I came across a story this week I thought you’d like. Seems there was this little boy who was writing his Christmas letter. All his friends were writing to Santa Claus, but he went to church every week, so he decided he’d send his Christmas letter to Jesus instead.
But he couldn’t figure out what to say. So he started out, “Dear Jesus,” he wrote. “If I get a bicycle for Christmas, I won’t fight with my brother for a year.” Then he thought, “Oh, no, my brother is such a jerk, I could never, ever keep that promise.” So he threw away the letter and started again.
“Dear Jesus, if I get a bicycle for Christmas, I’ll eat all my vegetables for a year.” Then he thought, “Oh, no, that means spinach, broccoli and asparagus. Yuck! I could never ever keep that promise.”
Suddenly he had an idea. He went downstairs to the living room. Up on the mantel over the fireplace, there was a lovely Nativity scene with a créche.
He got up on a chair, grabbed the statue of the Virgin Mary, took it out to the kitchen, wrapped it up in newspaper and stuffed it into a grocery sack. Then he took it back upstairs to his bedroom, opened the closet and placed the package in the farthest, darkest corner.
Then he closed the closet door, took out a new sheet of paper and wrote, “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again. . .”
Well, anyway – we’re getting ready for Christmas. We’re preparing for the coming of Christ. And part of the story are the ones who came before Jesus.
Last week we looked at the prophet Isaiah. Today, we’re looking at John the Baptist.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
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.
And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 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.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.
John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and 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.”
And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
– Luke 3:1-18
John is important, because he reminds us that Christmas isn’t just about warm fuzzy stuff. Christmas appeals to our tender hearts. But it also has a message. John is the messenger.
John the Baptist was related to Jesus. Jesus’ mother, Mary, and John’s mother, Elizabeth, were cousins. When Elizabeth and Mary were both expecting, Mary came and stayed with Elizabeth for about three months. So it’s possible that the two boys knew each other and played with each other.
What’s more important is that John knew who Jesus was. John prepared the people for the time when Jesus began his public teaching and his public ministry.
You see, most of the time, before people can listen, they have to be ready to listen. Something has to open their ears and crack open the door to their hearts. John was the one who was sent to do that.
John himself was prepared to be God’s messenger. His father, Zechariah, had been a priest, who served the Lord in the temple in Jerusalem.
One day, while he was there, Zechariah had a vision. All the people were praying, and Zechariah went to light the incense before the Lord. Clouds of smoke were rising up, when suddenly, next to the altar, Zechariah saw an angel of the Lord.
The angel told Zechariah that he and his wife would have a son, and that they would name him John. The angel said that their son would be great before the Lord, that he wouldn’t drink, and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. Most of all, the angel said that John would turn people to the Lord their God.
Zechariah wasn’t sure about all this. He was afraid and terrified. After all, how many people see an angel any time in their lives?
Zechariah asked, “How can this be? How will I know all this is true?” He and his wife were old, and there wasn’t much chance of them ever having children.
The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of the Lord! I was sent to bring you this good news. Because you didn’t believe me, you will be dumb and unable to speak, until all this comes to pass.”
That’s the way it happened. Zechariah couldn’t speak. He went home, and got along as best he could. When the baby was born, people wondered what to name him. Zechariah took a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” As soon as he did that, Zechariah was able to speak again.
John grew up, and at some point he took off and spent some time out in the wilderness. That’s something which can drive some people crazy – staying out there all alone, with not much to eat and no one but yourself to talk to.
Other people go out into the wilderness, though, and instead of driving them crazy, it drives them sane. You get away from people – all the noise and the crowds. And you re-discover yourself. You remember things you’d forgotten. You watch the stars at night. You look for food that the wilderness provides. You listen to your heart, and you listen to God.
Jesus himself used to go out into the wilderness and into the mountains to pray. He always came back stronger, more inspired, more in touch with God.
We don’t know how long John stayed out in the wilderness by himself. But when he came back, he saw things differently. John started preaching, and he was a man with just one message. The word John shared with everybody was REPENT!
Actually, there’s a difference between John and some of the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers we hear sometimes. Because the word John used, to describe what people need to do, was the word metanoia. Let me hear you say that. Metanoia.
Most of the time, we hear the word “repent” and we think it means to feel sorry for something we’ve done. When we repent, we feel bad. That’s not what John was saying.
Metanoia literally means to turn around. You’re going this way. You realize you’re totally heading in the wrong direction. So, you turn around.
Metanaoia means turning your head around. It means turning your heart around. It means turning your actions and your will around.
It’s not superficial. One Christian leader, Richard Trench, calls metanoia a “mighty change in mind, heart, and life wrought by the Spirit of God.”
People in Jesus’ day clung to the idea that because they were God’s chosen people, that they were protected. It didn’t matter that they didn’t try to live the way God told them to. They were special. They came from a long line of special people. God chose their ancestors. They could count many generations of belonging.
John said, “Folks, that doesn’t matter. You’re not so special. In fact, God can raise up new special people from that pile of rocks over there!”
John said that his job was the one the prophet Isaiah talked about:
“Get the highway ready! Straighten out your lives! Fill up the low spots, and tear down any mountains that get in the way! If it’s crooked, straighten it out! If it’s too rough, fix it!
There’s no excuse for potholes, no excuse for washed-out places! The King is coming! Turn your lives around, now!”
People asked John, “What should we do?” And it’s interesting. He didn’t tell them to feel bad. John told them, “Share what you have. Don’t take more than you’re supposed to. Don’t cheat anyone. Don’t hurt anyone.”
John said, “I’m not Christ! I’m just preparing the way. I’m the turnaround guy!”
John said, “When Christ comes, he’s going to gather up the wheat, thresh it, winnow it, and take the good grain in to the barn. The chaff and straw? Those’ll just get burned up. Which are you? Wheat or chaff? Turn your life around!”
People called John “the Baptist” because he dunked people in the river. But we need to get that straight. Some people think that baptism is like magic – if you get baptized, it takes away your sins.
John said the exact opposite. John baptized people as an outward, public sign that they had already turned their lives around. There’s no magic involved. Getting baptized was an outward, visible sign of an inward, spiritual reality.
And by the way, that’s why Quakers don’t go in for baptizing people. The real change is in the heart. The real transformation is in the way we think. Turning around means actually living differently.
If that doesn’t happen first, there’s no point to getting baptized. And if our lives really are turned around, then baptism isn’t necessary.
Last week, we heard Isaiah say that when Christ comes, the lion would lie down with the lamb, and some people thought, “Well, that’s not going to work!”
Isaiah prophesied that when Christ comes as the Prince of Peace, that nation wouldn’t rise up against nation, that people would beat their swords into plowshares, that people wouldn’t even study war any more. And some people say, “Human nature will have to change for that to happen!”
And Isaiah and John the Baptist and Jesus would all say, “Exactly! Human nature does need to change! I’m so glad you understand what we’re saying so clearly! Human nature does need to change. Turn your lives around!”
Unlike so many of the religious leaders in our world, John was not calling people to rebellion, or to holy war of any kind. He didn’t call for people who were different to be deported. He didn’t call for any of these things.
He said, “You need to change. You need to turn your life around.”
Later on, Jesus said the same thing. He said, “Take the log out of your own eye, before you judge your neighbor. In fact, don’t judge your neighbor at all! Look at the broken places in your own lives first. If you judge other people, God will use the same measuring stick on you.”
“Go learn about compassion,” Jesus said. “Go learn about God’s mercy. Forgive each other. Hasn’t God forgiven you?”
So far as we know, John never did any miracles. He didn’t heal people. He never fed the crowds, or drove out demons. All he had was words to share.
But they were powerful words. When John spoke, he set people’s hearts on fire. They’d never heard anyone like this before. They asked each other, “Is John the promised Savior?”
John said, very clearly, “No, I’m not. I’m just the messenger. I’m just the turnaround guy. I’m just a voice in the wilderness. The one who is coming after me is so great, I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes.”
“I baptize you with water,” John said, “but the one who’s coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God.”
Knowing John, he probably said a lot more than that, which never got recorded or written down. What we need to remember, is that John was right.
Jesus said that John was the greatest preacher since the prophet Elijah, hundreds of years before. By then, John had been imprisoned and executed, for offending King Herod, who was someone who seriously needed to turn his life around. Jesus said, “If they did this to John, they’ll do this to Me, too.” And they did.
But at Christmas time, we remember John as the turnaround guy, the one who got people’s hopes up, the messenger, the one who didn’t lift himself up, but who pointed the way to Jesus.
And as we remember John, we need to remember his message:
- Christ is coming. Christ is closer than we realize.
- Christ is greater than any king. Christ is greater than anyone we know.
- We need to get ready. We need to turn around.
- The changes are inside of us. The changes are in our hearts, and minds, and in our daily lives.
- Sharing is the order of the day. Mercy is the new agenda.
- Don’t take more than you’re supposed to.
- Don’t cheat anyone. Don’t hurt anyone.
- Straighten out your life. Fill in any low spots. Tear down any mountains that stand in the way of Christ. You have to change!
We need John’s message today, more than ever. It’s not a sad message. It’s a joyful one. Christ is coming! Prepare the way!
We all have things we need to change. We all need to forgive, and to be forgiven. The old things we’ve said and done, which were said to us and done to us – they’re just too heavy a burden to carry around any longer. Isn’t it time to let those things go?
The attitudes we carry around towards other people – those attitudes that affect our lives, every day – isn’t it time for us to change our minds? If other people can change, shouldn’t we?
If we are followers of Jesus Christ, the way we treat people should be different. We should be merciful. We don’t need to be gullible or stupid, but we need to start seeing people and treating people the way God treats us.
If we are forgiven, we have to forgive. If we are accepted, we have to accept others. If we were ever strangers and aliens, if we were ever poor, if we ever made a big mistake – we need to treat other people the way we’d want to be treated ourselves.
Aren’t they all God’s children, too? Aren’t they our brothers and our sisters? Aren’t we all made in God’s image?
If we treat people as different species, or as they came from a different planet, or as enemies, then we’re the ones who need to change. Christ doesn’t have enemies. He forgave them all. He forgave them, just as he forgave us. It’s not our job to have enemies, ever again.
Christ doesn’t know a stranger. Christ only has friends. Let’s turn it around.
Christ is coming. Let’s get ready.
Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Brown