When I was working on my PhD, there was one professor I had a difficult time with, Dr. Potter. I was a good student ... a really good student. At the top of my class. I worked hard, and my grades reflected that fact.
But there was this one professor I was sure had made it her life's mission to cut me back down to size. She was an Aristotelian, and it was a graduate seminar on, interestingly enough, Aristotle. I considered myself an Aristotelian; I was going to base a large part of my dissertation on Aristotle's theory of emotions. So, I felt pretty good heading into the class. I was pretty sure I'd spent more time studying Aristotle than anyone else in the class.
But no matter how hard I studied, no matter how long I spent trying to formulate my responses, I never quite seemed to have the right answer to her questions. She was merciless to me, like she didn't like me—like she was always trying to prove I was a pretender who didn't belong in the program. She hemorrhaged red ink all over my papers.
So, when it came time to find someone to direct my dissertation, being the masochist I apparently am, I went to her. It was as an anxiety-producing decision as I could ever remember making. I knew that if she said "yes," I was going to spend the next couple of years of my life feeling absolutely stupid and incompetent, wishing I'd asked somebody easier.
But in my malformed little brain, I figured that if I could get my dissertation past Dr. Potter, there wouldn't be anyone else in the world who could pull it apart.
She was brutal on me. I used to dread getting a draft of a chapter back. She must have invested in Bic, because she dumped barrels of red ink my work.
But, what I began to see was that she made my work better—way better.
I eventually saw her unflinching commitment to telling me the truth about my work to be one of the most precious gifts she could give me. She wasn't being angry and mean, she was being honest.
I have learned to love editors for how they help make me better than I could have been, left to my own devices.
So, when I taught my classes at the university, and my students would complain that I was being overly picky about their writing, I would bring in my latest revision from Dr. Potter, and I would show them how much red ink I had to put up with. That usually shut them up.
This last semester, the same thing happened, and so I brought in the copyedits I'd just gotten from my book. Over 6,800 edits. And I told my students I was grateful for every single one.
Sometimes the word you want to hear least is the one you need most.
I suspect that many of you have taken a public speaking course at one time or another. Some form of public speaking is usually a requirement in college—one that terrifies some people more than facing an Indiana Jones tomb full of snakes and Nazis.
When you go to seminary, they up the ante a bit, give it an even fancier name: homiletics. To be a bit less pretentious, it's preaching class. Turns out, if you're going to be a preacher, they actually want you to have taken a class on how to do it.
I have a confession: Even after having spent seven years in seminary, spanning three separate degrees, I never took a class on how to preach. Oh, I took theory classes: History of Preaching, the Nature of Homiletics, Narrative Homiletics. I've read stacks of books on preaching. But I never took a Homiletics 101 course.
Part of it was because the people who happened to be teaching that course at the different seminaries I attended ... were people, who when I heard them preach, put me to sleep. I know that's not especially generous of me. I admit it. But there you go.
In fact, I joke sometimes that the reason I went into the ministry was because I figured that if I had to sit and listen to someone preach every week, it was going to have to be someone over whom I had a little control. In fact, I think preaching is so important that I don't even trust myself unsupervised in the pulpit—which is why I preach from a manuscript. Every. single. time.
Anyway, even though I haven't sat through a course on how to preach, I've often thought what I'd do if I were ever asked to teach a class on preaching, which—shocking as this may seem to you—has never happened.
But if I were ever asked, one of the first things I would do is tell my students that the most important part of preaching is telling the truth.
Now, on its face, this kind of homiletical advice doesn't seem like such a tall order.
People, I suspect, often think that preaching is an act that assumes truth-telling.
But what so many people mean by truth-telling has more to do with not actively lying.
Don't say the sun revolves around the earth—when anyone who's taken grade school science knows it doesn't.
Don't say the inauguration crowds are the biggest in history—when anyone with anything approximating normal eyesight can see for themselves it wasn't.
Don't say that the St. Louis Cardinals are better than the Chicago Cubs—when everyone knows God loves the Chicago Cubs better.
But much of what it means to tell the truth in preaching isn't just about not telling lies, but about always telling truths. Most preachers can usually manage the first, but the latter is where so many have trouble.
But why is that?
Because people tend not to want to hear difficult things. So, the temptation for preachers is to stick to things they know won't ruffle the faithful. Stick to things like love and faith and the enduring human spirit—everybody leaves happy and you get to keep your job. Win-win.
The only problem is, nobody ever changed their life because they heard 917 times what a great person they already were. Being honest about the state of things is essential for change.
John the Baptist knew this. He's from the Dr. Potter school of homiletics and self-help. The first thing out of his mouth isn't a joke or a sweet anecdote to get the crowd on his side. Nope. He jumps in with both feet:
"John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'"
John’s a prophet. And the point of prophecy, as Terry Eagleton reminds us, “is not to foresee the future, but to warn those in the present that unless they change their ways, the future is likely to be extremely unpleasant.”
John may be anti-social on an interpersonal level—his grooming habits and conversational aptitude were said to be more than a little off-putting—but on a theological level he’s all about the social—all about the common life we live, and how we take care of one another … or fail to take care of one another.
I find it interesting that John’s first response isn’t to inquire into the crowd’s devotional practices. He doesn’t ask about the state of anyone’s sex-life. He’s not particularly interested in administering a theological litmus test to determine the orthodoxy of people’s core doctrinal commitments.
When asked what we should do in the face of God’s judgment on unfaithfulness, John says, “Well, the first thing I’d do is figure out who doesn’t have a coat and give ‘em one. Take off your L.L. Bean parka and your ski boots and give them to somebody who’s trying to stay warm. If you’ve got food, make certain people who’re hungry have some too.”
Come on John. Give us something, you know, a little sexier than that. We’re grown-up believers. We want the advanced class. Give us some esoteric spirituality—some professional theology—something. But John steadfastly resists the modern penchant for Gnosticism, for internalizing faith, for making it into some heroic work people do in private in their spare time—like psychotherapy or learning to crochet.
John says that God’s primary concern is about how we live together. It’s very material and unglamorous—Who’s got shelter? Who’s got food? Take care of that first.
The tax-collectors want to know how this affects them. John turns to the financial folks in the crowd and says, “Quit fleecing the flock. You could start there. Getting rich on the backs of the poor certainly isn’t heading in the right direction. If you can’t get that part right, the rest of it’s going to be meaningless. All the personal piety in the world won’t make a difference if you make a profit off those who can least afford it.”
The military folks come to John and want to know what they can do. “Quit throwing your weight around. Stop doing things just because you can. In this new enterprise God’s getting up might doesn’t make right.”
The crowd hears all this and they start getting excited. John’s got that revolutionary glint in his eye. Maybe he’s the one. Maybe John the Baptist is the messiah—the political/military leader who will help us kick out the Roman goons.
John cuts them off before they can get too far down that road by saying that there’s one coming after him whose shoelaces he’s unworthy even to untie. That’ll be the messiah, and the new guy’s going to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He’s coming to clear the threshing floor, separate the wheat from the chaff, the good stuff from the garbage. And the garbage he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Merry Christmas, again!
Apparently Luke thinks it is. He says, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
Good news. Really? It’s hard to see how this qualifies as good news.
The promise of Advent is that God is truth, and God isn't happy with the world as it is. And God is determined through Jesus and his followers to set things right.
Let me ask you something: How do you think those who’ve experienced their pain and loss explained away by the religiously self-satisfied hear the words of John the Baptist? Think it might sound to them like good news? “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.”
You think you’re safe? You think that just because you wear the name you’re going to get out of this alive? “Even now the ax 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.”
How do you think the poor, the outsiders, the depressed, the bereaved, and those who’ve felt abandoned by a system that values its own interests above all else would hear John the Baptist telling the followers of God to think first not about themselves, not about their pocketbooks, not about their profit margins and brokerage accounts, not about their reputations in the community, but to think first about the last, the least, the lost, and the dying?
What constitutes good news may just depend on where you’re standing when you hear it.
In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life. The good news of the reign of God is that God’s reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten and grieving ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God not one of God’s children will be left to die alone, unloved, or forgotten.
Following Jesus isn’t about securing our own piece of the heavenly pie, it’s about living with and loving those about whom John the Baptist speaks, and those whom Jesus loved.
Living under the reign of God isn’t about some escaping this world; it’s about offering God’s welcome to those whom the world has marginalized and forgotten. It’s about God pitching a tent in the muck and the mire of our sometimes godforsaken lives and living with us in the midst of the madness and horror.
It’s almost Christmas and John the Baptist is standing right smack in the middle of the road to Bethlehem talking about giving your life away, talking about a God who comes to us—who refuses to settle for lies, who's refuses to stand apart from us and the pain and fear we live through everyday.
Luke seems to think that’s good news? In fact, in Luke’s hands that’s the best news we’ve got.
Who needs the truth?
What do you think?
A scared and grieving world wants to know.