Have you been out to see the Christmas lights yet? It is time for the annual excursion, when you pack the car with people on a chilly December evening, and drive around to all the neighborhoods and parks made beautiful by cities or neighborhood associations with lights, lights, and more lights, in a variety of colors and hues. There are bright reds, blues, and greens; beautiful, pastel pinks and yellows; and of course the brilliant elegance of white. As you drive along, there are elves and carolers, Santa and his reindeer, a snowman or two, and maybe a tin soldier. The decorations are eye-catching, breath-taking, and often amusingly original. One house I saw recently was decked out in red and white lights, with a gigantic “OSU” shining in the yard. I am not sure what that had to do with Christmas, but it sure looked good!
Of course, you will eventually see a nativity scene. There will be baby Jesus in a manger. Mary and Joseph will hover reverently over the holy child. Shepherds, three wise men, and a menagerie of animals will give fullness to this sacred reminder amidst all the glitter.
There is always one person missing. Correct me if I am wrong, for I imagine that collectively we have seen a tremendous amount of Christmas displays. So if you have found him somewhere, please let me know. But have you ever seen John the Baptist in any of the nativity scenes? He would be this hairy, unkempt, wild-looking guy wearing camel’s hair. There would be a piece of locust caught between his teeth and dried honey in his beard. Louder than any Santa says, “Ho, ho, ho,” you would hear the automated voice of John the Baptist screaming, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Has anyone noticed a figure like that in any of the nativity scenes that are traditional to our celebration of Christmas?
I love receiving Christmas cards. I especially like Christmas cards with good Christian artwork on the cover. The lion with the lamb; the three wise men and the message, “Wise Men Still Seek Him;” the Madonna and child; or the star piercing the darkness over stable and manger; all are beautiful depictions of the Christmas story. Again, I am positive that as a group we have all perused thousands of Christmas cards like these. Yet I do not recall ever receiving one with John the Baptist preaching in the desert. Do you?
No? There is a reason for that, of course. John the Baptist is totally inappropriate for the way we celebrate Christmas. What does John the Baptist have do with Christmas?
For Mark, everything. Instead of Bethlehem and choirs of angels, he begins the story of Jesus’ coming with a prophet blaring and baptizing in the wilderness of Judea. In so doing, he adds a new figure to the good news about the incarnation and coming of the Christ. It is John the Baptist. Throughout the centuries the church has recognized Mark’s unique contribution through its observance of Advent in preparation for the celebration of Christmas.
Advent means “coming.” Two thousand years ago, in a place called Bethlehem, lying in a manger, God came to us in the weakness of a baby. God entered our world, put on our shoes, and lived, breathed, and walked among us. He taught, loved, died on a cross, and rose again. God came to us; Advent.
So John the Baptist invites us into the wilderness. If we are going to receive Christ’s coming, we must be made ready by stepping away from distractions and stepping out of the pace and pattern of Christmas as it’s celebrated by our culture, and going out into the stripped-down simplicity of the desert, where we learn again that we live not on bread but on the word of the Lord; not on stuff, but on His presence.
He calls us out into the wilderness to get away from all the clamor and distraction, so we might focus on Christ. He asks us to respond to a message of repentance, to pray about hindrances and sin and cry out, “Lord, deliver me from this! Forgive me of that! Help me to overcome! I am putting these hindrances, those sins aside. I am not going there anymore. Give me strength Lord!” He invites us to follow him on Jesus’ way, the way of the cross; the way of giving our lives away. John the Baptist enters the Christmas story to get us ready for the coming Christ.
Are we ready? Are we ready? Or do we need to answer the call of John the Baptist, join him in the wilderness, and get ready?
Jesus is coming. Are we ready?