Summary: How should we prepare for the birthday of King Jesus? John the Baptist calls us to repentance, to preparing the way for him into our lives and making straight a highway into our hearts.
[Sermon preached on 17 December 2017, 3rd Sunday in Advent / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Every year again I am surprised how much time and energy goes into preparing for Christmas. So many things to do… and in the end so few things that really matter.
The famous American author John Grisham wrote a delightful little novel about Christmas. It is called: “Skipping Christmas”. It is about a middle-aged middle-class American couple. The kids have left the house. For the first time, only Mom and Dad are left to celebrate Christmas. And Dad is so fed up about all the fuzz surrounding Christmas—the decorations, the gifts, the food, the caroling—that he decides to skip Christmas altogether. He books a trip to an exotic and tropical place for him and his wife. He refuses to decorate the house with thousands of Christmas lights and mega-sized reindeers on the roof. Nothing.
Some years ago, I got pretty fed up of preparing for Christmas. A couple of times, we actually travelled abroad just to escape Christmas. But you cannot really escape it altogether. Even in corners of the world where there are hardly any Christians—take Japan, for example—Christmas is everywhere.
And there is the problem. Christmas is not about Jesus anymore. It is about us. And it is about Christmas. Even here in Finland, with a 70% Christian population—at least nominally—Christmas is not so much about Jesus anymore. Listen to the Christmas songs that fill the shopping malls and supermarkets, or that play on the radio from early morning till late evening. They are about Christmas—the spirit of Christmas, the light of Christmas, the warmth of Christmas, the peace of Christmas, the love of Christmas. They want to make us believe that Christmas itself—that three-day celebration in December—somehow makes a difference.
I doubt it! I believe that there are many people, even in Finland, who would love to skip Christmas. Housewives who don’t want to spend many long days cleaning the house, shopping for food, and making those traditional Christmas dishes. Parents who feel guilty because they cannot afford to buy the Christmas gifts that the kids are asking for. Families that use their credit cards to the limit and beyond, and who buy now and pay next year, only to find themselves deeply in debt when the bills start coming in in January.
How then should we celebrate Christmas? How to prepare for this special celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem?
Our theme for today is “Prepare the way for the King.” Our Gospel reading is not about what happened before the birth of Jesus. Today, we look thirty years further, to the time when a man named John, a cousin of Jesus, started preaching and baptizing people in the Jordan river.
John’s preaching was about repentance. He went around preaching: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!” The people of Israel were living through what is often called the dark ages of Israel. For four hundred years, no prophet had appeared to speak God’s words to his people. The social, economic and political life of Israel had derailed. There was corruption, discrimination, exploitation and abuse of power. For many Jews, religion was not relevant anymore. And like Christmas today, the religious festivals had lost their original significance for many people.
Israel was still waiting for a savior, the son of David. But their expectations were predominantly political. And after so many centuries of waiting, people began to feel restless. So when John appeared with his message of the kingdom of God being just around the corner, many people got excited. They wanted to be counted in with the winners when the Messiah arrived to liberate the nation. If that required repentance, that was a small price to pay. Perhaps they realized that the Messiah would not come before the people were back into a right relationship with God.
John invited the people to make a public commitment of repentance. The baptism that John practiced was a baptism of repentance. It was a symbolic washing away of sins, and a cleansing of the heart. And many people wanted to make that commitment. They came from all over the country to be baptized by John. Sometimes, they would have to stand in line all day.
It was a pretty spontaneous movement. But as you can guess, there are always people who feel the need to put what is happening into a larger perspective. In this case, Jewish leaders from Jerusalem were eager to find out who John really was. What were his credentials? Where did he come from? Where did he get his message from? How could he tell that the kingdom of God was really getting near?
It is interesting to see how John answers them. The question was “Who are you?” But he starts telling them who he is not. He probably knew that people had made up lots of explanations for themselves concerning the identity of John. Their first guess—and certainly their most intense hope—was that he was the Messiah. Some thought of the promise that God had made to Moses to raise up another Prophet like him. That is what we just read in the text from Deuteronomy 18: