a sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
A week or so ago, I lamented to myself a bit that it seemed like the usual flow of Christmas cards just hadn’t started yet this year. Even with a shorter-than-usual time between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, people—me included!—hadn’t done a particularly great job of getting out their Christmas cards yet. But this week they started coming in, filled with fun pictures of recent events and the quick updates on life and living that come with the now-ubiquitous Christmas letter.
In this era of Facebook and Twitter, with near-immediate reports and photographs from our friends, the Christmas letter sometimes seems like a dying tradition, but there’s still something wonderful in hearing a more complete perspective from those friends who haven’t been in as close touch in recent months for one reason or another, even when it is all written in the strangest third-person perspective ever! One Christmas letter this year, though, stood out to me as I journeyed through this week. One friend, in writing about his three-and-a-half-year-old son, reported a bit of confusion that seems familiar amidst our gospel reading for this week:
Don’t correct him when he brings home a picture of John the Baptist, because he sees God in that picture!
My friend’s son was not the first to get John all mixed up. Most scholars think that there was a sizable group of people in or around the early church who remembered and celebrated John the Baptist and his teaching more than we do today, so the gospel writers and others seemingly felt that it was important to include him in the story somehow. There are by my informal count more clear and direct references to him in the gospels than to Jesus’ own mother!
Yet John is a pretty unexpected guest for this season of Advent. His rugged appearance and harsh message aren’t exactly the best fit for this season when we expect to be talking about peace, joy, and hope. Yet here we are, eleven days before Christmas, faced with a gospel reading about a man who insisted that he was not who people thought he ought to be. In our reading from the gospel according to John today, John the Baptist—no relation to the gospel writer John—puts the major focus on describing who he is not.
John the Baptist clearly was regularly being mistaken for the Messiah, and in everything attributed to him in our tradition he refutes this. Even though he could clearly express who he was not, finding the words to say who he was was a little more difficult for him. When the religious leaders of Jerusalem sent messengers to try to get some answers about John, they engaged him in conversation about who he was. He acknowledged who he was, but that was not enough for them, so he told them directly, “I am not the Messiah.” They thought he might be Elijah, but again he told them that they were mistaken. Finally, when they asked him again who he was, John, like Jesus after him, answered with something of a roundabout answer, quoting scripture to say,
I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
John the Baptist, then, was the one who called on the people to get ready for the days ahead, to prepare their hearts and minds to receive this one who was coming, to clear the old, tired pathway to make a way for something new. His message of repentance, so prominent in the other gospels, is missing here, so the gospel of John’s message about John the Baptist is perhaps less clear than some of the others. We are told that John baptized the people with water, which raised plenty of questions along the way, but that’s about it.
Yet the author of the gospel summarizes John the Baptist’s work by calling him “a witness to testify to the light” in Jesus Christ, though not the light himself. Throughout it all, John pointed beyond himself to someone greater, to one who was already emerging among them, to one who was far greater than John could ever be, for John was “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” Yet as my friend’s son so well recognized, there was something beyond special—maybe even strangely divine—about our unexpected Advent guest.
In our day and age, in a season when we are so easily consumed by all the consumption around us, John’s message of preparation easily falls on deaf ears. We are too busy to stop and slow down to prepare the way of the Lord. We are so interested in fixing our own problems and saving ourselves that we neglect to pay attention when others show us a better way. And we are even a bit afraid of anything that emerges from the wilderness, of anything that is different and new, even if it is a voice crying out for justice and righteousness that will transform us and our world.
John is just not the guy we want to shape our preparations for Christmas. He’s a bit like that relative who always shows up for Christmas, even when you don’t want him to. He never quite fits in with anyone and he talks so strangely that he often doesn’t make sense, but you can’t tell him not to come because he’s ultimately part of the family just as much as anyone else. So what do we do with John the Baptist in these days of preparation? How do we deal with this unwanted intruder—I mean unexpected guest!—into the joy of our Advent season?
Rather than throw him out or ignore him, I think we are called to embrace John and his strange ways as we prepare to welcome Jesus in our midst. First, John gives us an important message of preparation. The coming of Jesus at Christmas is something that needs real preparation. Just as we can’t host an incredible Christmas feast without lots of preparation around the house, our hearts and minds need some preparation, too. The cobwebs of our past understandings of salvation and justice need to be cleaned up so that we can welcome our God who comes to us in unexpected ways. The dirt and dust of underused spirituality that pile up in our lives need to be swept away. And the longstanding practices and systems of our lives and our world that perpetuate injustice need to be the focus of our repentance.
Beyond this, John reminds us that this season is not about us or our practices. Ultimately the coming of Jesus at Christmas is not about the words of the greetings that we share in this season, the songs that we sing about Christmas, or what we call the symbols that we have developed ourselves for this season. Just as John insisted that none of this was about him, so we are called to make this season not about us or our favorite practices or the people we want but rather about the birth of a baby to an unwed mother in the midst of a troubled empire who ended up being tortured and killed because he insisted that all lives matter. In his actions of pointing the way to Jesus, John insists that we need to stop pointing to ourselves, our churches or institutions, or our traditions or past understandings. Instead, John tells us that we must always point to Jesus, the one who comes to make all things new.
And John finally reminds us to always be reflecting and testifying to the light that has come and is coming. All that we say and do in our lives should point to the light of Christ. Like John, we are not worthy of even reflecting this light or pointing to this gift, but we are nonetheless given this privilege by the power of this one who comes to transform us and our world.
So whatever we do with our unexpected guest John the Baptist, whether we get him a bit mixed up or try to send him away, whether we claim his message of proclamation for ourselves or seek to put him off for another day, may God help us to heed his call to prepare this new way of the Lord, to get ourselves out of the way of it, and to always bear witness to this new light, so that as we watch and wait for the coming of Christ this Advent and in the days to come, we might join in all that God is doing to make all things new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.