We are well aware that the world’s “Christmas season” begins before Thanksgiving. Christmas decorations are up in cities and stores, and Christmas advertising appears everywhere. Yet all of this is simply a warm up, for on “Black Friday” the season really explodes onto the scene. From that day until Dec. 25 our culture is in full Christmas mode. The time is a blur of Christmas decorating, baking and gift buying; Christmas programs, movies and parties. During the first few weeks of December is doesn’t begin to look like Christmas everywhere you go – it is Christmas.
And yet in the Church during two of the four weeks in December we get John the Baptist. The Scripture reading for Dec. 14, the Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete) and Dec. 21, the Fourth Sunday in Advent (Rorate Coeli) (so also Dec. 7 the Second and Dec. 14 the Third Sundays in Advent in the Three-Year Lectionary) focus upon John the Baptist. We learn that John is the fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Isaiah:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken”
(Isaiah 40:3-5 ESV).
We get John the Baptist, and when you look a little more closely you find that he isn’t exactly the kind of person you invite to your Christmas party. Like a survivalist on some reality television show, he lives in the Judean wilderness. His dress and diet is … unique. Matthew tells us, “Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4 ESV). And don’t look for John to make small talk. Instead he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:1-2 ESV). He calls people to receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). He brings a message of fire and brimstone as he declares:
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 fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:11-12 ESV).
Everyone is trying to get into the “Christmas spirit,” and John is talking about sin and judgment. He is calling people to repentance and confronting sin. Talk about a Scrooge – Bah! Humbug!
The Scripture readings that focus upon John the Baptist are, of course, from the season of Advent. As such they are meant to help us prepare for Christmas and not celebrate Christmas itself. And there is preparation to do. If we are to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ we must take stock of why he was sent in the first place. We must confront the sin present in our own lives. We must confess this sin, and as John the Baptist describes, we must repent. We need to admit the problem that sin is for our life and world in order understand why the Son of God was sent by the Father. John the Baptist prepares the way for the One who will be placed in a manger and nailed to a cross in order to redeem us from sin and the devil. He prepares the way for the One who will rise from the dead in order to defeat death for us and begin the resurrection of the Last Day. John prepares us because on Christmas Eve the glory of the Lord will be revealed as he brings forgiveness and salvation to repentant sinners.