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 ole’ 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 written all over him.
But John, on the other hand, doesn’t seem much like Christmas at all. John is more like those shouting, raving, T.V. and 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 Christmas time, we must encounter this loud, obnoxious, abrasive, offensive preacher? He doesn’t seem to fit well; especially when we want to be all warm and comfortable. And he can certainly play the role of the prophet of doom and gloom when we are all looking for something just a little bit cheerier at this time of year. Even Santa has a nice, fake laugh.
I’m guessing that John the Baptist would have very little use for one of my favorite Christmas carols. I love “Silent Night.” But I’ll bet that “Silent Night” doesn’t do a thing for him. “Silent Night” is especially important to those of us who are troubled by the absolute barrage of ungodly noise that goes blasting about in this world. That noise assaults our spirits on a daily basis, and it reminds us of how dangerous and frightening that this world has become. And that noise is almost impossible to escape, because it also bangs around in our brains. And in the midst of all of this wild noise, the words of “Silent Night” speak holiness to me. They settle my damaged spirit and they call me to the truth. “Christ the Savior is born” is true Christmas to me.
John the Baptist, though, is indeed a fellow 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, by way of an 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 unintended pregnancy, she fled in haste to the hill country, to Elizabeth’s house, and stayed there until Elizabeth gave birth to John, who would eventually become the Baptizer. John is not really someone we want attending our church services. But we don’t have to worry about that because he probably wouldn’t come anyway. His pulpit is not in the majestically adorned temple nor in the beautifully ornamented sanctuary. His pulpit was in the far flung reaches of civilization.
I imagine that John had long, gnarly fly-away hair. I know that he was not accustomed to fine dining, and, because he hung out in the desert, and wore clothes made out of dead camels, he probably smelled a little funky. John the Baptist is certainly not our kind of person.
John the Baptist, though, shows up at Christmas time because it is important for us to look at him, and, we need to realize that he is also 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 at his mother’s breast, 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 hinted at and hoped for.
And when God is present on the earth, cuteness and adorableness 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 to the wilderness to hear John preach responded by confessing their sins, and by 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 dose 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 another 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 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 love to 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 for themselves in their own image? 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 rebuke 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 a family 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 member of the devil’s family.
But, there may be something very exciting going on here, something very inviting and something very wonderful, even for the religious leaders, who have come, surprisingly, to be baptized.
In calling the religious leaders family members of the devil, John has already anticipated that the religious leaders will strongly object to being called the family members of the devil, and that they will insist that they are, in fact, not family members of the devil, but rather the 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 to draw them nearer to the kingdom of heaven. John’s whole purpose, as he understands it, is to prepare the way of and for the ministry of Messiah. After Jesus is baptized, and when he 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 brood vipers 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 has occurred 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 later on, Jesus will 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 our spiritual lives as they now are at this moment. 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 our present comfort level, and to move beyond the satisfaction of being a child of Abraham, when we can begin the process of becoming a child of God. Becoming a true child of God is nothing less than a wild adventure that will lead to a true hope of glory.
As we begin our last calendar year together, let us look beyond the glitter of our lives. Let us strip away all of the pretenses of self-righteousness and confess them as sin. Let us bear fruit that is not only worthy of repentance, but also fruit that mirrors the mission of Jesus. If John showed up in church this morning, he would not hesitate, nor refrain from rebuking us loudly. It is simply his nature. He can see our sins, and he would point them out. Sadly, like the sins of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, some of those sins would be closely related to the ways 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. So, let us examine ourselves, and let us strip away every veneer of self-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 true children of God.