Matthew 3:1-12

What is Real?

Have you noticed how reality shows aren't really real? What's real about lying in a Plexiglas box full of roaches or getting stranded on an island? What's real about falling off a bridge on a wire or racing around the world with a little person? What's real about spoiled socialites working on a cattle-farm? What's real about a fictional millionaire dating 30 women in a week so he can get married? Why are we shocked when we find out that reality shows are staged, scripted, and edited?

Have you noticed how so much of so-called "real life" isn't really that real? Have you noticed that I don't wear the clothes I want to, but often dress the way you expect me to? Have you noticed that we don't really tell each other about the movies we go see or the books we read, but we may talk a certain church talk that we reserve for our time together? Have you noticed how we sometimes don't tell each other what we really think or feel but often give the answer we think someone else wants to hear? Have you noticed how we will not tell each other about the things that we need help with - the mismanaged money, the addiction to pills or something to drink or something to smoke, the need to visit certain websites "just out of curiosity," or the need to be accepted by others and to have someone like us, love us, or praise us. And even though we would love to be as honest as to share all of this sincerely with another person, have you noticed how we seem to manufacture an "image" for ourselves and others? Have you noticed that "real life" sometimes isn't real?

Perhaps that is because we think that if others knew the truth about us, they might hold that against us. Maybe each of us is concerned that someone else might use us as a step ladder to get up on his or her moral high ground? Then again maybe some of us are just as real as we can be - when in reality we are angry, disappointed, and perhaps a bit cautious with all the other hypocrites in this so-called real world. However you put it, sometimes the world isn't that real.

Keeping It Real

Don't think for a moment that "false reality" is just a problem on TV or in the church. There's plenty of hypocrisy in the world. In fact those who claim to be "keeping it real" are often putting up a rehearsed front. They are playing the part of the strong individual who doesn't care what anyone or anybody thinks about him or her. If that's so, then why do they make a strong point of this in everything they do? I am convinced that if you want to find reality and the type of person who is real and not just "keeping it real" you have to draw close to the people who are close to God ...

Among all the saints in our cloud of witnesses, no one is more real than John the Baptist. (Read Matthew 3:1-12) With John, what you see is what you get. John's a preacher, but he doesn't dress up for anyone - except God. I have heard every joke about preacher's being the first in line for a potluck (which has never been true in my experience). John's a preacher, but he doesn't have time for potlucks and dinner on the ground and church socials. And even if he did, you may not want him to come: "Oh look here darling, someone brought roasted grasshoppers drizzled with raw honey. I wonder who that would be." If John went to preaching school he missed the classes that taught you how to dress for success. It's obvious as he preaches without a tie for his camel hair shirt and leather belt - unshaven, for days and the only bath his constant baptizing. John's not much on communication either. He must have skipped the rhetoric and conflict courses. I don't know about you, but I always heard that you don't win over your congregation by calling them a "brood of vipers" in your sermon.

But that's the irony. John does have a church - or a following, a called-out assembly. They are called out because John called them out. How is it possible that John could be breaking all of Dale Carnegie and Rick Warren's rules for influencing people and purposely growing churches but he still be doing just that! How? I think it is because he is real! And more than that - his message is real! The people came to hear a prophet - no more than a prophet! This isn't some fad in ministry or religion. This isn't 15 minutes of fame. It is an honest to goodness, bona fide, word of God. Not some show. Not some rant. It is REAL!!!!!

The people of John's age were drawn to that. In a world of hopelessness and disappointed dreams of a Messiah that would restore the glory of Israel they were drawn to what's real. In a religious culture dominated by leaders who paid attention to personal piety but offered no hope or authoritative world of God for real change, John's real message was so attractive that people went out to see this man who dressed like the prophets of old and ate the diet of the poor not because he had to but because he was fueled by the Spirit of God. People went out to see this man who spoke honestly even to their King because he answered to a higher authority. Even the curious Pharisees who were so busy "keeping it real" by the book were drawn to this one who was regarded as a prophet.

Doesn't it make you wonder how a prophet like John the Baptist would fare in our world? I think we would also be drawn to someone with a message that is real. Just consider our weariness with trying to keep up appearances and our confusion over what it means to keep it real. Since the middle of the 20th century, we have become a most skeptical and cynical nation. Why? Because we have come to doubt whether anything is real and that has caused us to lose hope. We know that reality TV is a sham. We know that with every ad you have to read the fine print. We know that in politics that "is doesn't always mean is" and intelligence is sometimes unintelligible. About the only thing we really know is that appearance can be deceiving. In our marketed, campaigned, televised, spin-doctored, plastic-surgery world something REAL would attract us.

The 1976 movie Network is a dark satire of our un-real world. It begins with a newsman who starts "telling the truth" in the crudest way. His honesty is offensive, searing, and condemning - but his ratings are through the roof. People want to see someone strange enough to tell the truth. The network begins to market him as the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves. He tells the truth, the Network reaps the rewards, and all is well until he tells the truth on the network. And soon the fad is over. Reality and honesty are attractive but for that to count we have to have the courage to change.

John's Real Message = Repentance and Hope

1. Repentance: John the Baptist is a prophet; or as Jesus said about him, more than a prophet - a messenger of the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 7:24-28). He tells the truth for sure. He tells the truth, he is real, because he calls us to repent - to turn and to change. And the people were responding to his message! They were making a change in their lives and getting ready for the Lord and his kingdom. Even the children of Abraham, the chosen ones, were repenting and getting baptized - and baptism is something regarding for Gentiles. We have wondered how John's message would be heard today in our world that craves truth, honesty and reality. You and I are hearing it and I think this is how we ought to hear his call to repent - to change ...

2. Hope. - John is a prophet, but he is not a mad prophet; neither in the sense of being angry or crazy. In fact, he is very likely one of the most hopeful prophets. That may surprise us because our typical understanding of hope (as a cheerful, optimistic attitude) isn't the sort of hope that characterizes John and his message. John's hope is a real substantial hope - not the sort of candy floss hope that melts away in the sunshine. What's the difference? The hope that John speaks of is not centered in what we can do or be, it is centered in God and what he has done and will do. This sort of hope is real because it has power to change - even now!

Those who aren't interested in the church, believe that the church is more interested in judgment than it is in salvation. We have perfected the art of judgment without pointing to the One who really does the judging, -- who is, of course, the same One who does the saving. And so we've given the impression that our sinfulness is more powerful than the saving One, Jesus. John has hope in the one who comes after him. He understands himself and his own limitations. John knows what is real - - "The one who is coming is more powerful than I." All I can do is make you aware of the problem - I cannot solve it. All I am called to do is convict you of your sinfulness and your need to get cleaned up - He is the Lamb of God that has the power to take away the sins of the world! (John 1:29) That's why John was so real. You and I can be as real because we have the same hope that John did. We are not the judge or the savior, we are the messengers. "The Kingdom of Heaven is near - and here! Prepare for the arrival of the Lord, make a straight path for him!"

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 19 December 2004

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