Given the opportunity, most of us would say that John the Baptist has about as much to do with Christmas as does Santa Claus. Or, maybe we’d give good old Santa a slight edge over John. They might both wear really strange clothes, but at least Santa’s are red. If Santa had a touch of green somewhere on his person, he’d have Christmas all over him.
But John, on the other hand, doesn’t seem much like Christmas at all. John’s more like those shouting, screaming radio preachers that we sometimes tune out, figuratively and literally. So, have you ever wondered what it is that John the Baptist has to do with Christmas? Do you ever wonder, why, at Christmastime, we have to encounter this loud, obnoxious, abrasive, offensive preacher? He doesn’t seem to fit well with all of the parties, and the decorations and the music and the shopping. I’m willing to bet that he doesn’t even care one whit for one of my favorite Christmas carols. I’m guessing that “Silent Night” doesn’t do a thing for him. For me though, “Silent Night” drives away every false distraction that noisily inserts itself at this time of year. “Silent Night” focuses my heart: “Christ the Savior is born” brings tears to my eyes. That’s Christmas. But curiously, Wayne does not appear in the Scriptures, so there cannot be a sermon about him. And a very good thing, too.
John the Baptist, though, is indeed a person who belongs in the Christmas story. John and Jesus are relatives. Perhaps cousins of some sort. Their birth narratives parallel each other. They both received names given to them by God, via angelic visitation. And, in Luke’s gospel, when Mary, the mother of Jesus, could no longer bear the shame and embarrassment of what appeared to be an accidental pregnancy, she fled in haste to Elizabeth’s house, and stayed there until Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist.
John is not somebody that we want attending our Christmas celebrations, though, even if he does have a connection. But that’s OK. He probably wouldn’t come, even if he was invited. He just might though, stand outside on the sidewalk, accosting the guests as they arrive. He might even be yelling at the top of his lungs. If we didn’t know better already, we might suspect that he is mentally ill. We might want him removed. He really is not someone that we want hanging around at Christmastime. I imagine that John had hair out to here, like Hagrid from Harry Potter. He definitely was not accustomed to fine dining, and because he hung out in the desert, and wore clothing made out of dead camels, he probably smelled a little funky. Had he been standing outside on the sidewalk this morning, as we arrived for the service, we would have scooted by him as quickly as possible. We would have tried not to look at him. He is not what we think of when “religious leader” comes to mind.
John the Baptist shows up at Christmastime, though, because we do need to look at him. We need to realize that he’s looking at us, and he’s looking at us with some very knowing eyes. And we need to listen to him and hear him out even if we do not particularly care for his message. John does not herald the coming of a cute, tiny silent baby snoozing peacefully, surrounded by adoring and awe stricken shepherds. John heralds the coming of a judge. Christmas is more than the celebration of the birth of a tiny baby. Christmas is really the coming of the kingdom of heaven into the realm of this earth. It is the arrival of the presence of God in this world at a profoundly awesome level that has so far in all of the Scriptures only been hoped for and hinted at.
And when God is present on earth, cuteness and adorability step aside, and we meet a Jesus who can lovingly cradle children in his arms in one moment, and pronounce judgment on entire cities in the next. And it is this Jesus that John shoves in our faces this morning, with word pictures of purposeful separation, division and final judgment.
Many of those who came out into the wilderness to hear John preach responded by confessing their sins and committing themselves to acts of repentance. The threat of judgment frightened them into living righteously, and their baptism was a visible sign of the miracle that had taken place in their hearts.
But there was another group that showed up to hear John preach. And when they arrived, they received an extra, heavy duty measure of John’s acid-tongued rebukes. I’ve often wondered why these pious, holy men; these bearers and keepers and teachers of the Hebrew faith, felt the compulsion to come out into the wilderness to hear John preach. In at least one other gospel, we are told that their motives were suspect; that they were there to investigate John. They were there to figure out why this seeming lunatic had attracted so much attention, and why he had become so popular with so many ordinary people. But Matthew says that the Pharisees and the Sadducees came out to the wilderness to be baptized. That should blow us away. The religious leaders came to be baptized! Don’t we despise these guys? Don’t we ridicule their knowledgeable ignorance? Don’t we belittle them for their inability to see God clearly through the haze of religion that they’ve created in their own image? Didn’t we just recently send one Pharisee home from his prayer time full of himself, but empty in soul? But Matthew wants us to know that even the religious leaders came out to be baptized. Matthew gives them no ulterior motives at all.
Just the same though, John reserves his strongest rebukes for those who do the work of religion. And the rebuke is not pleasant by any means. John calls them a “brood of vipers”, a family of snakes. And then he immediately demands of them an accounting of their motivations. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” What are you doing out here in the wilderness? Why have you come out here? Speak to me. Tell me your purpose.
It is not a good thing at all that John accuses the religious leaders of being the children of snakes. It is quite an insult. It is very likely that John is making a reference to the serpent that trespassed into the Garden of Eden, long, long ago. It is not nice to call someone a child of the devil. But, there may be something very exciting going on here, something very inviting and wonderful, even for the religious leaders, who have come, surprisingly, to be baptized.
In calling the religious leaders the children of the devil, John has already anticipated that they will respond by declaring that they are, in fact not children of the devil, but rather children of Abraham. John knows and anticipates this because he also is a child of Abraham. Even a rock can become a child of Abraham, if God so wills it.
And so John wants to push them to a greater and more wonderful reality. I’m convinced that John’s powerful rebuke was calculated not to drive the Pharisees and Sadducees away, but rather to draw them into the kingdom of heaven. John’s whole purpose, as he understands it, is to prepare the way for the ministry of Messiah. When Jesus arrives on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he will invite his hearers to become not the children of Abraham, but rather to become the very children of God. The path from child of the devil to child of God is one that we all must take. And we must do that by confession of our sins, repentance and baptism.
Working through this passage, it occurs to me that our sins very often parallel the sins of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders had a righteousness that lacked repentance. They were right all the time. They had no need of repentance. Repentance is more than being sorry for who we are. Repentance is, ultimately, doing the work of the kingdom of God. John doesn’t know it yet, but Jesus will later on tell John that the work of the kingdom of God is not so much fearing judgment, but rather it is that the blind receive their sight, the lepers become clean, the deaf hear, the dead receive life, and the poor have good news brought to them. John simply says “Bear fruit [that is] worthy of repentance.”
The sin of righteousness without repentance is a difficult one to define. Primarily, it is the sin of finding satisfaction and contentment in the lesser connections. The religious leaders were satisfied with being the children of Abraham. It was for them a point of pride. With their laws, rules and regulations, they lived in a comfortable world that they could control.
But John challenges them and us to look beyond those lesser connections. To move beyond the comfort and satisfaction of being a child of Abraham or a child of anyone or anything else. He invites us to engage in the adventure of becoming a child of God.
This Christmas, let’s look beyond the glitter of our lives. Let’s strip away those lesser connections that we have with God and confess them as sin. Let us bear fruit that is worthy of repentance. If John showed up in church this morning, he would not hesitate, nor refrain from rebuking us loudly. That is his nature. It is his calling; it is who he is. He would point out our sins, and like the sins of the Pharisees and Sadducees, some of our sins would be closely related to the way in which we practice our religion.
It is no accident that the sins of religious people are named and rebuked in the Scriptures far more frequently than the sins of those who claim no faith at all. This Christmas, let us examine ourselves and let us strip away every veneer of righteousness and everything else that keeps us from fully entering into relationship with the son of God, who has the power to recreate us and to make us the children of God.