SCRIPTURES – Ps. 105; Isaiah 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13; Matt. 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist came preaching, "I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." Matt. 3
It’s almost humorous that every year at this time there are battles over Christmas: over the display of crèches; the display and labeling of Christmas trees; and even over whether one should say “Merry Christmas!” or “Happy Holidays!” Our society, and retailers especially, should be very thankful for the birth of Jesus. After all, Christmas is an annual blessing to our economy. Besides the money spent on gifts, how many millions – perhaps even billions – are spent on holiday parties; on travel (by plane, train, bus, and car); on trees and decorations; on greeting cards and stamps; and on many other things. There’s no question that our society has embraced Christmas. Jesus’ birth is used quite effectively!
Who attempts to use John the Baptist? Clothing designers and tailors have ignored him. Who wants to wear a hair shirt? There have probably been a few oddballs over the years who have promoted his diet in an attempt to encourage good health, but I’ve never heard of a successful bugs and honey diet. You won’t find it in Jenny Craig’s meal packages. No, John is a guy we pretty much keep at arms’ length. He’s not a Hallmark guy, and Advent is not a Hallmark season. John is a preacher who can’t – and won’t – be used.
And yet, we need him. Without John the Baptist we wouldn’t have Christmas; at least, not as we should have it. Without John we wouldn’t know why Christ’s birth is important. John the Baptist is God’s pre-Christmas gift to us. Yes, to us; for, even though he lived long ago, his preaching has been written down so that he might speak to us today. But, like many of God’s gifts, you have to dig down a bit to find the blessing.
I said that John is not a Hallmark guy. The focus of the Christmas movies that play continuously on the Hallmark channel this time of year is upon being filled with the “Christmas Spirit” and becoming a nicer, more giving and more loving person. Their sweet and sappy messages are meant to tug on the heart strings. Can you picture John auditioning for a role in a Hallmark movie? “You brood of vipers!” he roars after striding onto the stage in his camel hair garment. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Ok, Mr. Baptist, thank you. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Next!
John doesn’t use nice, gentle words of encouragement to urge you to be a nicer person. That doesn’t begin to be good enough for God! He doesn’t commend you for being a Christian and going to church. So what! That is but the beginning of what you should do. “God could take the rocks that are abundant in your New England soil and get in the way in your gardens and make of them Christians who sit in pews,” he declares. “You must be more, be better!”
In fact, to be pleasing to God and accepted by Him you must be completely and utterly different. Efforts at self-improvement and boasts of your accomplishments won’t do it.
- You can dress up rocks all you want. You can clean them and cut them and shape them and make pretty things out of them. They still remain lifeless rocks that sit there and do nothing.
You are sinful by nature. Your very nature is corrupted; your thoughts and desires reveal this. You must deny yourself, then, deny all your own efforts at holiness and spiritual self-improvement and become a new person! This is John’s message, the message we need to hear and take to heart in order to be ready for Christmas. John urged the people to confess their sins – not their inadequacies or their weak attempts at doing better or their lack of sufficient cheerfulness, but their sins. By your sins you put yourself and your desires before God. You deny Him, and call down His judgment. “The axe is laid at the root of the trees!” Repent, and be baptized!
Denying yourself is one thing. But, who can make himself into a new person? If our efforts at self-improvement can’t do it, then what hope do we have? “Look to the One who comes after me!” John says. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This is the Christmas message we need to hear and take to heart.
A Christmas message? Yes. John the Baptist is a preacher of Christmas, of the coming Christ. Listen to him!
“God can raise up children out of stones!” he says. From where there is no life God can bring forth life; and He has done so. From the womb of a Virgin, by a humanly impossible conception, God gave His Son to us. Jesus is one who shares our humanity and is one of us, and yet is unlike us. By virtue of His virginal conception His nature is pure and without sin. “He who is coming after me is mightier than I,” says John in recognition of this. He is mightier – holy and pure, one with God in His nature and essence – and yet He comes to us who in our very natures are sinful and unclean. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” There is our hope, our newness, our life: baptism by Christ and into Christ. John brought it to those who came to him, and it is brought to us to this very day. Baptism is the gift and work of the Holy Spirit in your life. By it you are joined to Christ and receive His holiness. He does what is impossible for you: He makes you a new person, a child of God.
This message of John sounds so rough and foreign to today’s ears. So, God is a judge who is so severe and demanding that nothing we do can ever be good enough for Him? We must deny ourselves and be drowned in baptismal repentance? Yes; but, this is looking at things all wrong. The problem is not that God is overly severe and impossible to please. Rather, the problem is that we are drowning in our sin. Telling you to improve your behaviors and attitudes would be like a lifeguard going to a drowning man who is flailing and sinking under the water and saying, “Hey, you’re doing it all wrong. Relax! Scissors kick your legs. Extend your arms and push down in the water. With a little practice you’ll be fine!”
The Son of God is no life coach. He is a Savior who comes to rescue us who are helpless and drowning in our sins. He thrusts His hands under the water, grabs us by the hair, and pulls us up to Him. This is John’s message. This is the Savior He proclaims
Hang onto this message and this Savior, and Him alone. Hang on with your whole being and thank and praise Him. This is our Advent work, by which we are readied for His coming: at Christmas, and on the Last Day.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.