I remember driving across St. Paul to hear Dr. Alvin Rogness, one of my favorite preachers, speak at Luther Seminary Chapel. It was in 1965, shortly following "After the Fall," a two-act play by Arthur Miller, was produced and published.
Al did not look at a note as he became Quentin, the 50-year-old lawyer who was full of passion and despair. Maggie, his second wife, had been a popular entertainer, but became a bitter neurotic and finally committed suicide. He had wanted to represent his good friend in court, but his friend took his life before Quentin had a chance to defend him.
Preacher Al brought us with him to a courtroom where he, as Quentin, was standing before a formidable bench, ready to present his case before the judge. He looked up at the bench and, to his utter dismay, the judge was not there. There was no one there to judge the merits of his case.
Quentin went into despair. As I remember, the gist of Quentin's plea before the empty bench went something like this: "If my case was judged to be with or without merit, if there was someone at the bench to even condemn me to hell, I would know that at least my life counted for something. But to stand before the bench and find out that it is empty means that life is nothingness."
Al taught me that morning what Luke was saying about the fiery John the Baptist: "With many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."
Luke 3:7-13 (NRSV)
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8 "Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."