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Date: Advent 2a, 1998
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Theme: Ready When You Are or John: the Man, the Mission, the Message
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was another Cecile B. DeMille blockbuster. It was a biblical movie of epic proportions with a cast of thousands, a crew of hundreds, and a legendary director who demanded perfection from everyone on the set. Even for a DeMille spectacular, it had been a long and trying day.
Normally, movies are filmed in tiny pieces, pieces so tiny that the actors often have no sense of what an entire scene will look like. Because of production demands this day's entire scene was going to be shot all at once, in one take, with all thousand or so actors and extras going into action at the same time.
DeMille stationed eleven camera crews at various points on the set; six would pick up the overall action from different angles, five would film plot developments involving the major characters. The scene had been rehearsed four times since they had started at six in the morning. After each rehearsal, thousands of actors and hundreds of technicians would go back to square one and do it all over again.
It was now late afternoon. The sun was just starting to set behind the hills, and there was just enough time to get the shot done. DeMille looked over the panorama, saw that everything was ready and in place, and gave the command for action.
Hundreds of extras stormed down a hill. Hundreds of others stormed up the hill, ready to do battle. In another location, fifty Roman centurions lashed at two hundred slaves who labored to move a huge stone monument toward its resting place.
Meanwhile, the principal characters acted out, in close-up, their reactions to the battle taking place on the hill. Their words were drowned out by the sea of noise around them, but that was no problem because the dialog would be dubbed in later.
The scene took a good fifteen minutes to complete. When it was over, DeMille yelled, "Cut!" and turned to his assistant. "I thought it was terrific!" DeMille declared, smiling.
"It was C.B.," the assistant agreed excitedly. "It went off perfectly."
Enormously pleased, the great director turned to face the head of his camera crew to find out if all the cameras had picked up what they were assigned to film. The camera supervisor was stationed in a remote location, high atop a hill. DeMille waved to the distant camera supervisor. From the top of the hill, the camera supervisor waved in return and called out, "We're ready when you are, Mr. DeMille."
We're ready when you are! That was the call of the people of Jesus' day. They were ready for God to fulfill his promise and send his Messiah to redeem Israel. The people of Israel looked forward to that day. They could taste that day and they wanted it to come ever so badly.
In today's gospel lesson, we read of God keeping his promise; the day was fast approaching and he sent his servant, John, to the people of Israel in order to prepare the way for his Son, our Savior. Matthew tells us that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea preaching the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." And the people were electrified. They left their businesses, their farms, their everyday tasks, and went out to hear John preach. They even were baptized by John for the repentance of sins.
The people were ready. They were ready for God. And in that readiness they embraced God's prophet, John. And today's gospel lesson urges us to embrace John also; for in today's lesson we are confronted with John the Baptist: the Man, the Mission, the Message.
The first thing we are confronted with is John the Man. And Matthew leaves no doubt as to who John is. John is the long awaited herald, the long awaited prophet, who would introduce and usher in God's Messianic Kingdom. John is the long promised prophet, promised by God.
Take a close look at Matthew's description of John; his clothes were made of camel's hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist. John stuck out like a sore thumb. He dressed very differently than the people around him. He dressed weirdly, but he dressed that way for a purpose. In 2nd Kings 1:8, we learn that these are the exact same clothes worn by Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah the great prophet of the Old Testament.
And this is the point that Matthew wants us to take to heart. God was not and is not finished dealing with his people; that is why he sent John, the great prophet, the last great prophet of the Old Covenant, to usher in the Messianic Age, to usher in the New Covenant. When we hear the voice of John, we hear the voice of God himself speaking to us--that is why God sent his servant John to his people.
Why did God send John? We see why in the second thing with which Matthew confronts us. We are confronted with John and his mission. Matthew tells us that "John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea." And in John's activity we find John's mission. The word which we translate as "preach" in verse one of the lesson is a very special word in Greek. That word denotes a herald; the herald is the person sent by the king to proclaim the king's message to the people. The herald could only proclaim what was given to him by the king.
John is God's herald. He has a special message entrusted to him by the King of the Universe. And the King wants him to be faithful to that message. John's mission is his message. And, do you know something? The same truth applies to us today. We, you and I, Christ's Church, are God's heralds in the world today. God sends us into the world to proclaim his message to his people who do not yet know him as their loving God and Savior. God sends us into our world to call his people back to himself. In a very real way, John mission is our mission. John's message is our message. John is God's herald and so are we. We, just like John, are entrusted with a message from God and we are called to be faithful to that message and faithful to our mission of spreading that message.
And just what is that message? Matthew tells us the message in the lesson. The first word out of John's mouth is "Repent!" An imperative verb, a command, which in the original Greek tells us to be in a constant state of repentance. "Be constantly repenting!" That was John's message; that is our message. But, do you know something? It is not a very popular message in our world. It's not at all popular. You may not be aware of it, but a major attitudinal shift has occurred in the past 15 or so years. When I came to this church fifteen years ago, the homiletical books and expert articles all stated that people were very much aware of their sins and they needed to hear what God did for them in order to forgive their sins.
According to the experts, that's not the case anymore. Today people bridle at the thought of sin and their need for repentance. All the talk of sin turns people off because people don't want their self-esteem damaged by calling them sinners. But there is more at work than mere self-esteem. We live in a world that discounts God and discounts sin. And that discounted world sees no need for repentance. But that's not what God tells us.
Repent! It's John's message; it's our message. But what is repentance? The easy answer is that repentance is sorrow for sins. But even Christians discount sin and discount repentance. Repentance, in the biblical sense of the word, isn't just sorrow for sin. Repentance means that I am confronted with a totally holy God who cannot stand the sight of sin; repentance means that I am confronted with a totally holy God who must, by his very nature, condemn sin and sinners; repentance means that I am confronted with a totally holy God who damns sin and sinners. Repentance doesn't just mean sorrow; it should also mean terror; the terror of a sinner in the hands of a holy God who must, who must, punish sin and sinners--who must punish me.
Repentance means that I am on the road to eternal damnation but God has called me back, called me back from hell; called me back from damnation; called me back into his own loving arms. In his overwhelming love for all of humanity, God sent his one and only Son into the world and placed upon him the sin and punishment which we deserve. Jesus paid the price for our sins in full. And now God the Father declares us free and innocent of all the charges against us.
Repent: turn from sin; turn from death; turn from damnation. And turn to God; turn to life; turn to heaven, freely given us as a gift. For that is the second aspect of John's message. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." God takes up his rule in the lives of his people as his people are confronted with the reality of their sins but are, more importantly, also confronted with the reality of God's overwhelming love for us. His love is so overwhelming that he held nothing back but sent his only-begotten Son into our world to die on the cross to forgive our sins and bring us back to himself.
Are we terrified of sin? We should be. But the terror fades, the terror recedes, for we know Jesus and the forgiveness he freely gives to us. We know Jesus who came to us as the Babe of Bethlehem who died on the cross. We know Jesus who comes to us in Word and Sacrament to assure us of his forgiveness, of his love, of his heaven. We know Jesus who will come again at the close of the age and bring us to be with himself for all of eternity. We know Jesus and the terror fades for God's promise is sure and there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
John proclaimed the coming Messiah. We know that Messiah and we know peace and forgiveness and life--all given to us as free gifts in Christ our Lord. "Ready when you are, Mr. DeMille." Well, we are ready; we are ready to meet our God in Jesus our Savior. Amen.
And may the peace of God which far surpasses all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
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