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Seven Scenes from the Advent-Christmas Story: John Preaching
Mark 1:1-8


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
First Sunday in Advent—November 27, 2011

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The theme for our services during Advent this year is, “Seven Scenes from the Advent-Christmas Story,” including, “Shepherds Watching,” “Angels Singing,” “Mary Praising,” “Joseph Dreaming,” “Herod Fearing,” and “Wise Men Worshipping.”  We begin this morning with today’s Gospel Reading, and the story of “John Preaching.”

Since ancient times the Church has featured during the Advent season a Gospel Reading about the ministry of John the Baptist.  But, though it is an old tradition, it seems somewhat out of place as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. 

First of all, the timing is all wrong.  The Gospels tell us that John the Baptist and Jesus were cousins, and John was only six months older than Jesus.  So, why, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the infant Babe of Bethlehem, do we skip ahead 30 years to the ministry of the adult John the Baptist?

Also, the mood of John’s ministry seems all out of place for this most wonderful time of the year.  As the Gospel of Luke reports: “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. . . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. . .  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 

Not exactly merry and bright!  So, then why did the ancient Church give us the custom of focusing on the ministry of John the Baptist during these days leading up to the Christmas celebration?  Because, they understood there are two sides to Christmas.

There is the aspect of Christmas that in our culture today we emphasize almost exclusively, as reflected in some of our favorite carols: “Joy to the World,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” “Tis’ the season to be jolly!”  This jolly side of Christmas is aptly represented by our modern-day Santa Claus, as the poem says, “Chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf . . . His eyes, how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!  . . . a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.”

What a complete, total opposite to the rough and rugged John the Baptist: “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached . . . a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  But, even though he seems to us a bit out of place, John is included in the season leading up to the Christmas celebration for a very important reason.  Just as Santa Claus now represents for us the joyful, jolly side of Christmas, John the Baptist represents the other side of Christmas, “The Serious Side of Christmas.”

“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, ‘Behold, I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.’”  The last prophet in Israel until John the Baptist was Malachi, but Malachi lived over 300 years before John.  Before I accepted the call to be Pastor here, Holy Cross had been vacant for more than three years, which seemed like a long vacancy.  But, Israel’s pulpit was vacant for more than three centuries.  Into this spiritual vacuum came false prophets and phony religious leaders, who led the people astray from the faith of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament revolves around the great promise that one day God will send into the world the Messiah, the Savior of the world.  But, Israel’s false prophets and phony religious leaders pushed aside this promise, and injected their own false teaching instead.  They said we don’t need a Savior because we can save ourselves by following their man-made rules and regulations.  Jesus put it this way: “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”

That was the spiritual vacuum during the centuries that Israel’s prophetic pulpit was vacant.  But, the Scriptures foretold that God himself would come down and live among his people, and the Lord would prepare the way for his visit by sending one final prophet to proclaim his coming.  “Behold, I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

This past summer when the national President of our denomination visited our congregation, the organist at Concordia Lutheran Church, where the service was held, thought it was funny how nervous I was to make sure everything was just right.  That’s the natural reaction we have when someone important and powerful is coming to visit.

In ancient times a visit by the emperor or king would be planned out years in advance, so that all the roads along his planned route could be elaborately rebuilt.  Still today winding through the countryside west of Jerusalem are the remains of a Roman road, which since ancient times has been called “The Emperor’s Road.”  Because, this massive construction project was undertaken specifically for a visit by Emperor Hadrian in 130 A.D., so that he would have a proper, fitting road to travel on as he went up to Jerusalem.  Today’s Old Testament and Gospel Readings both allude to this common practice of preparing the way for the king’s visit, an image so familiar to the people of the ancient world.

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Someone much greater than a Synodical President or even a king or emperor was coming to visit.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  But, everything was rough and crooked.  Rough and crooked with sinful living, but especially rough and crooked with false teaching.  John has been sent ahead to straighten things out.

“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John preached a two-part message, beginning with the Law, the bad news of our sin, and a call to repentance.  As we embark upon the Advent and Christmas season, that is where we need to begin too.

Repentance may seem strangely out of place in this most wonderful time of the year.  For a few weeks we just want to put aside doom and gloom.  But, here comes John the Baptist during Advent every year, like the Church’s version of the Grinch who stole Christmas, crying out, “Repent!”  How out of sync with the world’s view of what Christmas is all about!  Yet, ironically, if Christmas is to have its full tidings of comfort and joy for us, we must begin with John’s message of repentance.

Paul says in 1st Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  That’s what Christ’s birth—that’s what Christmas—is all about, “to save sinners.”  The carols put it beautifully: “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be born, for me, for you. . .  Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray . . . He opened the heavenly door, and we are blest forevermore.  Christ was born to save!”  Because of Christmas, your sins are all forgiven.  Because of Christmas, you will have eternal life in heaven. 

Christmas is God’s cure, God’s solution.  But, if you don’t know the sickness Christ came to cure, if you don’t understand the problem Christ came to solve, then Christmas looses its real meaning.  In that vacuum Christmas degenerates into just a midwinter fairy tale about a cute little baby, a meaningless basis for mindless celebrations.

So, it is fitting that before we go to the stable to worship the Christ child at Bethlehem, John confronts us on the banks of the Jordan.  He reminds us of the “reason for the season,” why the Son of God “came down from heaven . . . and was made man”: “for us men and for our salvation.”

“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John begins by preaching the Law, but he doesn’t stop there.  That was the problem with the false prophets and phony religious leaders that he came to correct.  They stopped with the preaching of the Law.  They had forgotten God’s grace and the promise of the Savior, and instead told the people they should save themselves with their own good works. 

John, however, goes on from the Law to the Gospel; from proclaiming repentance to announcing the Good News of God’s gracious gift of forgiveness: “Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John came to turn the people way from trying to save themselves, to return them to the promise the promise they had forgotten, the promise of God’s gift of salvation.  The Gospel of Luke literally says that John “evangelized” the people, telling them the Good News of the coming Savior.  “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”

In our day, our own false prophets threaten to lead us astray, to make us forget the real “reason for the season.”  The false prophets of commercialism, materialism, the media and prevailing popular culture.  They want us to remember only the jolly side of Christmas.  But, if Christmas is to have its full tidings of comfort and joy for us, we must begin with John’s message of repentance.  John reminds us about “The Serious Side of Christmas,” why we are celebrating, what it is we are jolly about. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Amen.

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