As a general rule, people don’t like being criticized. We avoid criticism as much as we can, despite the fact that criticism, at least the constructive kind, can and usually does make us better at what we do and who we are. The phenomenon of self-help and the industry that grew up around it takes criticism and affirmation and mashes them together, to the point where it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. I was reminded of this when I saw an article in the NY Times this Sunday, entitled The Return of Werner Erhard, Father of Self-Help. I remember hearing about ESTies, the disciples of Erhard’s EST movement in the ’70s and early 80s, about Erhard’s declarations like “We need to distinguish distinction”; “There’s no seeing, there’s only the seer”; “There isn’t any is.” This kind of stuff, along with the cult-like atmosphere he created – things like no bathroom breaks and being called expletives by the leader – can be sort of counter-intuitively pleasurable. I can’t imagine the money thrown at fitness boot camps, spin classes, any of the other ways people try to perfect themselves.1 The church is not immune, exactly, and most un-churched people don’t show up at a church because they think of themselves as being A-OK.
Now, I’m not exactly a fire and brimstone type of preacher; I’m not sure I could be, really, it doesn’t fit my skill set, but I’m also not that way because I don’t have to be. You all are not the type to be wallowing in outrageous, mortal sin. That said, it’s good to be reminded every once in a while, especially when there’s a big holy day coming up, that the little stuff, the incidental sins we all commit all day, every day, add up. They don’t add up mathematically, exactly; it’s more like they build up, like plaque on your teeth or cataracts on your eyes. Enough build up and your spiritual health deteriorates, you become less able to taste and see that the Lord is good.
The Advent cure for that is John the Baptist. I read a story from a clergy friend of mine that an older woman who told him “you know, when I get to Heaven, I’m not going to worry about meeting the Lord. I know He’ll just take me in His arms and all will be forgiven and all will be all right. But, I tell you, I sure am going to steer clear of John the Baptist. He’s trouble.”2
He’s trouble. He’s scary. John the Baptist make Werner Erhard look pasty and fragile in comparison. “You brood of vipers,” he said to the crowds, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? The axe is right now poised at the very roots of the trees, ready to cut down those which bear bad fruit. And those bad trees will be thrown into the fire and burned up. There is a man coming among you who will separate good and evil like a thresher separates wheat from chaff, and the evil will be burned up like chaff in unquenchable fire!” Now that’s pretty scary, isn’t it?
“But an odd thing. You may have noticed it. An odd thing is that after all these terrifying warnings and denunciations from John, one of the Gospels tells us, “and so, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.”3
The Baptist preached good news to the people. This paradox reminds me of my friend Fr. Mitch, who loves the idea posited by the author Frederick Buechner that You can’t know the good news without first knowing the bad news. Without the bad news, the bad news of our fallen-ness, our separation from God, our need to be saved, to be dragged out of that particular pit, the good news falls on deaf ears. Humans are creatures of habit – Colonel Cooke once phrased it as “people are remarkably consistent” – and we can and do lull ourselves into thinking that the life we are leading is just fine.
Then comes John the Baptist, who tells us the bad news so that the Good News can be heard. “You brood of vipers”, he calls us today and we take it because we know that there are times in our lives when we all slither around a bit. But the reason that John the Baptist was John the Baptist is because he was a sign that God was active in the world, God had not abandoned us to eternal separation; John used the bad news to pave the way for the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. And He’s the best news of all.
1Peter Haldeman, NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/fashion/the-return-of-werner-erhard-father-of-self-help.html?_r=0, November 28, 2015.
2Fr. Allan Warren, http://archive.theadventboston.org/sermons/aw120912.htm