By Joel Hess –
This past year I watched the Voice for the first time. If you have not seen it (congrats; perhaps you are one of the 144,000), it is one of the many talent shows on T.V. like American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Meet the Press. The goal of the show is to find next great “Voice”, whose records we will buy, and whose posters our kids will adore.
The show begins differently than others as the celebrity judges sit with their backs to the performer. So the monkey must muster as much passion and skill as possible to get the attention of the judges and cause them to turn around. Eventually contestants are eliminated as they compete for admiration of the judges and even the audience.
Does it feel like your church is competing on the Voice?
Well, I would love to see John the Baptist enter this little contest. He is, after all, the original Voice! As Isaiah calls him, “The Voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Imagine! John, sitting in the waiting area, smelling like body odor, locusts and honey – whatever that smells like. He appears to have walked in right off the streets, the concrete jungle, the wilderness, this messed up world we have made. His hair bedraggled, wearing a hastily cured hairy camel skin one piece, giving everyone the crazy eye.
Well perhaps this getup might get the attention of the judges. We all like to be shocked. Quite frankly, my favorite part of these talent shows is the beginning when the nutcases get their shot at fame. For me they are far more entertaining than the droning monotonous cookie cutter “stars” that win in the end. But there is no way John would get anyone to turn their chairs after he starts singing. His song would be “repent” and he would shout with the fervor of Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat, “God’s coming to dinner and you look like shit!”
No; that song won’t win any points, get any applause, or swivel a chair.
More than ever Americans don’t like to be told they are wrong, they are going the wrong way, or they suck! They certainly don’t think anyone else should tell them that. How rude. Who do you think you are? Hey, we all suck; so what? Even if someone were to walk outside naked like the emperor in the “Emperor’s New Clothes”, no one should tell them they are naked, just smile and say “you look maah-ve-lous,” while they get frostbite.
Oh, we like sorry. We like it when people say they are sorry. Politicians and entertainers like to tell us they are sorry when they are caught with their hand in the cookie jar. But that’s not repentance. Repentance means not only to feel bad, but to turn around, to stop doing what you are doing. Yes, Lutherans, repentance is more than feeling but a doing. No, that’s not Roman Catholic.
Saying you are sorry is just telling people how you feel. And usually what the apologist means; “I’m sorry I offended you.” This really means, “I like what I did and I will do it again, but I also want you to like me.” It’s about as asinine a statement as the increasingly popular “No offense, but…”
Often as a pastor I have felt like a contestant on the Voice. Often I feel like churches and preachers have become competitors on the Voice. We are slicked up and dressed up, whether it’s a polo and tan slacks with expensive audio visual equipment, or even albs and incense. Pastors can get caught up in thinking their number one goal is to get their audience to turn their chairs not with God’s painful and healing Word, but with whatever else: high church, low church, cool church, retro church. Churches trying to sing the sweetest song of compliments and hipness and good looks and great stage presence, desperately trying to get her community to turn their chairs. Just read the ads in phone-books and webpages. All the churches in the town compete against each other to get people to choose them! Their goal is more to make fans than disciples.
I remember a couple of Sundays ago I felt a little off in the sermon and the music wasn’t quite as tight as usual. I grew anxious and even angry toward the end of the service because in the back sat some first time visitors. I really wanted them to be impressed. What a wussy I can be! The law and gospel was preached in its fullness. Let the chips fall where they may. Let the Spirit cut and make alive as He will.
It is so tempting to do Church like the Voice and tie John up and hide him in the maintenance room. Or we tidy him up, put a business suit on him and comb his hair. We don’t want to offend anyone.
We change John’s song of repentance to “here are 7 steps to having a positive attitude”. We transform our sermons into therapeutic sessions. We’ve castrated the preacher to give him an attractive androgynous falsetto voice. And we tell our people, “Hey, it’s alright; try harder” instead of “Repent!”
God forbid we ask people to change their behavior! Everyone wants to be a disciple of Jesus but no one wants to change anything or lose anything. And if a pastor or church tells me I have to change something then I’ll just vote for another church. That won’t bother me. Dance for me monkey!
Meanwhile people are living like complete idiots! Hurting one another, hurting themselves. God is calling you to repent of this, not arbitrary misdemeanors made up just to annoy you.
So let John out of his prison. Don’t you dare clean him up. Let him sing! Put John the Baptist in your manger scene this Christmas with all his smelly screaming insanity. Let him holler while the angels sing. Stop caring about what your community thinks of you or whether you performed well for the audience or not. Just call it like it is! Loud and clear. They are dying for pete’s sake!
You might just be amazed as to how God’s raw Word actually creates a disciple and not a fan. But of course, just as John pointed out his audience’s faults, he also pointed to the Savior. And much to even John’s surprise, the Savior did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. As we are awakened to the reality of our complete failure in sin and feel vulnerable and naked without excuse, Jesus doesn’t leave us cold and numb. He embraces us in His forgiveness that He won on the cross.
There is no more sweeter song than that.