What Sort of Preacher Do You Want?

Reading Time: 4 mins

As much as we want the glory, riches, and knowledge of Dantes, what we need is Jean Valjean's candlesticks.

Recently, I began a Bible study on the gospel of John at my congregation. We spent some time discussing the ministry of John the Baptist. Thinking through John's ministry and message got me thinking: What sorts of preachers do we want from God? 

In the mid-19th century, in the shadow of Napoleon and the French Revolution, the French gave us two of the most masterful novels of all time: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. In the early stages of each novel, the hero of the story encounters a preacher, though in very different circumstances. Each presents a different type of preacher for us.

We'll start with the Count of Monte Cristo. Our hero, Dantes, is framed by a jealous shipmate and called out for being in conspiracy with Napoleon. He is sentenced to prison on an island. While in prison, he is befriended by a fellow inmate who, as it turns out, is a priest. But, no mere priest. This priest is a man of great and deep knowledge: an expert in math, philosophy, and literature. A priest, not just of the church, but of the enlightenment ideals! He gives Dantes all the treasures of knowledge and then tells him of a vast treasure he had hidden. He makes Dantes wise in the ways of the world. The knowledge he gave is power. With this knowledge, Dantes escapes from prison and turns himself into a wealthy and successful Count who hatches an elaborate plan to punish his enemies.

This first sort of preacher is the one the world wants. We tend to view ourselves like Dantes. We are victims of our circumstances, and if we just had enough education and enough wealth, we could solve our problems. So, we need some sort of teacher to get us there: a preacher who guides us into all wisdom and knowledge, who teaches us the right ways to view the world, and who shows us how to live a better and happier life. We need a preacher who reveals our enemies to us and how we can overcome them. This is the preacher who enlightens and guides, a celebrity preacher who makes us celebrities. 

Let's contrast this with another great French novel, Les Miserables. Here, we find a humble and weak preacher who values nothing except for some silver candelabras. One night, an escaped convict, our friend Jean Valjean, comes to find refuge in this priest's home. He is put up, fed, and cared for, but knows only of survival. He's been dehumanized in prison and plays the part. After the priest goes to bed, Valjean steals some silverware and flees. He is caught by the police and brought back to the priest. All it would take is a word of condemnation from the preacher to restore order and put Jean Valjean where he belongs. But when he sees Valjean in his guilt and shame, he says, "Oh my friend! You forgot your candle sticks!" and gives him the silver. 

This preacher doesn't condemn Jean Valjean or even give him instructions on how to fix his life. He shows him mercy, compassion, and grace. He sees a guilty and sinful man under the crushing reality of the law and gives more grace.

This is the second sort of preacher who gives mercy and forgiveness to sinners. He is not the sort of preacher we want but the one we need. We want to see ourselves as Dantes: victims needing guidance. But, in reality, we are Jean Valjean: guilty sinners under the condemnation of God's law. Jean Valjean, set free from prison, only knows how to commit crimes. We are sinners who only know how to sin. Give us enough knowledge and wealth, and we'll just figure out how to do it on a grander scale! We don't need mere guidance; we need mercy and forgiveness. We need a new birth. As much as we want the glory, riches, and knowledge of Dantes, what we need is Jean Valjean's candlesticks.

And so God gives us John the Baptist. Here is an expert on God's Word and the greatest man ever born of a woman, as Jesus calls him. He is able to threaten and impress kings at the same time! He calls to repentance and tells those who are caught in their sins to turn and love and serve. He's odd and off-putting, but who doesn't enjoy a little crazy? Eccentrics are the most fun sorts of leaders, right? So, what does he have to say? How can we follow him and get what we need? 

John says, "Don't look at me! I need to get out of the way." Later on, we will hear him say, "He must increase, I must decrease." He takes that blessed finger, as Martin Luther calls it, and points to Jesus, saying: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John doesn't give weak worldly knowledge and the spiritually corroding wealth of the world. He gives us the candlesticks! He gives Jesus, the forgiver of sinners, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The very Lamb of God who takes away your sins.

God sees what we need in our sinful state. He knows that you and I are not merely victims of our circumstances who just need to catch a break. We are sinners. I saw this quote online the other day that I thought was helpful. I can't remember exactly where I saw it, but it went something like this, "If we needed healing, God would have sent a doctor. If we had needed power, God would have sent a political leader. If we needed guidance, God would have sent a teacher. If we needed food, God would have sent a cook. But, we need forgiveness, so God sent a Savior in Jesus Christ."

And not just a Savior, a sacrifice for our sins. John calls him "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is an odd nickname. Lambs aren't exactly powerful and mighty creatures. Lambs in the Old Testament are not reigning but used by the priests as sacrifices for sins. They died instead of the sinners. And so, God has seen us guilty of our sins, under the condemnation of the law, and he gives us his very Lamb, Christ Jesus, to take our sins away. 

Now, what are you going to do with that? It is interesting to note that Dantes is given all the wisdom of the world and uses it to perfection in exacting, revenging, and punishing those who harmed him unjustly. But through the law, he ends up harming more people than he intended. He has no love. In contrast, Jean Valjean is given free grace that bubbles up and pours over into a life of service and sacrifice to a poor and needy girl. This is precisely like the gospel of Jesus, which sets you free from your sins. So go live in this freedom, and while you're at it, why not share it with others? Point them to the Lamb of God who has taken away your sins. He is what we all need.