In those days John the Baptist came…
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River…. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
In the tinselly and joyful season of Christmas, the figure of John the Baptist always seems a bit jarring. If you’ve ever organized your Bible readings through the lectionary, then you’ve certainly encountered John the Baptist during Advent. The stark dress, the apocalyptic grooming habits, and the overly frugal meal plan always seem a tad over-serious. As if he’s lurking back in the shadows of a party, waiting till a good laugh is rolling over the crowd to suddenly stand up and remind everyone of their mortality. “Behold,” he shouts, “I know that joke about Santa, and the elf, and Jack Frost walking into a bar is funny, but do you know that the suicide rate goes up every Christmas season? Does that make you feel jolly? Sure, I’m the only one saying these things in a wilderness of laughing, but we’ve got to prepare for this!”
That’s how he strikes me at least, but perhaps it didn’t always feel this way. It use to be, and for some still is, that the dividing line between Advent and Christmas was drawn with thick ink. Advent belonged to John. Christmas belonged to Jesus. John had to do the hard, jarring work of preparing us to meet Jesus. He had to knock down some hills and lift up some valleys to make a straight road for the Christ to walk in on. Because it was and is no small thing to have God walk the earth.
But often, in our commercialized Christmas world that now begins before Thanksgiving even ends, the immensity of the Incarnation doesn’t translate. It’s hard to find Jesus most of the time, and when you do, He’s a sweet little baby laying down a sweet little head. He’s having, as far as I know, the first and only peaceful and quiet pre-epidural birth in history in a tiny strangely cozy manger, apparently never even crying. Attended by parents who are happily receiving vagrant wanderers, astrologists, and grimy shepherds. It is quaint and kitsch. And so saccharine that thinking about it might give you a cavity.
But the truth is, you don’t need a John the Baptist for that kind of a thing. Santa surely doesn’t need a John the Baptist. Believe in him if you want to, or don’t. Put the cookies out or forget, he’ll still show up ho-ho-ho-ing. He twinkles and his belly laughs. It’s what he does. And you don’t need to prepare for that.
But the Incarnation is something else entirely. The world changed that day. It was shaken to its very core, because its Creator became a part of the creation. God participated in His world in a way that He had never done before. He began the work, as Paul said in Ephesians 4, of making God “over all, and through all, and in all.” Or as he said in 1 Corinthians 15, to make God “all in all.” Things have never been the same. The first steps of redemption were in many ways the loudest. They rang the gong of God’s re-creative work. The second Adam came to work. The true Image of God began to renew the broken and diseased men and women who had been created in God’s image, but had rejected and marred it. The actions on the cross and in the resurrection became communicable through the Incarnation. Our hope for a personal relationship with God became a concrete reality through a God who became human. And death, corruption, evil, and darkness in God’s world is being crowded out by His ever growing light and life until one day, God will be all in all and sin will be no more.
And that is good news, but it ain’t quaint. Sin and corruption don’t go quiet. All the false and cheap things will get tossed in the wind. All that we grab onto instead of Him will get winnowed away. Because in the Incarnation, God declares and even demands that He be all in all. If He wanted to hold back, then there would have never been a Christmas. And for that kind of work, you need a John the Baptist. A dull and sleeping world slumbering in sin needs waking up. We need waking up. Let us toss out all the chaff we fill our lives with and cling to Christ, the God made Man. He will renew in us God’s Image, for He is the true Image of God.