Summary: An advent message thinking about what John the baptist has to do with this season.
The season of Christmas is upon us, but I wonder at what point did this realisation hit you? When you saw the decorations going up in shopping centres - something which always seems to happen way too early (i.e. October)? When you received your first card?
In the Church Advent signals not just the arrival of advent candles but the arrival of John the Baptist too. John is a totally distinctive Christmas figure who the lectionary forces us to confront each December, but he is a figure that clashes with everything else about Christmas. Today we think about John the Baptist
If we had to describe John I am sure we would want to say words like: aggressive, desert, preaching, repentance, animal-hair clothing, weird food. I don’t think Christmas cheer would be there would it!
John sticks out like a sore thumb; his manic deranged harsh shouting in the desert clashes with the peace and joy of the Christmas story. The familiar Christmas figures - Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds etc, the fat, jolly rolly poly Santa full of gifts for those who have too much already – these are what Christmas is about..
John’s appearance is distinctive. He never cut his hair so it would have been a tangled bird’s nest of knots and grease, falling down in tangled locks over the camel skins that he wore to keep him warm in the desert. John’s smell would have been distinctive too. No expensive aftershaves or body spray for this man. We have to note too that anyone eating solid diet of locusts and wild honey could be expected to have a very distinctive odour!
Not exactly Christmas cheer is it?
So why on earth has the Church in its wisdom told us to think about this uncompromising character in the heart of our preparation for the Christmas celebrations? Surely the lectionary people have made a mistake; perhaps he should have been put in Lent.
But even worse than his looks and his smell is his message. He was a distinctively blunt, aggressive, straightforward preacher was John. ’Repent’ he shouted ’prepare for the coming of the messiah’.
It’s hard to know where to put him on the Christmas tree, isn’t it? It was hard in his day too. There were plenty of priests and clergy, but they all lived in the city, not out in the desert. They looked like proper decent people, all dressed properly and eating decent meals. I bet they probably gave nice sermons too.
So why did so many in Jerusalem travel into the desert (the hot, insecure, dangerous desert) to hear from a man who most of us would normally go out of our way to avoid? There must have been a serious ’ring of truth’ about his words, and of course there was for John was ludicrously honest.
Yet it is very hard to be honest, particularly at this time of year. We don’t want John coming in all aggressive, Christmas is all about the children after all. This is the time of peace on earth and goodwill amongst all men isn’t it? Don’t you think we should forget all about the horrors of Iraq and immigration and homelessness? Christmas is when we gloss it all over with words of good cheer and lot and lots of food and drink.
If that is true for us corporately then it is surely true for us individually, for facing the truth about ourselves is hard work. We want to believe the best about ourselves, especially in our modern society where self sufficiency and individual rights are exalted. No we don’t need the bitterness of John pouring water on all our human achievements, especially at Christmas time.
What’s more we don’t really need God to come to Bethlehem to save us either. After all, we’re all decent people. What we want at Christmas time is a nice decent baby in a nice decent manger born to a good honest Christian couple, definitely after they have been married for at least a year. That sounds good because it will be nice to hear and remind us how nice we are too.
To us as to them the Baptist arrives at the start of Advent and shout ’wake up to yourselves’.
To a greater to a lesser degree, we are all capable of hiding our sins and our failures from ourselves. So many live lives seeking this nice Church and Christmas thing but not prepared to hear God’s remedy for our souls, embodied so powerfully John’s cry to ’Come, repent and take a wash in the Jordan and begin your life anew’.
We don’t mind a little bit of religion at Christmas time, it’s nice isn’t it, but we are not ready for any dramatic changes. Yet that is exactly what John is all about. He tells us that the King is coming, and the only way to prepare is by opening your hearts to Him.