So, who invited this John the Baptist guy to our Christmas celebrations anyway? Why does he have to be part of our holiday preparations?
Here we are, having a grand old time with our decorating, shopping, baking, and singing “Deck the Halls/Silver Bells/Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” . . . and along comes a guy—an ascetic (a person who denies himself the pleasures of fine food, a comfortable home, fancy dress and parties), a man whose idea of holiday goodies is locusts and wild honey—telling us to break off from all our jolly activities to instead concentrate on repentance.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” Be contrite. Be sorry. Silent; reflective. On your knees. Long faces. Sackcloth and ashes. What happened to “bring us a figgy pudding”? Who invited this guy to our Christmas party?
Well, according to Jesus . . . God invited him. According to Jesus, in Matthew 11, John the Baptist is a prophet, sent by God, for a very special, specific moment: the time when Jesus of Nazareth is about to come into people’s lives.
Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11: 7-11a).
Apparently, it’s God who believes, by sending John, that at least a part of a person’s getting ready for Jesus to come is to take a hard look at one’s life. And to see what about that life is good . . . and what is not so good. And to confess, say out loud, those things that aren’t so good. And to say we’re sorry. And that we’ll try not to do them again.
All that, the Bible says, is part of getting ready for Jesus to come into the world.
That was true of the days described in Matthew 3, when Jesus first came into the world; and it’s true when we observe again his coming into the world every December 25th – when we look ahead anew to his coming, every Christmas: part of getting ready for Jesus, part of our preparation, part of the Advent season is to get our house in order; clean up our act; sort out the good from the bad in our lives, and throw out the bad. Part of getting ready for Jesus to come is reflection, and repentance. That’s what John the Baptist tells us, each Advent.
The Jewish worship calendar may have it right when it schedules Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day of reflection and repentance, so close to the New Year’s Day of the Jewish calendar: A new year, a new time, a new development – like the coming of the Messiah – calls for a fresh start, a new leaf, a jettisoning of the not-so-good.
So, like it or not, John the Baptist, complete with his images of vipers, and chopping down fruitless trees, and burnings with unquenchable fire . . . is part of the Christmas season, part of the Advent preparation, for Christians. May we each make some time, in this season, maybe starting right now, during communion, to do as this prophet of God says: Reflect on our lives. Sort out. Repent. Get things ready . . . for Jesus.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for our annual reminder, from John the Baptist, to make self-reflection and repentance part of our Christmas preparations. Help us to do that in the coming weeks, and do it honestly and openly, with you. Amen.