In 1948, an African American congregation in Alabama hired a new minister. They were an upper-class urban congregation and worshipped in a very traditional style. Thus, they were eager to hire a traditional minister, one with a wife who would teach Sunday School and perhaps play the piano, with a few children – of course very well behaved. Rev. Vernon Johns seemed to fit the profile. His wife had a degree in piano, he had three children – two in college and one in high school, and therefore sure not to bother anyone. He was formally educated and could speak Latin. While all were hopeful at the beginning of the ministry that Rev. Johns would be the button-upped, conservative pastor they were looking for – things very quickly went downhill.
Rev. Johns was…brash. He was outspoken. He didn’t care what he looked like or how he carried himself. Living on a working farm two days a week, he often showed up to church gatherings with mud on his knees. He proudly grew most of his own food, which he never hesitated to try and sell to the congregation. And they were appalled by the practice. In fact, during the wedding ceremony of a prominent family in town, Rev. Johns – just prior to the end of the service – looked over the heads of the couple and announced to the congregation that there would be a watermelon cutting in the basement immediately following and he would sell each slice for 25 cents, or a $1.50 for a half. And then he, without skipping a beat, announced the young couple husband and wife.
But, it wasn’t just his lack of following the expected social niceties that caused anger amongst the congregation. He was also quite outspoken and rather troublesome in the way he shared his opinions. Whenever he saw an injustice, he spoke up – no matter to whom or in what setting. If the first person he spoke to didn’t have an adequate response, he would go to the next, and the next, and the next – getting louder each time. Rev. Johns was particularly outspoken about the economic inequality within the African American community. His congregation was fairly well to do and would often not associate with others who were less well off financially. This infuriated Rev. Johns and from the pulpit he told his congregation they were nothing but “educated fools” and “parasites” because all they did was consume and not produce.
He tried to set up food co-ops within the area so the community could support one another, but his congregation was so opposed that, despite the need, each co-op failed. He railed against the authorities during his sermons about segregation and the utter lack of civil rights for African Americans. He drew too much attention, his congregation concluded, and not the right kind of attention. This was not the tight-laced, conservative pastor they were looking for. This was a wild, outspoken man who pulled no punches and never backed down when he saw something that went against God’s plan for the world. He pointed out too many of the demons – even the demons within their own church.
Eventually, the Deacons of the church, or the church council, had had enough. They just couldn’t take it anymore. So, in 1952 they asked him to resign. And while it wasn’t a smooth end to the relationship – his final words from the pulpit I cannot bring myself to repeat from this pulpit – he did eventually move on. The congregation was relieved. And they had a new plan. They were still convinced that the type of pastor they wanted was a polite, traditional, non-controversial, easy for everyone to get along with man. Of course, with a wife who could teach Sunday School and well-behaved children. But, this time they would find someone young, right out of seminary. Someone they could mold. Someone they could control. Someone who would not draw a lot of attention. They looked and found just the right person. His name was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The church was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. And Rev. Dr. King’s years at Dexter Avenue Baptist – 1954 – 1960, were anything but calm, conservative, or under the radar. In fact, just one year into his ministry, on December 5th 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began with Rosa Parks and was galvanized by the work, words, and presence of Rev. Dr. King. Indeed, the entire Civil Rights movement began in that little congregation that simply wanted a nice and polite pastor who would just tell them what they wanted to hear.
So, here is my question. Would the ministry of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been possible without first the work of Rev. Vernon Johns? And, would the ministry of Jesus Christ have been possible without first the work of John the Baptist? John the Baptist was wild, uncouth, spoke his mind loudly, pointed out injustice freely, and cared nothing about the social niceties. Listen again to his message, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” In other words, John the Baptist told his followers, “you are nothing special. In fact, you are complicit in the sins of this world.” It sounds a lot like Rev. Johns telling his upper middle-class congregation they were nothing but “educated fools” and “parasites”.
For this second Sunday of Advent we are asked to remember that before Jesus came John the Baptist. He was a figure, a prophet, who set the stage and prepared the way for Jesus Christ. He was an incredibly important prophet, one essential, I believe to the ministry of Jesus Christ. But also, one the church so rarely deals with. Because he was so wild, so unyielding, so odd and brash, loud and rude. But, he is a Biblical figure that must be dealt with and understood. He is so important to the story of the New Testament, that all four gospels talk about him. He sets the stage for and then baptizes Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist – he is the first character to appear in the oldest of the four gospels. Luke, worried about any misunderstandings about who the Messiah truly was, has John and Jesus meeting while still in their respective mother’s wombs, John jumping in Elizabeth’s womb as a pregnant Mary approaches. And the always colorful Gospel of John, again begins with John the Baptist, who sees Jesus walk by and exclaims – “there is the Lamb of God!”
He was an incredibly important figure in the Christian story, but nonetheless, we don’t really know what to do with him. It’s no wonder, though. The scripture we traditionally read this time of year describes him as appearing from the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating locusts and honey. Repent! is his first word in today’s scripture. Repent you brood of vipers! Ouffda, as we like to say in Minnesota. Can’t we go back to the nice stories about angels and shepherds?
The thing about prophets, and John the Baptist was a prophet, is their function is to open the eyes of people. It is to get their attention. To prepare the way for what, or who will come next. And prophets are, almost inevitably, hated by most people. Rev. Vernon Johns was officially fired from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church because he sold his own produce to the congregation and was “uncouth” in how he carried himself. That was the official reason given to him. But history has since recorded that in fact the congregation was worried his outspoken message about economic inequality within the African American community and the complete lack of Civil Rights in the south was bringing too much attention to the church. He was too outspoken about the injustice of the world, too demanding of repentance by the powerful, too eager to point out how far the world strayed from God. People were starting to notice and the congregation was worried what it would mean for them. It was an incredibly unsafe time and place to have dark skin, and they, rightly I think, worried that their outspoken prophet of a pastor would draw the wrong kind of attention.
But, if it hadn’t been for Rev. Johns and his brashness, the congregation would not have been able to hear the message of Rev. Dr. King. He was more charismatic, to be sure. But his message was the same. And because of Rev. Johns, the congregation had heard this message before, but now were ready to hear it in their hearts. So, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, the congregation was ready for their pastor to get the attention of the world. But I suspect, as does history, that it would not have worked had Rev. Johns not first set the stage.
The same can be said of John the Baptist. He was uncouth and loud and brash, but his message of repentance, well that is the same message that Jesus preached. Jesus said to the world, “you have lost sight of God and you must change your ways.” John prepared the world to hear the message of Jesus. He got their attention. He pointed out everything that was wrong with the world and reminded them that God still had plans for them. While what I have read about Rev. Johns in Civil Rights history suggests that his ego likely got in his way – John the Baptist clearly understood his role in God’s world. He understood that he was just getting things ready for Jesus. That he was not the Messiah, but that his role was equally ordained by God to get the people ready.
Advent is a time to get ourselves ready. That is why we hear John the Baptist’s fiery words in December. We need to be prepared for what is about to happen. We need to be ready to understand just how truly remarkable it is that God took on human flesh and walked amongst us. We need to be ready to hear the message of Jesus – that God’s Kingdom is possible, but to make it real we must let go of so much of what feels comfortable. Advent is a time to get ready for what will happen next. Not just Christmas, but the message that Jesus teaches us over and over again.
There are so many reasons I love Advent. I love the sense of anticipation. I love how it is building to something grand and miraculous. I love the lights, candles, the music, and the traditions. And I love the wild figure of John the Baptist – stepping out of the wilderness, trying to get my attention. “Stop singing Christmas songs and listen to what I am telling you!” he says to me. “Don’t worry so much about the decorations because the world is about to change and you need to be paying attention!” He startles me out of the coziness of the season and demands my attention. Our world needs prophets, people who point out how we have strayed and how we can do better. Rev. Vernon Johns, I do believe, was a prophet. His message, at times drowned out by his wild character, demanded the world pay attention to how we have gone wrong. John the Baptist’s message, at times too drowned out by his wild character, demanded we pay attention to what God is getting ready to do. There are prophets in today’s world – and they are often the troublemakers, the one’s that go around and say, “You brood of vipers!” They are hard to listen to and we would often rather just get rid of them. But, listen to them we must. Because so often what they are pointing to is exactly what we need to be paying attention to. So, pay attention to John the Baptist and let him startle you out of whatever else you may want to be thinking about this time year. And look to where he is pointing and get ready – because God is about to do something extraordinary. Amen.