Would we tolerate John the Baptist's preaching today?
I remember when I was a boy growing up in small Southern Baptist Churches, we would often bring in a special “evangelist” to preach a revival once or twice a year or so. I rather looked forward to those times because the “evangelists” were very entertaining, at least to me. One of those evangelists was T. R. Bedford. Now, “Bro. Bedford,” as well called him, was a godly man who had a far reaching and profound ministry. He was an independent missionary to groups of American Indians in Arizona. He was, however, not supported by the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather, he had to raise his support from donors as many missionaries have to do.
When he was back home in Abilene, Texas, he would often preach revivals as a way of raising his support. And we often invited him to our church. As I said, I looked forward to it for the entertainment value. Certainly, no one went to sleep during his sermons. He had only two volume settings – loud and louder. He was an old fashioned Hell-fire and brimstone preacher. I have seen him flat out tear up a pulpit because he would get so animated during his sermons. Splinters and spit flying, he would shout his points as he pounded the pulpit. When he got cranked up, his sermons would light a fire under his audience.
Like Bro. Bedford, when John the Baptist really got cranked up, his words must have blistered the ears of all those people who came such a long way to hear him.
Would we even tolerate John's preaching today? John certainly had an interesting preaching style. Most preachers warm up the crowd with a joke. Most preaching professors tell their students to say “we” instead of “you,” as in “we need to repent,” not “you need to repent.”
John ignored such pleasantries. He looked right at the religious leaders of the day, snarling out the words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
According to one New Testament scholar, the image here is of snakes slithering as fast as they can out of a burning field. People often say that they want sermons to be biblical, so here's a biblical sermon. Is this what we really want?
When John begins the heart of his sermon in verse 10 of Matthew chapter 3, the judgment roars out. Fire seems to be John's favorite threat. John presents two images of judgment. The first is an axe chopping down a tree that bears no fruit. The dead wood will be tossed into the fire. The second image is familiar to every farmer. The farmer sifts the grain with a winnowing fork. The heavier wheat falls to the ground. Usually the chaff just blows away. John, however, tosses the chaff into the fire along with the dead wood.
We are left with this inescapable fact: John predicts the arrival of the Messiah with a heavy emphasis on wrath.
How does this work for us as preparation for Christmas? We usually think of the Christmas season as a time for peace. During a war, both sides often honor a cease-fire around Christmas. We hope Christmas will be a kind of cease-fire in the stress and strain of life. We are used to quotes from the Bible in our Christmas cards. How often do we find Christmas cards that talk of the chaff being burned in unquenchable fire?
Ironically, John understood his own ministry in connection with the prophet Isaiah's words about preparing a way in the wilderness. Isaiah's words originally were a message of comfort and hope to people whose souls were oppressed. John’s message is grounded in Isaiah’s message of peace, comfort & hope.
How do we reconcile these two concepts of wrath on the one hand and peace on the other? Well, you see, in his message of wrath, John promises us the destruction of evil and injustice, which is the basis for true peace.
John's timing may have been off. The first coming of the Messiah did not accomplish the complete destruction of evil on eaarth. However, John holds out this hope for God's continuing work in creation. After all, the Messiah is coming again. We may not quite be ready to put John's sermon on a Christmas card, but a promise of the complete destruction of evil is cause for joy and celebration. After all, that is the prerequisite for the coming of true peace on earth.
(The Rev. Al Henager is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Heber Springs, Arkansas. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)