There is a great sermon scene in a movie called Cold Comfort Farm. Ian McKellan is the fire and brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. The church is packed, everyone squeezed into the pews. A wild-eyed and unkempt McKellan ascends the pulpit. Behind him is a banner of sinners burning in hell.
He glares at the congregation and beings to preach: “Ye miserable crawling worms… Are you here again then? Have you come secretly out of your doomed houses to hear what’s coming to you?” He then goes on to shout at the congregation, as they squirm, quiver and shake in guilt and fear.
It seems like he could have taken his cue from John the Baptist in this morning’s gospel. All of Jerusalem came out to be baptized by John. John was wild-eyed and unkempt too: he lived in the wilderness, was clad in leather and camel hair, and subsisted on bugs and honey. John was the preacher/prophet du jour: he had rock star status. Everybody wanted to hear him preach and be baptized by him in the river Jordan.
Now, when Dave and I do baptisms at Christ Church, we say things like, “So glad that you’re here! Sure we’ll baptize you! What can we do to help? Here’s a nice baptismal certificate and a Jesus Storybook Bible. Can we come to the reception afterward for mimosas?” John the Baptist takes a different approach to baptismal preparation. He apparently thinks that threat and character assassination are the way to go. To the baptismal party he cries, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Snakes are even worse than worms! Then he threatens the baptismal candidates with what’s coming to them: axes and cutting and being thrown into the unquenchable fire.
John was a scary man. We made the mistake when our first daughter was born of taking her to sit on Santa’s lap. As we tried to wrench Hilary’s vice-like grip off us and put her in Santa’s lap, she screamed bloody murder. Santa was scary! Well, John the Baptist is Scary! And yet, like Santa, people flock to him. We’ve got to ask – why would people come to such a strident, angular character? He’s a lot scarier than Santa. How are we to understand John’s message?
Part of that answer comes from understanding the context. Israel was an occupied country full of strife. People yearned for help. Enter John the Baptist. He drew crowds because he preached in the long tradition of the prophets. They knew there was One who was coming who could bring help – the one prophesied by Isaiah, who was to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” How they yearned for Him, the Messiah who would help them! Could John be the One? The Bible says that, “the people were in expectation and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.”
Who here doesn’t know this yearning for help? Where do you yearn for help right now? Christmas time seems to tap even more deeply into our yearning for help, for comfort, for light in the darkness. We have white candles in our windows – the electric kind that every single home in our Richmond neighborhood had during Christmas. Back then, colored lights were considered tacky. I put them in our windows on the first Sunday of Advent every year.
Turning them on in the evening dusk always is a ritualistic and almost somber moment. With each flicker of candlelight there is a yearning. Help me. Help our family. Help our children. Help our church. Help our city. Help our world. “Oh God, I need your help tonight” (U2). Please give light to us who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
In our yearning for help, we are like the throngs that come out to John the Baptist. Although his manner is scary, John does tell us one thing we need to hear: repent. The word repent may conjure up bad religious associations, but it just means be honest about how things are and your role in them. “Repent” is just the prelude to “help.” But, for all its urgency and popularity, there is of course a fatal flaw in John the Baptist’s message of repentance. This is because he tells us to bear fruits worthy of repentance. But just telling people to get better never works. Does it?
Anybody who has had children knows this to be true. Anybody that is the grip of anxiety also knows it to be true. Telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking is fruitless and cruel. Exhorting a depressed person to cheer up because it’s Christmas is nonsense. It’s like telling a blind man that if he would just squint harder he could see.
Do you know somebody who operates this way? You often hear people talk about “tough love.” In my experience, life is tough enough. I want my love to be tender. Or you hear about the need for people to “challenge” each other to be better. Really? Life is challenging enough, isn’t it? I need understanding from others, not challenge. Does challenge ever really produce real fruit? I’m sure Mike London did plenty of challenging this past season, but UVA was still 2-10!
In theological language, the Law cannot fulfill what it demands. Principles, exhortations, and demands always fall short. Just telling people to bear fruit worthy of repentance doesn’t actually produce the fruit. If it did, then the prophets would have accomplished change long, long ago! People wouldn’t need help. We wouldn’t need a Messiah.
So John the Baptist’s message isn’t an end in itself. That is why Jesus says a few chapters later, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” In other words, nobody does the message of repent better than John. But, the message ultimately fails to bring about what it intends. And yet, we still need help. Are we to be left helpless? No! Help does come, but not through demand or challenge or tough love. Yes, it’s good to “heed (John’s) warning and forsake our sins” as we pray in the Advent Collect. But the real help comes not through the Law, but through Grace.
John the Baptist must have known this on some level. That’s why when the people wonder in their hearts whether he is the One, John points away from himself and to Jesus. John’s purpose is to announce the coming of grace. And that grace comes through Jesus Christ. As we read elsewhere, “the Law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” No sermonic bombast necessary.
Nelson Mandela gave us a glimpse of how grace works. After he was released from his 27-year prison sentence, he implored his people to forgive those who abused and oppressed them. As one write-up said, he“lunched with the prosecutor who argued for his incarceration, sang the apartheid era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and traveled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of the prime minister who was the architect of white rule.” Mandela was clearly a light in the darkness; he bore fruit worthy of repentance – not tough love, but forgiving love.
The operation of Grace is also seen in the story of Sir Nicholas Winton. During WWII, he organized the rescue of over 650 children in an operation called the Czech Kindertransport. The children were bound for the Nazi death camps, but Winton got them safe passage to Britain. After the war was over, Winton didn’t announce his exploits. In fact, he didn’t tell anyone for 50 years, not even his wife Grete. Then, in 1988, Grete found a scrapbook dating to 1939 in their attic. It held all the children’s photos, a list of their names, and letters from some of their parents. It was the first time she’d learned of her husband’s story.
Later that year, the BBC program “That’s Life” aired a surprise reunion between Winton and the children – obviously now grown adults – he rescued. The host says, “Vera Gisson is here tonight.” She is one of the saved children. “I should tell you are sitting next to Nicholas Winton.” Gisson then reaches over to hug the man who saved her. They are both choked with emotion. That’s a fruit worthy of repentance.
The host continues. “Is there anyone else in the audience tonight that owes their life to Nicholas Winton. Could you stand up please?” Sir Nicholas Winton, a very proper Englishman, turns around, astonished at the 30 people beaming at him, takes his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and wipes the tears from his eyes. The audience applauds for what seems like forever.
So maybe this morning we have come out of our houses to hear what’s coming to us. And John the Baptist tells us. “He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” So, in the words of our Advent collect, may we too be “ready to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ, (our Help) and our Redeemer.”