The Christmas spirit of joy and festivity is something that most folks understand. We see the decorations on display in our stores, our streets and in our houses. We hear the songs of Christmas sounding out their gleeful cheer through our various media players. There are concerts to attend. Christmas parades to enjoy. There are parties for us to share the joy of Christmas with friends and family. So much is happening at this time of year. We can easily get caught up in the hustle and bustle of picking out gifts and writing cards to friends and family who are near and those who live far away.
Then we come to church. There is no red and green. No Christmas decorations. The only additional candles are the few candles of the Advent wreath and they are not even all lit. The liturgical color is a somber purple. Then we get to hear readings of doom and gloom and repentance. The church seems to be out of sync with the rest of the world. Everywhere else, it is as though Christmas is already here. At least the magic of Christmas fills the air, but here at church we are told, “Not yet, we need to prepare.”
While the outer layer of Christmas is already seen outside of church, it is the inner layer that concerns our God. The Father God wants us to all be ready for the arrival of His Only Begotten Son. It is our hearts that need to be prepared. We can decorate and sing carols until the cows come home, but it will all be done in vain if we are not ready inside. So what must we do to prepare for the coming king?
Thirty years after Jesus was born, the Father God sent a messenger ahead of Jesus’ ministry on earth to prepare the hearts of the people. This messenger was Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. According to tradition, John the Baptist was hidden in the desert from King Herod, who had John’s father Zachary killed for prophesying the coming of the Messiah. It is believed by some scholars that John was taken in by the Essenes, a monastic group living in the desert, where he was taught the scriptures and lived a fasted life. In the Gospel of Luke, Luke confirms at least part of this story concerning John with these words, “And the child continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
In our gospel reading today Mark describes John in these words, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” In other words, John the Baptist was a holy man, whose message attracted all of Judea including the aristocracy in Jerusalem. The message of repentance proclaimed by John was God’s way of preparing the people’s hearts to receive the Messiah.
God did this out of compassion for the people. The message of repentance came from God’s mercy that all would receive His Only Begotten Son. The name of the prophet He sent was even chosen by God as a sign of God’s love for His people. The name John in Hebrew is Jehohanan, which means Yahway have mercy or God have mercy. God knew that unless the people turned away from the things of this world and came back to Him in humility and repentance, then their hearts would be too hard to receive His good news of redemption through His Son the Messiah.
This same message is our message from God for us. The message of repentance although coming now to us in Advent is not just to get us ready for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth. It is something much more profound. The message of repentance is to prepare our hearts for Christ now and the rest of our lives. We are called to repent, which means to turn away, from everything and anything that hurts our relationship with God. Like John the Baptist, who lived a separated and holy life, we too are called to live our lives in the holiness of God. As Christians, our bodies are God’s temple. We are to treat our bodies with respect; but even more than our bodies, God wants our very lives to be lived for Him and Him alone. We cannot do this if we are living for ourselves and following the ways of the world.
In Peter’s second letter, he reminds us of the futileness of investing in this world and why we need to be ready at all times for the return of Christ. The Apostle Peter writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” In other words, be ready at all times for the second return of Christ. This time He is not coming back as a sweet vulnerable baby, but as a thief in the night. His return will not bring peace to earth, but fire and brimstone. Only after the heavens and the earth is destroyed will He bring peace. Peter writes, “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”
The righteousness of God cannot dwell in sin. This is why the heavens and the earth will be destroyed. After this fallen world is gone, then God will create a new heaven and a new earth for His people. In this new place, there will be no sin or temptation, only the righteousness of God. If we want to live with God then we have to prepare our hearts now. We have to live with an eternal perspective knowing that the things of this world are temporary. They are here today and gone tomorrow. The only constant we have is the love of God.
It is God’s love that draws us to follow His Only Begotten Son, who alone can save us from our sins. Of this Savior, John the Baptist declares, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” If the holy man John the Baptist, who was dedicated from birth to serve the Living God, was not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, how much less worthy are we?
May we heed the cries of the Baptist in the wilderness and humble ourselves before the Lord God Almighty with a repentant heart. Only then will our hearts be ready to receive the Savior, Jesus the Christ. Then we will be ready for Christmas or His return - whichever comes first.