“A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS”

JOHN 3:1-6

DECEMBER 4, 2011

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            We’ve heard the message numerous times.   We are watching television or listening to the radio and suddenly we hear,  “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.”  Then it ends with the words, “If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed to tune to one of the broadcast stations in your area.”

            Our government originally developed The Emergency Broadcast System to warn us if the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack.  Naturally, the U.S. government developed stringent safeguards to see to it that a genuine attack would never be confused with a false alarm or a simple test.  To ensure that this would never happen, sealed envelopes containing a set of authenticator codes were regularly sent to broadcast facilities in the United States.

            Despite these safeguards the unthinkable happened.  At 9:33 AM EST on February 20, 1971 the signal for a real attack was mistakenly given.  The wire services picked up the signal and distributed the chilling words, “This is not a test.”

            What do you suppose was the response to this inadvertent activation?  Well, the majority of the U.S. radio stations either chose to ignore it, or figured, correctly, that it was a mistake.  Only one broadcast station, a television station in Chicago, shut down as required by federal law.

            I thought of the Emergency Broadcast System when I thought of the role of John the Baptist in the Advent drama.  God assigned John the task of alerting the people of Israel that the Messiah was on his way.  Some listened and some did not.

            John the Baptist has often been referred to “as the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  How appropriate for this second Sunday of Advent for without Christ the world is indeed a wilderness.  Without Christ, the world is a prisoner of war camp and we are enslaved by the power of sin.  Without Christ, this is a cold, dark, meaningless world.

            In the second chapter of C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, little Lucy stumbles through the back of a wardrobe into the imaginary world of Narnia. Although it’s summer in England, where the wardrobe sits, it’s winter in Narnia.  Shivering in the cold, Lucy soon meets, Mr. Tumnus, who is part human and part animal, who tells her what winter time is like in Narnia.  It’s the result of a spell cast by the White Witch.  “It’s she who makes it always winter,” Tumnus says. “Always winter and never Christmas!”

            What a wonderful description of the world without Christ: “Always winter and never Christmas ...”  Turn with me to our passage for today, John 3:1. 

 

            In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee ... and skipping over the difficult to pronounce names to the middle of verse two ... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

 

            John’s message was twofold and it was simple.  First, he announced the Messiah is coming.  That’s it.  The Messiah is coming.  That was the heart of his message.  One is coming after me who was before me.  One is coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. 

            One of the humorous moments of the last presidential campaign involved the almost fervent messianic expectations that some of Barack Obama’s supporters had about him.  His opponent John McCain made self-deprecating jokes about it.  At a dinner for politicians and journalists in Manhattan, McCain declared, “Maverick I can do, but Messiah is above my pay grade.”

            The then Senator Obama also poked fun at the idea. “Contrary to the rumors you may have heard,” Obama said, “I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”

            Well, the President is not the Messiah or even Superman.  Whenever life gets difficult, people often pray for a leader who will lead them out of darkness into light.  Israel had been looking for several hundred years for such a leader.  They were under Rome’s iron fist.  They were looking for a deliverer.  Then John the Baptist appeared and announced that the coming of the Messiah was finally at hand. 

            Many of us are familiar with the 1957 motion picture The Bridge Over the River Kwai.  It was selected as one of the 100 great films of the 20th century.  It is the story of a group of British prisoners of war held by the Japanese in northern Burma.

            Ernest Gordon, at one time a chaplain at Yale University, wrote a book called Through the River of the Kwai, which shared his experience as a prisoner in that camp.

            Gordon says that when the young soldiers in that camp realized that they were going to be there for a while, they began to have Bible studies and to pray diligently that they would be delivered from their circumstances much as Israel prayed for deliverance from Rome.  He said, at first, their praying for deliverance was shallow and superficial.  They railed against God for letting them be in that situation.  As time went on, however, something happened and their railing against God disappeared.  They began to move toward a more mature faith.  They began to pray about their relations with one another.  No longer was it “Why, God?” but it was “How should we act, God?”

            Gordon said the most spiritual moment of that experience was Christmas 1944. Out of deference to the holiday, the men were not given work detail that day and were given a bit more food.  He said that as they moved around the prison yard, they sensed that things were different.  In one of the barracks a British prisoner began to sing a Christmas carol.  It echoed over the infirmary where men were dying.  Then all around the camp, men began to sing, and those who could, those who were ambulatory, came to the parade field and sat in a great circle.  Gordon said, “God touched us that day.”

            This former Yale chaplain called it the most sacred event in which he had ever been involved.  No preaching, no church paraphernalia, just men united by their common misery, singing of God being with them.

            Those prisoners experienced the coming of the Messiah to their prisoner of war camp in Burma.  They experienced a momentary shining of light into their darkness.  Maybe you have experienced that sometime when you had a difficult time in your life.  That is part of what Christmas is about.  It’s not really about glitter and gifts.  It’s about people in all kinds of circumstances experiencing God’s presence.  John’s message, first of all, is a message of hope.  The Messiah is coming.

            I mentioned earlier that John’s message was twofold and it was simple.  Part one: the Messiah is coming.  Part two:  prepare for his coming by repenting of your sins.

            Verse 3:  John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Now repentance means more than being sorry for our behavior.  It means doing something about that behavior.  It means turning around and going in a different direction.  It means stopping doing what is wrong and now we are going to do what is right. 

            Beginning with the tenth verse, John describes what that involves.  Listen to what he says to the crowd ... verse 10 ... follow along with me. 

 

            And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with everyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”   He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

 

            Again ... turn around.  Go in another direction.  Turn toward the Messiah, and all he represents, and away from questionable behavior.

            In South Africa, a man went into a church service.  He hadn’t been to church in years, and God convicted him of sin.  The next morning he went to a beautiful home and asked the owner, "Do you recognize this old watch?"

            "Why, yes," answered the owner. "Those are my initials; that is my watch.  I lost it eight years ago.  How did you get it, and how long have you had it?"

            "I stole it," came the reply.

            "What made you bring it back now?"

            "I was converted last night," was the answer, "and I have brought it back first thing this morning.  If you had been up last night, I would have brought it back then." 

            The Messiah is coming.  Repent.  Turn from your old ways and turn toward the Messiah and all he represents. 

            Funny, though, how we continue to ignore John.  Patricia Greenlee tells a story about her son who is a West Virginia state trooper. He stopped a woman for going 15 miles an hour over the speed limit.  After he handed her a ticket, she asked him, “Don’t you give out warnings?”

            “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.  “They’re all up and down the road.  They say, ‘Speed Limit 55.’”

            It is amazing how deaf and blind we can be to warning signs.  John warned the people of Israel that the Messiah was coming.  John wanted the people to repent because he wanted them to experience the richness and the joy of that coming.  Remember how Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”?  Get our hearts right and we will experience God.

            A little girl named Stephanie was orphaned after both of her parents died.  With no other relatives to care for her, she was put into foster care.  Eventually she came to live with the Weavers.  Mrs. Weaver found Stephanie sullen, withdrawn, and uncommunicative.  She asked to see her records.  The first foster family wrote, “Stephanie is a quiet, shy girl.”

            The second family wrote, “She obeys, but she doesn’t participate much in the family.”  Mrs. Weaver doubted if Stephanie would be with them long; she seemed so unreceptive.  Still, she decided to keep Stephanie through the Christmas holiday and then talk to her social worker about a transfer to another home.

            At Christmas, the Weavers exchanged presents, including gifts for Stephanie.  As they did Stephanie handed Mrs. Weaver a brown paper sack with a rough drawing of a Christmas scene on it.  Mrs. Weaver opened it to find a rhinestone necklace with a couple of stones missing and a little bottle of perfume, half empty.  As she put on the necklace and dabbed perfume behind her ear, Stephanie said, “Mom’s necklace looks good on you.  You smell good like she did too.”  Mrs. Weaver’s heart melted.  She vowed to renew her efforts to love Stephanie, and she succeeded!  By the following Christmas, Stephanie had become her adopted daughter.

            God seeks to break into our world, just as Mrs. Weaver sought to break into Stephanie’s.  One way we can help that happen is through repentance.  The Messiah is coming.  Let’s prepare for his coming by repenting of our sins.