Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
December 9, 2007
The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.
There always seems to be “the hottest gift item of the year” to buy each year. The most memorable in my mind was the craze a few years back over the “Tickle Me Elmo’s” that had people paying upwards of $200 for a stuffed animal that talked funny and jiggled. I do that all the time!
I heard on television that the hottest gift item of the year this year was a Tomtom. I thought it must some sort of Native American drum, but it turns out that it’s one of those GPS devices. Maybe you’ve seen or used one of those. More and more cars are being built with GPS systems included in them. Basically, you tell these little computers the address you want to go to, and the computer will tell you how to get there as you’re driving. There’s a small, interactive map that comes up on the screen, and most of these GPS systems also have a voice component to them where a nice lady tells you which way to turn.
One of my friends in seminary had one of these in his car, and we had to go to a meeting in Raleigh one day. So, he fed the information into his GPS system and the voice of this nice lady came on and told him exactly which way to turn and when and the name of the road and all sorts of other stuff. It’s a pretty neat device, and I wish they weren’t so expensive because I’d really like to have one. I’d try to program mine not only to tell me which way to turn, but to also counteract my wife’s criticisms of my driving. I’d get mine to tell me about what a great driver I was and how handsome I looked today and how my breath smelled like a field of wintergreen. That would be the perfect Christmas present, wouldn’t it?
On the way home, my friend was showing off this GPS system he had. He told me how if you start going in the wrong direction or make a wrong turn how it informs you of your blunder. He purposefully entered a location he was going to drive to that was incorrect to show me how it would correct him. Sure enough, when he was supposed to turn left, he turned right and the pleasant voice of the lady in the GPS system said, “Turn around, you’re headed in the wrong direction.” And the voice wouldn’t stop because my friend kept going in the wrong direction. After about thirty seconds, the device responded to his improper turn by naming a new street and direction for him to turn to get him back on track.
Though I thought we were promised flying cars by now, GPS systems are the next best thing, I suppose. Since I’m very susceptible to advertising, I can think of all sorts of situations in which I would NEED a GPS system, can’t you? How nice it would be to be able to turn to a device with its own built in maps and its own voice to tell me the proper direction I should be traveling. Lucky for me—I have a wife! which renders a GPS system obsolete?
“Turn around. You are headed in the wrong direction.” These words spoken by the voice of that nice lady in the GPS system are reminiscent of those spoken long ago by a man totally devoid of technology. This man we know as John the Baptizer clothed himself in camel hair and ate grasshoppers. Though his wardrobe and gastronomic preferences are totally different, his words are basically the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That word “repent” in Greek is a word taken from the parlance of giving directions to a place. “Metanoia,” repent, literally means to “turn around.”
“Turn around. You are headed in the wrong direction.” I think that’s a nice paraphrase of John the Baptist’s message to us this day. So the word repent means to turn around or to change. But what does that mean for us right here and right now? Repent means to do so much more than to feel really bad about what you’ve done or even to say you’re sorry. Repentance means a total change of direction. Repentance means to orient your life in a different direction and to walk in that direction. Repentance means to listen to that voice we hear telling us to turn around.
Too many times, we have thought of repentance as something only between ourselves and God. Repentance has too long been associated merely with a change of heart, with a genuine “I’m sorry” on the spiritual level. Too frequently, repentance is associated with only confessing our sins in church. But true repentance is much more than that. True repentance involves more than just telling God you’re sorry in church. True repentance involves turning around not only in the pew, but also in the street, also in your home, also in your place of work. True repentance is a journey to the wilderness where we encounter people like John the Baptist, reminding us that there is someone coming into the world that will turn everything around, just as he did in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
Jennifer and I got lost in Charlotte this past week. Isn’t that the way it always goes? You drive to Charlotte, you get lost. And you don’t just get a little bit lost in Charlotte—no way! When you get lost in Charlotte, you wind up getting so lost that the clerk at the gas station doesn’t even know the name of the road you’re trying to find. But I’ve gotten pretty good at finding my way around Charlotte, now my problem is finding my way around all these country roads in Stanly County. At least in Charlotte, you can stop at a gas station and ask directions, but you can’t exactly ask a cow for directions, can you? Well, I mean, I suppose you could, but people might look at you like a little funny.
Technology comes and technology goes. I’m sure GPS systems will be a relic from the ancient past one day not too long from now. The best guidance in life doesn’t come from technology. The best positioning system is the same one John the Baptist used. God’s word reminds us to turn around and repent. God’s word reminds us when we’re headed in the wrong direction. Like the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, God’s word comes to us, this day however lost we may feel, telling us that he is coming to turn things around. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Turn around! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.