiners fire. God would do for the people what they cannot do for themselves. One teacher of the Bible has noted that the past holds us so tightly that something must happen to create a new opportunity. Repentance is turning toward a new opportunity for life that God gives.
Too often, it seems to me, the preaching of the church is too small. A clear call to godly living is often absent. Not John's preaching. All of John's words establishes standards and confront people with a God who evaluates human life in relation to those standards. Still, John wants us to know that our salvation depends, finally, not on our own ability but on the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
What do you think of John's preaching? According to Luke's Gospel, John's preaching came as "good news." Good news because it announced that salvation does not come by our own effort. Good news because in this season of Advent, there is hope that our lives can be changed by the coming one. Good news because repentance and renewal comes as a gracious gift. The Messiah comes to us and because he comes there is cause for rejoicing. Yet, in our rejoicing we are to live in a manner that directs attention to God. John's preaching is a call to a life that bears witness to the coming one.
Bernie Glassman writes of the death of his wife. "People ask me how I'm doing. It takes a while for me to reply, for it's hard to answer them in words. Finally I tell them I'm bearing witness. I live in a house chosen by my wife, reflecting her tastes and wishes. My own choice would be a studio in New York City's Bowery, not a house in a canyon overlooking a river. Those were the things Jishu wanted, and Jishu is gone. So I live in her house—I call it Casa Jishu—and do the things she would have loved. I greet the dawn coming over the mountains, watch the hummingbirds, prune the lilac bushes. Each time I think of the smile on her face had she been here to do these things. Instead I do them, bearing witness to her presence and her absence. How am I doing? I'm bearing witness. And the state of bearing witness is the state of love."3
Doug Hood Lenape Valley Presbyterian church New Britain, PA
1. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According To Luke I-IX, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 466. 2. Frederick Buechner, Whistling In The Dark: An ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 44. 3. Bernie Glassman, My Wife Died Unexpectedly Last March, The Best Spiritual Writing 1999, ed. Philip Zaleski (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 102-103.