2nd Sunday in Advent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 3:1-12 Sermon 
December 9, 2007

Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
9 "Prepare The Way, O Zion"
12 "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People"
4 "On Jordan's Banks The Baptist's Cry"
31 "Angels From The Realms Of Glory"


TEXT: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”

Today we are in the wake of one of the worst tragedies in the recent history of the State of Nebraska. It has now been four days since the horrific massacre took place in Omaha at the Westroads Mall, and we are all still in a state of shock. Although the TV news is switching its focus to other things, yet they are still covering this event. Most likely you will be able to go home after church this morning, switch on CNN or FOX news, and they’ll have at least something about it.

To one degree or another, this is an event that has affected all of us here today. Even though most of us probably do the bulk of our holiday shopping in Lincoln, still we are scarcely an hour away from where all of this happened. It could have been a friend or relative of ours at that mall. We might have known one of those people whose name appears on the list of fatalities, or the list of those who were injured. And most sobering of all, one of us could have very easily have been there and have been a victim. Had that happened, I could be working on your funeral sermon right now.

Thankfully that didn’t happen to us, but it did happen in the lives of other people. Families that were shopping for presents and planning for Christmas have had their world turned upside down. Pastors have had to switch gears to console grieving families and organize funerals. And for so many people, the joy which should abound at the celebration of the birth of the Christ child has been numbed by the shock of a senseless massacre. And for these people, the Christmas of 2007 will carry a painful memory for every Christmas thereafter.

All of this happened in an almost insignificant span of time. It took under six minutes from when 19 year old Robert Hawkins first pulled the trigger to when he was lying dead on the floor of the Von Maur department store from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, along with the eight victims he robbed of their earthly life.

Today, I know that I am just one out of a large number of pastors, especially in Nebraska who are addressing this subject from the pulpit. The main reason for doing this is because it is something that is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind. We’re all still in a state of shock over it. And like so many people, we’re just trying to make sense out of the whole mess.

When tragedy strikes, people want some answers. In Omaha, I know that there were at least two Police Chaplains who spent the whole day at the Westroads consoling those who sought their help. Various churches held prayer services and had pastoral care available. Christians look to God in times of adversity and sorrow. When a Christian’s world is turned upside down, they know that God is the only one who can provide assurance and hope.

This morning I’d like to briefly focus upon one of the victims who lost their life as a result of this tragedy. Now this victim isn’t amongst those listed in the Journal-Star or World-Herald. His death wasn’t headline news. And if you didn’t catch the ABC National News with Charles Gibson on Thursday of this week, you might not have heard about him.

The man’s name is Ralph Binder. Ralph was a cameraman for ABC News. He, along with sound technician Dan Johnson, was travelling by van from Denver to Omaha to cover the Westroads tragedy. Between Wood River and Grand Island, Binder swerved to avoid hitting another vehicle that had gone out of control. However the 1996 Chevy Utility Van he was driving rolled over into the ditch. Even though he was wearing a seat belt, he was partially ejected from the vehicle, and died instantly. Johnson was treated and released from St. Francis Medical Center in Grand Island.

I’m sure that all of this had quite an effect on Dan Johnson, the passenger in the van. To have a friend and co-worker die right next to him would have been traumatic indeed. And I’m sure that he will have some emotional scars from this for a long time.

Ralph Binder was 58 years old, and a devout family man. He had a wife Joy, and two sons: Jacob age 12 and Justin age 9. Because of the Omaha tragedy, they now have a tragedy of their own to deal with. I know Christmas won’t be the same without their husband and father; and for them Christmas will always bring back the memory of how he was killed.

And then there’s Charlie Gibson. As you might know, he’s the epitome of a professional journalist and a dedicated news anchor. When he reported on the Omaha tragedy on Wednesday evening, he was just as shocked and saddened as anybody by all of the events.

However when he came on the air on Thursday, he devoted a short segment to Ralph Binder. Charlie Gibson and Ralph Binder worked together often. Ralph was Charlie’s cameraman when he reported on the California wildfires. But more than that, they were close friends too. Suddenly the Omaha shooting had a personal edge to it. One of the consequences of Robert Hawkins’ massacre in Omaha cost Ralph Binder his life, and it was a sting that reached out and literally touched Charlie Gibson’s soul.

So here we are today. We are gathered here, and we are like so many people who are just trying to make sense out of this whole mess. We are preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and suddenly we have something like this which threatens to throw a wet blanket on the whole shebang. Where do we go from here? How can we turn our world right side up again?

Let’s think back to the hymn we sang just before the sermon. It’s an old Advent hymn, the first verse of which goes like this: “Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, bowed beneath their sorrow’s load. Of the peace that waits for them, speak ye to Jerusalem; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.”

The hymn is based on the first few verses of Isaiah chapter 40. Through the prophet, God speaks words of comfort to his people. These words point ahead to the coming Messiah. Jesus is the one who will bring comfort and peace to God’s people. The coming of the Saviour will bring good news to those whose world has been turned upside down with sorrow and tragedy.

As we try to make sense of things in our world, we hear the voice of John the Baptist in our text for today saying: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” John is the one prophesied by Isaiah, the one who would announce that Christ would be coming, and that everybody should be prepared for him.

Isaiah 40, 4 announces the preparation of the way of the Lord. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

As huge as the Omaha tragedy was, it is only a small sampling of how rampant sin is in the world. We can think of a world of sin something like an area of scrub land filled with brambles and vines and brush. It is so thick that you can’t get through it. It’s almost like you’re up against a stone wall.

But the coming of Jesus means that all of this will be cut through. A clear highway will run right through the midst of it. Sin will be on every side and threaten our very existence; but with Jesus, a clear and unencumbered path will be there which leads directly to our heavenly Father.

So when we as Christians get overwhelmed with the senseless wickedness of the world, we know without a doubt that Jesus is there to give us meaning and hope. The sin in our own lives is something we just can’t get through on our own. And left to ourselves, we would have no way to get to our Father in heaven.

But Jesus cuts through all of it. He takes us by the hand and leads us down a clear highway. Through faith in him, our sins are forgiven. Our world is put right again. We have a certain hope for the future, regardless of what happens in the world. And we know that Jesus will never leave or forsake us, in spite of those who try to take it away or cloud it over.

What exactly is this road that is being built? The road is Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God, and our Saviour. He is the means by which God enters the jungle of our world and our lives. He is the access route from God to us and from us to God. The branches, the vines, and the predators in the jungle of life which held us captive are now bulldozed to one side.

This is because Jesus has been victorious over Satan, death, and hell. The confusion and lack of direction which have trapped unbelievers for centuries are now overcome. There is no wilderness so harsh, so desolate, or so forbidding, that God cannot penetrate it through his Son Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote in Romans 8, 38-39, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

It’s an impossible task to make sense out of a horrible event like what happened in Omaha. Satan literally took control of 19 year old Robert Hawkins and used him as a tool of violence, chaos, and bloodshed. He used the rapid fire of an AK-47 to try to drown out the voice of the heavenly choir. Satan has in the past, and always will try to re-focus our attention on the misery in the world. Anything he can do to get us to turn away from the love of God in Christ Jesus, he most certainly will.

The Omaha tragedy happened because of the actions of one person. However, we need to look at the others involved whose roles involved helping, and healing, and saving, and there were many of them.

One such person was Jodi Longmeyer, the human resources manager for Von Maur. She was on the third floor where all of the mayhem occurred. For over a half an hour, she remained on the phone with the authorities. She got herself into the area where the security monitors were located. She was able to direct the authorities as to where various people were, including the gun man. For her brave actions, ABC News selected her as their person of the week.

Today as we consider the ministry of John the Baptist and his work of preparing the way for the Lord, we know he didn’t have an easy task. His world was filled with opposition. The Pharisees and Sadducees tried their best to make trouble for him. Satan used them to try to block the highway he was preparing.

Jesus also had a ministry filled with opposition. Satan threw every roadblock he could in his way. But of course he wasn’t at all successful. Nothing could prevent him from accomplishing what he set out to do, which was to redeem all of humanity by paying the price for sin with his holy and precious blood.

The lives of many people were affected by what happened in Omaha last Wednesday. But we need to remember, that whatever happens to turn our world upside down, we know that Jesus is constant. He takes the disease of sin in our lives and replaces it with his righteousness. This he does through nothing but faith alone.

As we prepare for Christmas, may we always keep the road to our souls open for him, and never allow it to be blocked with Satan’s senseless distractions.

So today, let’s remember the families of those who lost their lives at Westroads, and pray that God will give comfort, strength, healing, and hope. Besides the ABC cameraman Ralph Binder, the shoppers killed were Gary Scharf, 48, of Lincoln, and John McDonald, 65, of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The employees killed were Angie Schuster, 36; Maggie Webb, 24; Janet Jorgensen, 67; Diane Trent, 53; Gary Joy, 56; and Beverly Flynn, 47, all of Omaha.