Saturday, December 15, 2018

Vipers hated him. Locusts feared him.

Luke 3:7-18

By our own standards, John the Baptist was one of the worst advance men in history.

Rather than cultivate religious insiders, he called them vipers and told them they were going to hell. No wonder they were so surly when Jesus arrived.

In modern times, the role of the advance team is to attract crowds, warm them with compliments and jokes, and get them excited about the great leader who will soon follow.

Months before Billy Graham opened an evangelistic campaign, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea and dozens more would descend on the city, schmooze with clergy and politicians, recruit choir members, anoint ushers, and get everyone excited about the coming of the great man. I participated in some of those advance meetings prior to Billy’s 1967 London crusade. By the time the advance team was finished, I was convinced that only Billy's presence could save millions of Londoners from hell.

Of course most people would like Billy Graham whether he had an advance team of not. The advance is more essential for politicians who are not naturally likable, including Lyndon B. Johnson.

For years, LBJ’s advance team included his cousin, Ava Cox, and J.J. Pickle, a Texas pol and future congressman. 

When Johnson ran for the senate, and later for vice president, he would send Cox and Pickle into the hustings to convince large crowds to come out to welcome the LBJ campaign helicopter. As the chopper approached, Pickle would take the mike to remind Texans how much Johnson had done for them and how much more he would do for them if they sent him back to office. Excitement grew as the helicopter circled the field and a familiar voice crackled from a speaker: “This is Lyndon Johnson. I’m going to land in just a minute and I want to shake every hand down there.”

When the chopper banked, the six-foot-four-inch candidate would appear larger than life at the aircraft door. In what looked like a spontaneous gesture, LBJ would remove the ten-gallon hat from his head and throw it into the jubilant crowd.

“Now, that was dramatic and he had about a four-beaver hat,” Ava Cox said later. “And when he did it … our job was to go get that hat … and if we didn’t get it, we'd catch ‘Hail, Columbia’ from the boss then. And he’d say, ‘Do you know how much that hat cost me? Do you know how much? Have you been in to buy a Stetson hat lately?’ We’d say no, of course we wouldn’t ‘cause we didn’t dare wear a hat like it. He said, ‘That’s coming out of my pocket. You get that hat when we throw it out,’ and we’d have to go get that hat. Usually we could get it, but if you got it recovered by a little 10-year-old boy, it was pretty hard to run up and say, ‘Son, give me that hat.’” *

No one knows if LBJ lost votes when his advance men wrested the hat from people, though some may have thought the gesture showed his true colors. 

In a sense, John the Baptist was grabbing the hat back every time he got up to speak. In the first breath he’d talk about the realm of God and how wonderful it will be when Jesus arrives, and in the second he was condemning influential religious leaders to unquenchable fire. Thanks a lot, Jack.

As a journalist, I knew several persons who did advance work for politicians. Many of them were indeed nicer than the pol they served, and it takes enormous skill to make a reporter on deadline feel okay that the boss had little time to waste on you.

I have done a little advance work for traveling ecumenical leaders or church hierarchs who liked to meet with the press, and one time the World Council of Churches sent a colleague and me on a trip around Zimbabwe to assess hotels, game parks and other recreational activities for persons attending the eighth assembly of the WCC in Harare.

What we assessed was that some airport runways in Zimbabwe had not, in 1998, caught up to jet travel. Sonia Omulepu and I boarded a British BAe-146-300 regional aircraft that hopscotched its way to several small airports around the country. 

The runways were too short for jets and the aircraft had to slam on its brakes to keep from charging into the bush. We scarcely noticed the seatbelts grabbing at our bellies because we were distracted by the acrid smell of burning brakes.

Our particular aircraft had lost the cooling agent to reduce the temperature of the brakes so each time we landed we had to sit on the plane for an hour until the brakes were cool enough to use. 

The short runways also made takeoffs difficult. There wasn’t enough room for the plane to accelerate normally to liftoff speed so the pilot held the aircraft at the end of the runway until the engine reached a deafening pitch; then the plane lunged forward as passengers were slammed roughly against the backs of their seats. We felt the G’s as the plane soared into the air. 

What the advance team of Omulepu and Jenks found was one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with spectacular scenery including Victoria Falls, modern farms, exotic game preserves, Zambezi River cruises, comfortable hotels, and excellent restaurants.

But our message to the six thousand assembly visitors eager to visit the country was concise: take the bus.

John the Baptist’s advance work was invariably rude and hardly designed to comfort his audiences. Still, he attracted huge crowds. People may have been as impressed by his honesty as by his assurance that God will forgive the repentant. Certainly folks enjoyed his verbal attacks on the overweening aristocracy, the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

They would certainly have noted his warning that their salvation would not depend on being a member of a great ancestral lineage recognized by God. 

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, he said. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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.”

My grandfather Addison was a perfunctory Methodist, though no member of my family recalls ever seeing him in church. His real religion was a form of ancestor worship. He believed the family name would be enhanced if he could trace its roots to a great ancestor, such as a Mayflower pilgrim.

Perhaps in Heaven I will have a chance to ask Grandpa what the big deal was about the Mayflower, which was filled with puritans of the same ilk as Oliver Cromwell, who missed the boat and stayed home to slaughter thousands of Catholics in Ireland. Later, the puritans in America jailed and flogged Baptists on the pubic square in Boston and hanged innocent women as witches in Salem. 

I think it makes more sense to be ashamed of a puritan ancestry, but Grandpa was pleased to prove – to his satisfaction, at least – that he was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley. And so, possibly, are you. Elizabeth and her husband, John Howland, produced ten children whose prolific progeny generated millions of living descendants. There is no evidence Elizabeth whupped Baptists or hanged witches – she was probably too busy accommodating Mr. Howland and changing diapers – but her bloodline isn’t going to save anyone either.

The central theme of John the Baptist’s message is this: 

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Even as a child, John knew that his calling was to prepare the way for the ministry of the messiah.

Obviously he didn’t fully comprehend all that included. At one point he even sent two messengers to Jesus to make sure he wasn’t making a big mistake.

“When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’” Luke 7:20-23)

As an advance man, John had a distinct disadvantage. He didn’t know the whole story. He didn’t know how it would turn out. And sometimes he was puzzled when Jesus reached out in love to everyone, even the brood of vipers John assumed the messiah would consign to unquenchable fire.

With that in mind, we can certainly understand John’s brusque demeanor and eccentric ways. He may not have been the best advance man in the world. But he was a faithful prophet who understood God offers love and forgiveness to all who repent.

But we, who have the advantage of knowing how the story came out, know that Jesus took it a step further.

God, Jesus said, loves each of us unconditionally – the repentant and the unrepentant – and God will send no one to eternal fire without giving them abundant chances to turn back to God.

And the message assigned to you and me, as members of Jesus’ advance team, is the eternal declaration of angels:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.” Luke 2:14.

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