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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 2, 2012, 1st Sunday of Advent

 The Characters of Christmas: John the Baptist

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-9

             In the early 1980’s, I was called to serve as the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.  There was a lovely older couple in that church named Dan and Ciel Davis.  Dan and Ciel lived out in the country, a fair drive from the church, on a small farm at the end of a long driveway.  I used to love to visit them, except that to get to their house, you always had to contend with Barry, the biggest, most ferocious, intimidating German Shepherd you have ever seen.  Barry always went through the same routine of barking like crazy, circling my car, baring his teeth, and growling in a way that this dog-loving boy was never quite sure if I should even get out of the car.  The first time I ever visited Barry sat right outside the passenger window and growled.  I just sat there frozen until Dan saw my dilemma and urged me to come on into their home.  Each time, with my stomach in my throat, I would open the door and Barry would let me pass.  On the way out after my visits, Barry would even let me pet him.  But our routine never changed, and I never visited Dan and Ciel without that moment of dread fear.

             Christmas in a sense is kind of like this as well, for there is no way to get to Christmas without encountering John the Baptist on the road that leads there.  John is kind of like Barry, greeting us with those words, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance … every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!”  I always want to say after reading those words, “Merry Christmas!”

             Christmas is that wonderful season of the year when we remember the wonder of the birth of God into the world as the Babe of Bethlehem.  But if you get there by the road the Bible lays out, you must encounter that wild, angry prophet of God, John the Baptist along the way.

             When Flavius Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish people in the first century, he wrote more extensively about John the Baptist than he did about Jesus, because from his limited perspective as a contemporary of them both, he judged John the Baptist the more important of the two.  Luke links John and Jesus through his telling of the Gospel, and only Luke tells us the story of the birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, both too old ever to expect to have children.  John’s birth in some ways is as much the work of the Holy Spirit as is Jesus’.

             John, in Matthew’s Gospel, dresses like Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, and John comes proclaiming the word of the ancient prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  But mostly John cries, “Repent!”  John’s baptism, Luke says, was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John comes to call us to repentance.  To repent means to turn, literally.  It means to stop going in one direction, and to go instead in another.  It means to change, and we do not always like people who tell us we need to change.

             Yet you know as well as I do that a marriage never grows deep, or a close friendship never becomes close, or a student never grows without often painful change, without a turning away from one way of living, and a turning toward another.  We never grow healthy without turning from what is hurting us, and turning toward what is healthy and life-giving.  No one deals with an addiction or a bad habit without turning away from it.  There is no redemption or healing or forgiveness without genuine repentance.  And all of us, when we are honest with ourselves, know that we need to repent.  John the Baptist forces us to be honest with ourselves, honest about the sin in our lives.

             Sometimes, our need for repentance comes to us in what you might call Oskar Schindler moments.  Remember how Oskar Schindler protected and ultimately saved the lives of over 1,100 Jews who worked in his factories during World War II, harboring them from Nazi extinction?  Yet at the end of the war, looking back, he said, “Why didn’t I do more?”  This good man was haunted by all the good he did not do, but could have, perhaps should have.

             And then there are those moments that come to us when our need for repentance is even more intense and profound.  I read an article recently in which Demi Moore, the actress whose life has crashed and burned, was quoted, “I fear there is something fundamentally wrong with me.”  Most of us come to places where we fear the same, if we are capable of being honest with ourselves.

            John the Baptist cries, “Repent!” and there is no really coming close to God without genuine repentance.  C.S. Lewis says, “Repentance is not something God demands of you before He will take you back; it is simply a description of what going back is like.”  God loves you just as you are, but God loves you way too much to let you stay that way!  God is always calling us to turn to Him, and to turn away from whatever is getting in the way of our following Jesus more faithfully and fully.  So John the Baptist calls us all to consider what repentance might mean for our lives.

             But John does more than call us to repentance.  John the Baptist also prepares the way.  John actually points to Jesus as the One in whom “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” to quote the prophet Isaiah as John the Baptist does in our text.

             Matthias Grünewald worked in the early 1500’s as an artist in Germany, spending most of his life in obscurity and poverty.  But we know him today through his Isenheim Altarpiece.  The work shows at the center a grim picture of Jesus’ lifeless body hanging from the cross.  To the left are a group of women weeping in travail, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus.  But to the right is a startling, solitary figure who cannot be historically accurate, but is surely one who offers us a glimpse of eternal truth.  It is a picture of John the Baptist, pointing to Jesus on the cross.  John’s finger with which he points is elongated, which draws all your attention to Jesus, and to His cross.

                       On the northern portal of Chartrés Cathedral outside of Paris is one of the most beautiful and significant pieces of Medieval iconography in the world.  It is a long, thin statue of John the Baptist, in which you still can see John’s camel’s hair cloak.  He has a long sad face, and holds in his arms a little lamb, and with his long, bony finger, he points to it.  In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

             Repent this day, dear friends.  Turn from whatever is keeping you from coming to Jesus and following after Him more closely and more honestly, and turn toward Jesus’ way, truth and life.  As John the Baptist points toward Jesus, the Lamb of God, so may we.


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