John the Baptist often comes across as a strange character. He wore clothes that even a clothing charity would reject! He didn’t eat very much on his diet of locusts and wild honey. His hair had never been cut. When he preached he was scary! He told people they were like snakes in a pit, and that the axe of judgement was waiting to sever the roots of their lives. These were the Jewish people. God’s chosen people! John stepped into the public arena breaking 400 years of silence. This man with long hair, dressed in camel skins, was the one spoken of by Isaiah. He was the voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” (Is.40:3). The gospel has arrived and John’s uncompromising message, telling folk to clean up their lives, was received with great joy. Why was this?
First of all he was a popular preacher. People went out to him in the wilderness, out to him from Jerusalem, and Judea and they listened to his message. If there had been newspapers back then, John would have made the headlines in all of them! Secondly, he promised people a fresh start in life; they could begin again as newly washed individuals – pure and holy in God’s eyes. People saw him as the promised one, the one who was to come before the Messiah, they recalled their scriptures, and so and they responded to his call, and in their thousands were baptized in the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins. This proves that they were ready to welcome Christ into their lives by letting go of their burdens and receiving the forgiveness of God who would soon visit them and redeem them as promised by the ancient prophets. And twenty-one centuries later on the message remains the same:-
Jesus is God’s present to us; Jesus is God’s presence with us. The signs are there for all to see. The good news, which began with John, “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Rom.1:16). We must not be ashamed of the Gospel. John always told the people about the Lord: “The one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Mt.3:11). When John was in the womb, he leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting. His own mother, Elizabeth, acknowledged, “Why am I so honoured that the mother of my Lord should visit me?” (Lk.1:43). God’s coming kingdom was at hand and soon His Son would be born into the human race in a miraculous way. The sign in the heavens was the Bethlehem star that led gentile truth seekers to the very location where Jesus was born. It moved in a different way to other stars, proving the power of God and the Magi followed it’s light to the manger where they discovered another star – the Star of David – the promised ancestor who would be the Messiah.
Thousands of years prior, God had guaranteed King David – “the man after his own heart” – that his throne would stand forever in the land He gave His people: “Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a new branch…and the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding… He will give justice to the poor…He will delight in obeying the Lord.” (Is.11:1-4). Little wonder that a multitude of angels sang of Christ and the salvation that He brought into this world because He would save people from their sins. That’s why eternal life is symbolized by the red berries on the Christmas holly…His blood on the cross for our salvation. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Lk.2:14). No wonder when one sinner turns back to God, they sing again! And at the end of time, when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, believers will be escorted by angels!
What John proclaimed was the hope that peace in our lives is possible and that when God comes, we can meet Him and stand before Him without fear. His call to repentance, in this penitential season of Advent, is a word of opportunity, opening up a way into eternal life and a living relationship with the Lord. Shalom in this life, peace in forgiveness and peace in the Spirit who guides us into wholeness and truth. There is none so lost, that they cannot be found, none so hopeless, that their life cannot be changed. So if we want to hear the ding-dong merrily on high of the angelic choir this Christmas, we must be prepared to listen to John and his cry of repentance for he points to Christ and leads people to look at and examine their lives. Are there things we are doing, or saying that might not please Jesus when He comes; a bad attitude or an unforgiving spirit, or a selfish attitude? Are we still lost in our sin? “Change your ways” cried the prophet John – say sorry, ask for forgiveness and seek the Lord while He may be found.
So in the wilderness John is saying that God’s about to do something big. We are told of the kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together. We are told of the righteous judge who will bring this kingdom. SHe’s also telling us the most basic message in all Christianity – Return to God. He’s coming. And He does not ignore those who turn their back on Him. You better get on the right road now! This is either a timeless message for every corrupt generation, or the ravings of a mad man who gets our backs up. It’s easy to ignore messages like this, or to assume that it’s meant for someone else. However, John is relevant and preaching to all of us.
He baptized with water to give people a symbol of repentance and forgiveness. But also consider this: man was made from clay – the dust of the earth that made Adam’s body. A few weeks ago we were out somewhere and we saw a potter at the wheel making clay pots, pipes, mugs et.al. If a piece of clay is to become anything, it has to be molded and to be shaped it must become wet, otherwise it will dry out quickly and become hardened, and once that happens, there’s not much you can do with it. Since, in the spiritual sense, we are made of clay, we are in constant need of water. John invites people to be baptized as a sign of their new relationship with God, but he made it very clear that the Messiah would offer something even greater – the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This results in, Jesus says, a magnificent promise: “He that believes in me, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water!” God’s blessing to believers. Amazing grace. A hardened stony heart replaced with life and light.
Therefore, another sign we need to consider at this time of year is that of the dove. This familiar bird with all its rich associations was chosen to symbolise the Holy Spirit. We sing of turtledoves at this time of year, and for those who could not afford a lamb, the law prescribed that two turtle-doves be offered for the sacrifice of purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph brought such an offering after the birth of Christ. So place an ornamental dove on your tree, to remind you of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that came upon John in the womb, and upon Jesus at His baptism. Remember too, this is the same Spirit given to those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Lastly, isn’t it amazing that another title for Jesus is ‘Bright Morning Star’ (Rev.22:16). As the dawn breaks, the brightest star we see in the sky, is actually not a star at all, but the planet Venus. It’s unique among all the planets in the solar system because it’s the only one that rotates clockwise. Likewise, Jesus is not just a star among many stars; He is unique. There is no-one else like Him. He comes before the Sun, as the birds begin to sing. The bright morning star represents the promise of a new day. It indicates that something better is coming; that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ will come again. So look up at your Christmas trees and acknowledge the significance of the star – for that’s who the Christ-child is.
Let the meaning of the decorations, the Baptist’s message, and the prophecy of Isaiah remind you of the eternal promise. Be prepared, accept the wondrous grace of God and have a Christ-centered Christmas.
Love in the Messiah. Blessed be the Word.