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Third Sunday of Advent Isaiah 2010 – “The Greatest Show on Earth”

Pastor Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church – Dyer, Indiana
12. December 2010
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-8; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 11:2-10
“The Greatest Show on Earth”


One of my avid hobbies is cinema. I enjoy movies. I enjoy film. Most genres are fair game, including action, adventure, drama, thriller, martial arts, foreign film, and my favorites – post-apocalypse and time-travel-romance. What drew me to the motion pictures when I was young was the spectacle. I especially enjoyed the special effects, the dramatic action, big budgets, and far-fetched stories. As I grew in maturity (a job our Lord is still working on), my emphasis shifted to the quality of the narrative, the character development, the pacing, and the nuance. Spectacle took a backstage to substance and content. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good spectacle now and then.

So it is for those gathered near the Jordan River. They came for a spectacle and they got one. All the people gathered in the region surrounding the Jordan to see John the Baptizer. No better fire-and-brimstone preacher had or will ever be heard again. “Repent!” he cried out! “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” He boldly dunked man, woman, and child in the murky waters for the forgiveness of sins. Not since the Exodus had so many people passed through water for deliverance.

It was the greatest show on earth. No one missed it. The lines at the Jordan box office stretched around the block and down the street. No need for elephants, clowns, or the trapeze. John the Baptizer thrilled audiences, like Charlton Heston and Johnny Depp rolled into one. Excitement is an understatement for the charged atmosphere.

St. John had all the marks of the Old Testament prophets. He had authority like Abraham. He preached woes like Jeremiah. He dressed like Elijah. He delivered the people like Moses. When the people heard John’s message of repentance and baptism, they suspected the prophecies of Isaiah were coming true. Isaiah predicted and John fulfilled the cry from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John is the newest and probably greatest prophet.

No wonder the people flocked to his show. If Isaiah was right, this would be the greatest show on earth. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” This is earth-shattering, apocalyptic action not to be missed. Isaiah’s prophecy gives the disaster epics a run for their money. Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay couldn’t compete, even with their $300 million dollar budgets. With such a prophecy, you wouldn’t want to miss the show either.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah will pale in comparison to these events. The ten plagues can’t hold a candle to Isaiah’s prophecy. Passing through Dead Sea waters? Piddly miracles compared to the disaster to come. Fire that consumes whole sacrifices and altar? Nothing. The only thing that comes close is the Flood but our Lord promised to not do that again.

All through the history of salvation there is one thing the people feared most. Natural disasters, miraculous deliverance, and angels of death don’t compare to this one thing. The one thing was concealed in the tabernacle and rested upon the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. This one thing burned as a bush and was shrouded by the clouds upon the mountain top. The one thing the people feared most was the glory of the Lord, his presence. “No one can see God and live” said Moses.

Even greater than the great leveling of the world prophesied by Isaiah is this: “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” There is no greater show on earth than to see the glory of the Lord. This is the most terrible and awesome sight imaginable. Think laser show, 3-d glasses, IMAX 70 mm projection, 15,000 watts of digital surround sound… and multiply it by infinity. The bare thought of standing in the presence of God gets the adrenaline rushing and the blood pumping.

Our blood pounds in our ears not because we’re thrilled to see our awesome God. We’re scared to death. God’s holy presence isn’t just awesome, its terrifying. Since the fall of Adam into corruption, walking with God isn’t a comfort. It scares the pants off of us. It puts the fear of God into our hearts. We know that righteousness cannot abide by our wickedness. We know that God punishes the idolater, the fornicator, and the coveter with equal parts vengeance and wrath.

That’s why the many flocked to John. They were scared silly, too. They saw the signs and sought to flee the wrath to come. They knew that they were like grass. The lightest breath of the LORD would cause them to wither and fade like the flower. This holy and unmovable breath is the word of our God. They saw and heard John and knew they best heed his warning.

Jesus himself began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” John is no itinerant preacher, speaking what the itching ears want to hear. His proclamation is the immovable word of our God, calling sinners to repentance. The winds of the time surely blew hard against John but he refused to be swayed by the times.

“What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.” Camel hair might do well as a sport coat but not for a prophet. John’s prophetic garb is not the latest in GQ. He has not bent to the metrosexual male fashion trends. He doesn’t bear the effeminate charm of the court attendants. He sticks to his God-given character, even if it comes off too bold for the wishy-washy people.

“What then did you go out to see? A prophet?” Well, of course, a prophet. They hadn’t seen a prophet in ages and not one this good. John is the real deal, a prophet in the school of Malachi. He’s the prophet par excellence. The best of the best. Roll out the red carpet. Call out the paparazzi. St. John the Baptizer is here.

Yes, Jesus says, “Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way before you.’” John has nothing on the one who comes. With the coming one, prepare for some serious world-changing, earth-leveling action. Prepare for the king, the glory of the Lord, the word of our God incarnate. The one enthroned upon the cherubim comes. The Shepherd of Israel comes. The one mighty in battle comes to save us.

This was John’s expectation. The apocalyptic king who comes with judgment. We’re not surprised by John in prison. Jesus hasn’t laid any mountains low or raised up any valleys. We’re not surprised that John sends word when he heard about the deeds of the Christ. Earth-shattering? Not quite. The terrifying and awesome glory of God? Not really, just a carpenter’s son. The king victorious in battle, a new king like David? Nope, just a poor Nazarene with a ragtag group of fishers and a tax assessor.

Its not surprising then that John sends word by his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” Perhaps John doubted our Lord was the coming one, whose way he had prepared through preaching repentance. I don’t think so. Doubt and St. John never quite seem to go together. Perhaps John saw his death was immanent and desired to compel his disciples to Jesus. John already confessed he was unworthy to untie the coming one’s feet. The coming one’s show would be the real deal, the greatest and last show on earth. John knew that his calling out Herod on his illegitimate marriage would eventually lead to his death. Its time to diminish so the coming one can increase.

There is still a problem. The prophet predicted earth-changing events. He predicted a spectacle unrivaled even to this day. Then there’s Jesus. He’s not the prophecy of glory the people expected. He’s not the awesome God people hoped for, with winnowing fork and chaff burning. The earth did not crumble under his feet, the mountains laid low at the very sight. Where was the thunder in his footsteps or the lightning in his fists? Jesus doesn’t compare. He’s got nothing but silly earthly miracles.

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the bling receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear.” That’s the real show. Valleys being raised and mountains laid low isn’t impressive compared to the Jesus show. Jesus comes with an even better show. Jesus doesn’t destroy but shows mercy. Jesus doesn’t lay waste but heals. Jesus doesn’t make your path straight but leads you on the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even better than this, Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: […] the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Who cares about spectacle if the coming one rules over life and death? Thunder steps compares nothing to the raising of the dead. Raise up the valleys? Nah, how about raise up sinners from the depth of their despair to be holy, cleansed, and forgiven. A baptism of repentance? Better yet, how about a baptism that not only forgives but adopts, a baptism not of humiliation but exaltation with Christ?

This is the full fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Mountains being laid low and valleys raised up is a metaphor for the great leveling of the nations. Jew and Gentile alike are brought to their knees in repentance and are equally raised up with forgiveness. In Isaiah 35, our Lord says:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6 Then the lame shall leap like a deer,  And the tongue of the dumb sing.” (Isaiah 35:5-6)

Also, in Isaiah 61, our Lord prophesied:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn.” (Isaiah 61:1)

That’s the greatest show on earth. No epic film, no special effects spectacle, no action adventure blockbuster can compare with this. Not even St. John the Baptizer has this kind of show. The Jesus show is the real show, the spectacle that comes not through seeing or hearing. The Jesus show doesn’t need whiz-band pyrotechnics or excessive budgets. The Jesus show is humble, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The Jesus show cares about the sick Gentile, the daughter of a Roman centurion, and the adulterous Samaritan.

The greatest show on earth is the raising of poor, miserable sinners. There is nothing more spectacular than receiving eternal life even after death. There’s no better story told than repentant and forgiven sinners being welcomed into heavenly mansions to dwell and dine with the incarnate Lord.

Admittedly, Christ’s work doesn’t look all that terrific. It’s really more like the independent film that was made on a shoestring budget. Christ did not appear with glory but with humility. Even so today, Christ comes to you humbly without much spectacle or fanfare. There he is in the font, with mere water and words. Here he is in the pulpit, where his word is preached for repentance and forgiveness. There he is on the altar under simple bread and wine. It isbn’t the spectacle we want nor what John’s followers expected. Nothing to see here, move along.

Yet, we know that these outwardly simple means are our Lord’s coming to us. They are the true fulfillment of Isaiah’s word. The ways have been prepared. All have been made ready for the coming of our savior. Our hearts have been leveled to receive him as he chooses.

His glory that was shrouded on the mountain and in the temple is now delivered to his saints through these means. We won’t stand before our incarnate Christ until the last day. Yet, on this side of glory, his face does shine upon us in his simple but chosen means. His glory is shrouded in humility in his holy sanctuary. These are mysteries of God but wonderful and spectacular in their own way. Dear Christians, receive our Lord as he comes to you. Receive him and rejoice. Gaudete! No spectacle needed. No big budget. No 3D or surround sound. Just Jesus. Rejoice! Gaudete! Amen.