Thrive: Love’s Bullhorn – Julie Pennington-Russell

Matthew 3:1-2

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

— Matthew 3:1-2

There are certain sounds in this world that make listening a pure joy. I have my favorites: Garrison Keillor’s buttery voice on public radio; the pure brass tones of Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man; Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk; and anything by the Avett Brothers. Some things are a delight to listen to.

Then there’s John the Baptist.

This wild-eyed, wild-haired, hellfire-and-brimstone Nazarite is anything but delightful. And yet all four gospels report that the people flocked to him in droves from what we know today as Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Think about it. Jews and Arabs standing elbow-to-elbow because, as Fred Craddock put it, when the gospel is being offered you tend to forget why it is you hate the person standing next to you.

Meeting John is about as much fun as walking through a body scanner at airport security. So why in the world would all these incompatible, barely-speaking-to-each-other people leave home, hike all the way to nowhere and let themselves be devoured by sand fleas in order to listen to an uncivilized oddball holler at them for hours about getting right with God?

Maybe because for all his eccentricities and poor grooming and scorching rhetoric and horrible bedside manner, John brings them to the moment they’ve most craved and feared: the opportunity for a do-over. A chance to come clean. The hope of a fresh start.

I know a man in his sixties; a rugged, burly, brilliant guy who looks a little like the Marlborough Man from the old cigarette commercials. Decades ago he graduated from an elite university in the East, then moved to Texas to work on a Ph.D. But somewhere along the way he became addicted to crack cocaine. Lost his family. Lost his place in graduate school. Lost big pieces of himself.

Providentially, this man washed up cold and wet on the shores of our church. We did what Christ-followers do and put our arms around him. Gradually, he began to find life again and, miracle of miracles, was reunited with his wife. My husband and I had them to our house one night for dinner.

The man talked about where his life was going. “I want to believe that my best days aren’t behind me,” he said. “I want to have hope that my life can still be good for something. I just can’t help but feel like I’ve blown all my best chances.”

That’s when his wife—a lovely, sixty-ish, bohemian Texas flower child—grabbed his hand and said: “Baby . . . if God can yank Jesus out of a grave, I figure God can make something beautiful out of your busted parts.”

With John the Baptist it may feel sometimes as though he’s the one busting our parts. But his message comes down to the same good news: Repent. The kingdom of heaven has come near.

Julie Pennington-Russell_smJulie Pennington-Russell is pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia. She has served there since August of 2007. Julie previously served as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, California. She earned a B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, and M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Currently, Julie serves as a trustee for Mercer University. Her sermons have been featured on the television broadcast 30 Good Minutes, Day-1 Radio, and the Festival of Homiletics. Julie is married to Tim Pennington-Russell, a website designer and sometimes poet and bass player. They have two teenage children, Taylor and Lucy. Julie blogs at juliepenningtonrussell.com.

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