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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent - December 10, 2006

   John the Baptist always has a way of putting the brakes on any rush to celebrate Christmas.  It’s hard to hold back the celebration in most of what we do outside of church during December, even on some of what we do inside of church; but in the gospel readings for the two middle Sundays of Advent, John the Baptist always shows up and in essence says, “Not so fast.  If you really want to celebrate Christmas, you’ve got to deal with me first.”  I said last week that I’m not always real sure I know what I mean by a proper observance of Advent, but I’m pretty sure it includes paying attention to John the Baptist. 

We did a Bible study on John the Baptist awhile ago and at that time it occurred to me that you could tell the Jesus story pretty well without ever mentioning John.  You could still have Jesus’ ministry and teachings, conflict with the authorities, passion, crucifixion, resurrection without John.  On one level he doesn’t seem to be integral to the story.  But there he is.  All four gospels include him prominently.  Only two of the four gospel writers chose to include the story of Jesus’ birth which we tend to think is quite important.  But all four thought it was important enough to feature John the Baptist.  Right there, that’s a clue that we ought to be paying attention to what he says this week and next week.

John the Baptist was an unlikely recipient of the word of the Lord.  You notice that in today’s gospel Luke begins by giving us a list of all the important political and religious leaders of the time; Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.  In part that’s because one of Luke’s goals is to place the events around Jesus in the proper historical context; but don’t you think he’s also taking a subtle shot at the powerful, saying, “Here’s all the important people of Jerusalem; but the word of the Lord didn’t come to any of them.  It came to John the Baptist out in the wilderness.”  In a gospel that announces that the mighty will be brought down from their thrones and the lowly will be lifted up, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Luke is doing more than giving us a history lesson here.

Plus, this approach would place John in the line of the prophets of old.  Prophetic voices had been quiet for about 450 years.  Malachi, who we also heard from today was the last one.  But the prophets were always voices from the lunatic fringe, not welcome among those proper and powerful establishment voices.  The establishment voices wanted to keep things the same; it kept them in power.  Prophetic voices talked about change, sometimes in the form of warnings about what was going on and what the consequences would be, sometimes announcing a hopeful vision of something different.  Either way though, the powerful didn’t want to hear about it. 

At the time of John the Baptist though, those voices had been quiet for a long time or maybe it’s more likely that there were such voices but they couldn’t get any air time; the networks didn’t want to cover them because the ratings might not be so good, people might change to another channel or maybe there were religious leaders, pastors and priests and bishops saying prophetic things but people were leaving their churches and going someplace else where the message was a little more upbeat and entertaining.  That could have been going on.  It does happen.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that John the Baptist got any air time at all, even out in the wilderness.  Calls for repentance usually are not very popular.  Repentance means change; most of us don’t like change.  And you can’t repent unless you admit that there’s something wrong, that there’s something that needs to change and that’s not easy to do either. 

Voices calling for repentance are not popular because it’s easier to keep on keeping on with what you know and what is familiar even when it’s a struggle, even if sometimes you know something’s wrong.  It’s easier to keep plugging away than it is to change.  It’s a variation on the old law of inertia that I learned back in seventh grade.  A body in motion tends to remain in motion, a body at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted on by an outside force.  Prophets like John the Baptist were trying to initiate that outside force that could cause direction to change.

John is integral to the story of Jesus more for us than for Jesus.  Like I said you really could tell the Jesus story without John the Baptist.  You can tell it but maybe you can’t hear it.  What John says to us is that if you really want to hear about Jesus, his birth and all the rest of it, if you really want to hear it and get it, there is some preparation that has to happen…and it may not be easy.  Malachi today talks about a refiner’s fire, which purified metal but was a blazing hot fire, he talks about the fuller’s soap which cleaned cloth garments but could be caustic and irritating.  John, quoting Isaiah talked about filling valleys and leveling mountains; that’s a major piece of work.  Imagine if that rock pile over at the mine all had to be put back. 

That’s John’s message to us every year during these middle weeks of Advent.  Without preparation, you can still celebrate Christmas; you can still hear the Christmas story as a sentimental, heartwarming story.  It is that.  But if you want to get it as the life changing, life giving incarnation of God, you need to pay attention to John the Baptist and his call for repentance.  You need to make room and that probably means change.

Maybe though, you’re not ready to hear it.  It is easy to dismiss and ignore people like John the Baptist especially at this time of year.  He does tend to dampen Christmas cheer.  Dismiss him if you will; but he doesn’t go away.  He’ll be back next week.  He’ll be back next year; so when you’re ready to hear what he has to say, he’ll still be around.

A little preparation and repentance with John the Baptist will change your Christmas; a little repentance and turning toward Jesus, the one for whom John prepared the way…that will change your life.


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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