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Sunday, December 8, 2013

“Heeeree’s Johnny!”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent 2A, December 8th, 2013

  ""I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me (Matt. 3:11a  NRS)

Some of you will remember the title of today’s sermon from Ed McMahon’s familiar opening introduction to Johnny Carson on the tonight show:  Heeeres Johnny!   Others of you will recognize it from Jack Nicholson’s frightening role in the movie “The Shinning”.  The Shinning is based on Stephen King’s novel about a hotel haunted by a murder about to be repeated.   In one of the last scenes, Jack Nicholson, playing a deranged writer named Jack has chopped up the shower curtain with a knife and now leers through with maddening insanity and then shouts out, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”   

Some of us might see John the Baptizer message as a ‘maddening’ beginning to the good news of the gospel.   In today’s text, John the Baptizer stands between us and the warm fuzziness of Christmas with a message of sin, confession and repentance, saying, “Repent, You bunch of snakes!”  Is this any way to start Christmas?

Most of us want to get to Christmas another way, wouldn’t we?  And that’s what we often do.  We try shopping, buying, giving and receiving gifts, going to parties, eating fattening foods, singing carols, and going to grandma’s house.  Nothing wrong with these festive, wonderful things this time of year, except that we can use them as a way to avoid John and miss Christmas’ true meaning.   But the truth of Scripture and the Word of God will have it no other way.  To find the true spirit of Christmas, we have to go through John.  

What does it mean to hear John’s message at Christmas?  John begins his message in the wilderness shouting out moral correctives for people who have been caught in moral flaw, human failure or a sinful fiasco.   We could think, “Repent, you bunch of snakes” was meant for people just like them----that ugly King Herod who killed babies, the sleazy Tax Collectors who were stealing people’s hard earned money, the strange Gentile pagans who don’t know the God of Abraham, the loud mouthed Canaanite Woman who couldn’t keep her mouth shut, or even those two, very guilty criminals on the cross with Jesus.   The list could go on.  We could think that the message of John is only meant for people who are ‘sinners’ like them, like someone else, and of course, not meant for respectable people like us. 

But look again closely at where John starts his preaching.  He doesn’t start with the sins of the world, the crimes of the lowest of the low, or the ignorance of the outsiders, but John starts with the sins and failures of the insiders; even the so called righteous and respectful. When John says, “Repent, you bunch of snakes” he is talking to religious people who look a lot like us.  According to our text it all started when John “saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism….”   Interestingly, we are not told how these religious leaders responded to being called ‘snakes’.  That will come later.

But I know how I would respond.   Who likes a “Johnny” who carries an axe in his hand, chopping a hole in our own baptismal shower curtain saying “the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”.   This is just not nice.  Certainly this does not make us feel all Christmassy.  It does not make us want to hang around this preacher very long, especially so close to Christmas.   Most of us don’t like talk like this, unless, of course, we are the one doing the talking.
For example, listen to what one pastor said.   Lutheran Pastor Brad Schmeling said he’d give up his pastoral robe to be able to put on a coat of camel’s hair, eat a honey dipped grasshopper and be able to talk to his congregation like this, saying: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”   He said he could do this quite naturally because he’s the oldest child in his family.  It became natural for him to be the moral force for his siblings, who hated him for it.   That pastor told how once, as the eldest child, he tried to get his younger brother to share his pizza, but he wouldn’t.  So, standing firm in the face of evil, the older fought the younger over it.  Being the strongest, he won of course. It made him feel even more superior as he looked at his defeated and whooped younger brother and said, “I don’t want your pizza anyhow; you can have the whole thing”!   How satisfying it can be to be the ‘chosen one’ who gets to call a sinner to repent (From Brad Schmeling’s sermon; “Let Us Have It” at Being the one who makes others squirm can be more fun than actually watching repentance take place.   

Today those of us in the church can easily take on the role of John the Baptizer without much effort.  We can be good at becoming ‘elder brothers’ toward our ‘prodigal world’.   It can be very easy to proclaim what’s wrong with the world and start announcing judgments.  Most of us can think of many reasons we believe the world today looks like it’s going to ‘hell in a hangbasket’, as my mother used to say.   We can see all kinds of reasons people need to repent.   What would you put on your list of sins that sending our world to its destruction?   Would it be dirty Politics?  Would it be Gay Marriage?  Would it be the News Media?  Would it be Cell Phones and the Technology Revolution?   Would it be how most family Christmas celebrations never get to the ‘reason for the season’? 

Maybe, even at Christmastime, we need a little shake up with fire and brimstone.  The closer we get to Christmas, the crazier it can get.  We shop until we drop; we want the presents under the tree to prove our love.  We might be stingy all year, but by golly, it’s Christmas.  “Tis the season to be jolly,” especially if you run a credit business. The crazier it gets, the more we need someone like John to shake up back into reality before the bills come.  

Certainly, we in the church can be too good at taking on the role of judge, preacher, or critic, can’t we?  But we need to remember it’s a lot easier to dish it out than to take it?  This is where John comes in.  He’s not preaching repentance to the world, to the Gentiles, or to the pagan culture, but he’s preaching to the choir, to the home people; to his people, to the religious and to those who suppose their own righteousness.  Again, the people he calls “snakes” is people who look a lot like us.  He’s not pointing a finger at them, but toward us. 

There is another reason we need to take John’s call for repentance seriously.  If you go out and ask most non church going people, the 60 to 80% majority these days, and if you ask what do they think of “church”, many of them will answer that we the people who are against things.  To them we are ‘snakes in the grass’ which you don’t see much until they bite you.  This is what “church people” like to do; bite.   They bite each other and they bite people they don’t even know.  Do you remember the “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live?   Many people see the church just like that; an old, outdated, nagging woman who stands ready to beat you over the head with her pocketbook if you don’t straighten up according to her own definition of what ‘straight’ and “narrow” means.   Pastor Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister in Kansas City, tells how once, after he preached a funeral, a Christian came up to him and complained about his funeral message, asking him, “Why didn’t you tell them their son is in hell today”?  Evidently, some church people are just like that ‘church lady’.  They really do think they are as smart and good as God.

Hopefully, few Christians are really like the “Church Lady” or like that presumptuous Christian at the funeral, but whether there are many like this or not, such impressions of the church, whether wrong or right, are real, and this is why, says Dan Kimbell, “People still love Jesus, but they don’t love the church.”  This is why, says Robin Meyers, we need to ‘Save Jesus from the church’.  This is why, says Tony Campolo, we need to learn how to ‘Follow Jesus without Embarrassing God’  All these titles from most recent books point to the  “sins of the righteous’ John was also pointing to.   Our sins point to the great need for the church to be the first to repent. 

I know this sounds hard, but there can be something good about a church that does not forget how to repent and confess of its own sins.  Most of the world of our time, whether right or wrong, true or misguided, has turned against the negative, condemning, blazing fire and brimstone preaching of the Church.  Perhaps some people need to hear the truth of how they are, but most will not even begin to listen to any hard truth about themselves until they feel love and are at first convinced that we have something that grabs their attention. 
The world wants and waits to hear and see something different from us, something constructive first of all.  They want to meet someone who understands and cares.   They wonder if there are people who are working to make a ‘real’ difference in this world, not just talking about how bad it is. 

People want to see something from us that looks very much like what a young New Jersey woman named Hilary Sandlon recently did.  She made a list of 22 acts of random kindness she would do on her 22nd birthday.  She spent ten hours, on her birthday not doing things to please herself, but she did things to help others.  On her birthday she embarked on a 5-city, random acts of kindness tour, along with her boyfriend and best friend.   She did things like things like paying the toll for 4 drivers, she left a gift for her mailman, she donated blood, she put shopping carts up at Walmart,  she donated clothes, baked brownies for her neighbors, took Doughnuts to the local police station and they weeded her grandmother’s yard.   Afterward, she stated, “I wanted to do something big to and show others that helping others has a contagious feeling that comes with it.”  On T.V. she said, “This really made my birthday “happy!”  It wasn’t when the focus was on her, but when her focus was on others. ( 

Could we envision a church like that?  Can we envision and become a church that takes a serious look at itself for the sake of being a saving and redeeming influence in the world?  Can we really care about serving others more than we care about serving ourselves?   Can we see that the true “reality” many experience this Christmas is that in spite of all the spending, all the partying, and all the extravagant decorating, many of our lives can be pretty dark, our days can feel very lonely, and our pain can be all too excruciating.  All the Norman Rockwell images of the perfect family gathering together, though meant to inspire, are often very far away from the failed relationships that come back to haunt many this time of year.   People don’t need a Church that sounds like John telling how bad things are.  Most know that already.  People don’t need more fire and brimstone, but what many need most in this hurting world is a church that listens, cares, understands and promotes healing, togetherness, and what we all need most, love.  In spite of what we all are or aren’t, we need a message that tells us that life is still worth living.    

Would the world take notice of a church that could present a message and be a message like that?  Would the world notice a church that before it tells the world’s sins, is a church that can take an honest look at itself and do the good it can do?  In a world filled with so much pain, violence, confusion and hurt, people do not want to be in a place or have a religious point of view that adds to the pain that is already there.   People don’t want a church, a preacher, a sermon, or a message that condemns and tears down, or dares to tell them what they must do; when the church it appears that the church is not doing so well itself.   What people do seem to still want is a hear and see a message that cares, that tries to understand, to have someone who listens, and will make a point to give hope.  In others words, the word on the street is this:  “Don’t give me a sermon, but show me one.”  Show me how you, who call yourself a church, the body of Christ, live like Jesus and show me how you, and the world are better for you being here.  This is the kind of ‘church’ people still want to see.   It’s the kind of church that rather than placing blame and doing nothing, does something and shares responsibility for how bad things have become.

For sure, announcing judgment is easy, often too easy; but taking judgment upon ourselves for the sake of saving people in the world, is much harder.   As First Peter, says, “Judgment begins at God’s own household” (1 Peter 4:17)).   That’s really hard to do; to take a serious look at where we are and to look at who we aren’t before we would even dare look at someone else?  

But hardest of all, even harder than taking ‘judgment’ and ‘criticism’ upon ourselves, is hearing and understanding the full impact what John says next.  John takes leave of any lofty, inflated view of himself or any elevating of his message of fire, brimstone and judgment, and begins to humbly belittle himself saying;   “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful is coming after me.  I’m not even worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”   The person and message John wants us to see is not John.   The “fire” John wants really feel is not the ‘fire’ of judgment that burns up the ones not bearing good fruit.  But John wants us to finally feel and experience is the saving and redeeming ‘fire’ only Jesus can bring.  It’s a different kind of ‘burn’ altogether.  John’s fiery words are not the main course, but they are only meant to prepare us for what God is really after; God’s ultimate, eternal, saving and redeeming purpose. 

Most of us have heard about the new Pope, Pope Francis and how radical and non-traditional he is.  He is doing some amazing things like calling and praying with people personally and refusing to ride in the ‘popemobile’, as well as caring for the poor and working people.  He is also saying some things that we’ve never heard from a Pope; like saying that just because atheist don’t believe in God does not mean they won’t go to heaven.  In another controversial comment, the Pope scolded the church for being obsessed with hot button issues about gays, abortion, or birth control.    When asked what he thinks about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay marriage’, the Pope said that he envisions an “inclusive church that makes a home for all” and that if gays  are respectful and humble; ‘who am I to judge’.  He continued, “When God looks at a person, does he condemn and see the person as someone he loves?”  Finally, he said, “I see the church as a hospital on a battlefield.  When a person comes to us weak and injured by life or the world, it’s not our first task to ask them about their cholesterol level or blood sugar, but it is our job to help heal their wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  ( 

I know that the “Pope” does not speak for us Baptists, but often Billy Graham does, and when asked what he thought about gays and gay marriage, Billy Graham answered in like manner; “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and it is my job to love.” (As quoted from the book, “Love Is An Orientation” by Andrew Marin, p. 108).   

Can you see that love, not hate is where John the Baptiser was going with his fiery words?  Can you see that this is where we should be going too?   John wants to keep us from getting “stuck” on a message of judgment and repentance alone.   There is a place for loving, constructive self-introspection and evaluation, but this kind of judgment is only the beginning, never the purpose of God’s message.    John does not want us to put our main focus on what’s wrong with the world, nor get fixated on what’s wrong with us either.   The truth is, John does not want us to get stuck on the way things are now, because John wants us to get excited about what’s coming next, what’s coming after him, and what is always on God’s mind and timetable, which should fill us all with some hope. 

We don’t have to guess what this ‘hope’ is because Scripture tells us that Jesus is ‘one who is more powerful’ who comes after John.   Jesus is ‘more powerful’ and more hopeful than John, because Jesus did not come to condemn the world; but Scripture says Jesus came so that the world can be saved (John 3.17).   The truth is that John’s message, no matter how much fun it is to tell people how bad they are, can’t save anybody.

Let me close with something else from Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book “When Christians Get It Wrong”.  In the book he speaks about how it is wrong for us to get stuck on arguments, hate, judging and assuming we know exactly what God is up too.  Then, at the close of the book, he has a most wonderful chapter about “When Christians get it Right”.  He gives an illustration from his own congregation, one, if not the largest United Methodist congregation in the world.   Pastor Hamilton tells about Vincent, who began attending his church.  “He’s a gifted vocalist in his thirties who sang heavy metal and classic rock for years.  Vincent is also afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome.  His form of Tourette’s is known as coprolalia, and includes the spontaneous utterance of words most people suppress—swear words.  Vincent was diagnosed when he was an adolescent.  From that time on he had felt unwelcome at church.  We have a large sanctuary, but it was easy to tell when Vincent was present, starting with his first visit.  As I was preaching he would blurt out swear words.  It was a little unnerving at first.  Some with children who did not understand what was happening moved to another part of the sanctuary.  But almost instantly some people realized that Vincent had Tourette’s.  When Vincent showed up for worship, a group of people sat near him and reassured him it was okay.  Vincent thouth that perhaps it would help people knew his story, so one weekend we told his story and then invited him to sing.  When he finished singing, the congregation rose to give him a standing ovation.  What they were saying to Vincent was “We love you.  We want you here.  No matter what, you are a gift from God!”   As the church stood applauding, says the pastor, “I saw the church as it was meant to be, welcoming others without judgment, but with genuine love.  The church got it right”  (From “When Christians Get It Wrong, by Adam Hamilton, p. 112-113).

Do you know why the church got it right?  Announcing judgment is the easy part; but saving the world, or finding God’s wonderful gift of salvation and sharing it with love is the hard part.  It is hard for us to get to, it is hard for us receive it right, and it hard for us to join with Jesus in his saving work in this world.  It is hard, yes, love is hard work, but it is the real, “greater” work; and if we don’t get to it, the Pope is right, we may soon cease to feel the warmth of God’s Spirit fire in our own hearts, in our world, and in our churches.  So, let’s get to it.  Let’s let John invite us again to “one who more powerful"  and the 'fire' of love that burns brighter and hotter than any other flame.   Amen.

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