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Christmas is coming. There are so many things to do. We want to put up decorations, and not just any decorations, decorations that let people know what Christmas is really about. Lights that remind us that Jesus is the light of the world and that as his followers we are to let our light of faith shine. Evergreen trees that remind us that Jesus came to win eternal life for us, and that remind us to look to heaven for his return. A cross that reminds us that Jesus was born so that he could live and die in our place. Chrismons, symbols that tell us something about who Jesus is and what he did. And don’t forget, there are cookies to bake, presents to order and then they have to be wrapped or sent. Christmas is coming and we want to be prepared.
Each year as we get closer to Christmas and things seem to get busier and busier, we get to hear about John the Baptist so that we are reminded about what makes us truly prepared, not just for celebrating the coming of Jesus at Christmas, but for his coming into our hearts and for his coming again in glory.
God knew that people would not be properly prepared for Jesus’ coming unless he did something to help them. So, 700 years in advance, through Isaiah, and again 400 years in advance through Malachi, God promised to send someone, a messenger from God, to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming. It’s clear from the verses that Mark quotes, and from the words of Jesus himself, that John the Baptist was that messenger from God.
I guess John would fit right in today. He practiced social distancing. He wasn’t like Jonah. He didn’t walk through the streets of Jerusalem, or any town in Israel, telling people to prepare because the Messiah was about to come. He lived by himself out in the wilderness along the Jordan River. But even in a time when there were no radios, TVs, or cell phones, people heard about him. They heard about this man who dressed like the prophet Elijah. He was preaching. He was saying that the Messiah was about to come. He was baptizing people, not at the temple or the synagogue, but in the Jordan. Through word-of-mouth the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem heard about John, and took time off to go into the wilderness to see and hear this man who seemed to be a prophet from God. Remember, there had not been a prophet sent from God for 400 years.
Even though we live in a time when we do have radios, TVs, cell phones, and internet, and news can spread around the world in seconds, word-of-mouth witnessing is still the most effective way to get people to at least listen to what God says. Maybe especially in our day when we are bombarded with so much information that we tend to tune it out, word-of-mouth is more effective than ever.
If a new restaurant opens in town you might see an ad and think, “maybe I’ll go check it out sometime.” But, if your friend says, “I went to that new restaurant in town last night and it was really good,” you are more likely to go. And if your friends says “that new restaurant is really good, why don’t you come with me tomorrow and we’ll go together,” you will most likely say, “sure,” and go.
If someone sees a church sign or gets an invitation to a Christmas service in the mail, they might think, “maybe I’ll go check it out sometime.” But, if you, as their friend, say “my church is really great, going there and hearing God’s word really helps me be prepared for Christmas,” that person is likely to consider going more seriously than just seeing a sign or getting an invitation. And, if you as their friend say, “I’m going to church on Christmas because the Scriptures and songs really help me focus on the meaning of Christmas, why don’t you come with me,” they just might agree to come.
Without any advertising, without billboards and invitations in the mail, people were flocking to see and hear John. His calling from God was to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. How did he do it?
He called out to all who came prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. He preached a baptism of repentance.
He told the people that if they wanted to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah they needed to straighten up, to repent. They needed examine themselves and take note of the way they were treating their neighbors. Was it always loving, or did they look down on others and justify taking advantage of them? They needed to examine their relationship with God. Were they remembering the Sabbath day, or did they think that spending a day with God would cost them too much? Were they honoring and trusting in God above all things? Did they trust him to send the Messiah as he promised, or had they given up on the idea that a Messiah would ever come? If they wanted to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah, they needed to straighten up their crooked ways, their loveless deeds, their greed and lust, their lack of trust in God.
How did that prepare people for the coming of Jesus? As Jesus himself said, only the sick need a doctor. Those who were comparing themselves to others and concluding that they were Okay with God because they were better than so many others wouldn’t pay any attention to a Messiah who came to forgive sins. They wouldn’t think they needed that kind of Messiah. Those who were too busy to make time for God, who didn’t trust him to provide or to keep his promise to send a Messiah, wouldn’t care about listening to someone who claimed to be a Messiah but didn’t do anything to make them more money or help them improve their standing in society.
Still today, John’s call to straighten up, to repent, is what prepares us for a proper celebration of Christmas. It enables us to recognize who Jesus really is and why he was born. It prepares us to meet him when he comes again on the last day. Just like the people of John’s day, if we don’t think we are all that sinful because we are living better lives than a lot of others, why would be get excited about someone who was born to pay for sins? If we are too busy to make time for God, not even an hour a week, much less a few minutes a day for Scripture reading and prayer, because we need to work in order to provide for our families, we won’t care about listening to someone who doesn’t promise to make our lives easy and successful. It is only when we are brought to see how crooked our ways are by comparing ourselves to the perfection God demands; it is only when we are shown that it’s not just our actions that God judges, but our words and our thoughts; it is only when we see how sinful we are and how much we need forgiveness that we rejoice when John points to Jesus and says, Look! There’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is only then that we will be able to rejoice with the Shepherds that a Savior was born. It is only then, when Jesus offers us forgiveness that we will be enabled to say, “thank you, that’s exactly what I needed. That’s the best gift I could ever receive.” It is only then that we will be enabled to eagerly look forward to Jesus’ coming again, to the new heaven and the new earth were there will be no sin and we will have perfect love for God and every neighbor.
John preached a repentance baptism. He helped people see their sinfulness, their inability to save themselves, their need for a Messiah who would pay for their sins. But he didn’t leave people wondering about their forgiveness. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The purpose of his baptism was to assure people that their sins, the ones they had confessed, and even the ones they didn’t remember, were forgiven. As water is used to wash dirt away, so God had washed their sins away. In the joy of their forgiveness they should now be watching for one so much greater than he was. He would be the reason for their forgiveness. He would be the one who would enable the Father to forgive them because he would take on himself the punishment they deserved. He would be the one to usher in the last days and empower his believers to preach the good news of salvation by baptizing them with the Holy Spirit.
As you prepare for Christmas, listen to John. Take time to make your path straight. Take the time to examine yourself. Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner who needs to be saved, or do you see yourself as not all that bad, at least better than most? If so, Christmas won’t mean all that much to you. You won’t experience the true joy of hearing that a Savior has been born for you.
Listen to John. Acknowledge that you have gotten caught up in the busyness of outward things. If you don’t, you will just end up exhausted instead of being invigorated by the works and word of God.
Listen to John. Remember your baptism. Remember God’s promise that in baptism, no matter when it happened, he washed away your sins and claimed you as his dear child, an heir with Jesus of eternal life. Then, when you hear the angels say, today, in the town of David, a savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord, your heart will swell with joy. You will thank and praise God for his greatest gift, the one gift you needed to be able to have eternal life. Then you will be prepared, prepared to truly celebrate Christmas, prepared to have Jesus live in your heart, and prepared for his coming again in glory, whenever that may be.