You can be sure that if I get up in the pulpit and give ’em hell I get lots of people praising me for a “good sermon this week padre!” If I let rip against the immorality, homosexuality, sex before marriage, abortion, alcoholism, drug addiction and adultery I’ll get good comments.

But I have several  problems with this. First of all, the sinners I’m talking about probably aren’t in church so they can’t hear the sermon anyway.

But the bigger problem is that I get the feeling the people who like it when I preach a strong sermon against sin are feeling good because I’m giving other people hell. They feel good because I’m getting down on the people they are down on. In other words, my preaching against all “the sinners” boosts their sense of righteousness. “I thank you Lord that I am not like that tax collector there!”

Self righteousness, is the implicit sin of all religious people. It’s hard to avoid it, and the insidious thing about self righteousness is that when you do preach about it the self righteous people don’t see themselves in what you’re saying. That’s the definition of self righteousness. It’s totally invulnerable. It’s a hard candy coating shell we have in place.

The third problem is the preaching and behavior of Jesus. He didn’t actually preach hellfire and brimstone against the sinners. He went and had dinner with them. He went to their parties. He listened to them and forgave them and said, “Go and sin no more.” He did preach hellfire and brimstone and really let rip, but it was against the religious people. It was against the self righteous do gooders–the church goers that he loaded up with the hellfire, brimstone, Gehenna, worms dying not and “you are of you Father the devil” stuff.

I dig pretty deeply into this perennial dilemma in my book Immortal Combat. I take apart the people of the lie and the whole dynamic of pride that is woven through our human nature and how religion–which should be the cure for it–is all too often a mechanism we use to build up our righteousness even further.

The fourth problem I have with preaching hellfire and brimstone is that I’m one of the sinners I’m preaching against. It takes a very holy person to preach hellfire and brimstone and not come out the other side being a class one hypocrite. While it’s Advent, it’s worth analyzing why John the Baptist was able to be a pretty effective hellfire and brimstone preacher. He let the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees have it it. He also had the courage to preach against Herod’s immorality and warn him of the wrath to come. What was the source of his authority

Three things: First he lived an authentic life of prayer, penance and poverty. He wasn’t a hypocrite. Second, from the moment in his mother’s womb when Christ the Lord was present he recognized who Jesus really was. He didn’t faff about with nonsense about Jesus being a good moral guide, a spiritual mentor, a wise teacher or “a man who was so good that he shows us what God is like.” No. His mother voiced the truth he leapt for. “Who am I that the mother of God should come to me?” With Elizabeth his mother he knew who Jesus was: God incarnate. Third he always pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God. I am not worthy to unlace his sandals. He must increase and I must decrease.”

If a man is able to live that kind of razor sharp life he will preach effectively against sin and warn of the wrath to come. We do need preachers like that–not just in the pulpit–but out in the world. Furthermore, he’ll preach against sin in the world, but he’ll also preach against the self righteousness in the church.

But if they do preach like John the Baptist they had better be prepared to lose their head ’cause folks aren’t going to be happy.