“Behold, I send My messenger before your face,
who will prepare Your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make His paths straight,’”
A mom and her four-year-old son were putting out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and she accidentally dropped one of the cookies. No problem, she said, picking it up and dusting it off before placing it back on the plate. You can’t do that, argued her four-year-old son. Don’t worry, mom said, Santa will never know. Her son looked at her confused, so he says, he knows if I’ve been bad or good, but he doesn’t know the cookie fell on the floor?
Good point. Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.
Parents love the idea that for the weeks leading up to Christmas their children might be on their best behavior. Why? Because “you know who” might be watching. Of course, many adults have a Santa Claus philosophy on life too. You better behave yourself. After all, God is watching your every action. God sees you when you’re sleeping, God knows when you’re awake, God knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
Obviously, I’m not knocking being good. Being good is really the only way to experience the abundant life. Anyone who has tried the alternative will tell you it’s true. Anyone who spends their lives rebelling against the laws of living right will soon discover they’re only deluding themselves that it’ll give them any lasting happiness. If your primary reason for keeping the law is fear of divine punishment, you’re on the wrong path.
It’s like a woman who each Sunday would get up and run down the aisle out of the church as soon as the pastor was done preaching. He asked her, why is it that you get up and leave after the sermon? Her answer was that when she was around ten or eleven years old, she was at a service, and after the sermon they sang a hymn, and they sang and sang and sang. People started going through the congregation, and the minister came down and took hold of my hand. Little girl, he said, do you want to go to hell? She said, he scared me to death, and so I leave before all that starts.
I believe I would get out of there in a hurry myself if I knew I was going to be confronted with such a distorted presentation of the Gospel. Some people have turned the Good News into bad news. That’s the truth of the matter. Some people have turned the Gospel of Jesus Christ, into bad news.
I met someone last week who quit going to church years ago because the church of which she was a member was such a killjoy. Some of the deacons would go to the high school the night of the Saturday dance and mark down all the young people of the church who were dancing. The deacons would give their names to the pastor who then called them out from the pulpit on Sunday morning.
No wonder people quit going to church. No one likes tattle-tales. Those deacons turned the good news into bad news. Let me tell you a similar story that has a much better ending because of the motivation involved.
School was dismissed early for a teachers’ meeting. The young man conveniently neglected to tell his parents about the change of schedule and arranged to bring his girlfriend over to his house. They weren’t planning to study, as you might imagine.
As they were going up the steps of the house, the next-door neighbor, Mrs. Nolan, poked her head out of a window and said, you’re home awfully early. Yes, Ma’am, he said, improvising a lame story about how they planned to review algebra problems. Does your mother know you’re home this early, and do you want me to call her? At this, he gave up. No, Ma’am, he said, I’ll go inside and call her while she sits on the porch.
Now you may think, what a busybody, but here is what an older and wiser young man had to say about that experience. Mrs. Nolan saved our careers that day, if we had [followed through on our plans], she might not have become the doctor she is today. And my father had warned me that if I [fathered a child out of wedlock], the mutual fund he set up for me to go to college or start a business would have gone to the child. I’m glad Mrs. Nolan was at her window, he says now, looking out for me. I am too. And so is every right-thinking person. At some time in our lives all of us need a Mrs. Nolan looking out for us. Particularly in our younger years, but let’s face it, there are potential stumbling blocks all through life for people of every age.
Here’s a word I want you to remember. John the Baptist is our Mrs. Nolan reminding us that we, too, are vulnerable to temptation. I’ve never seen a picture of Mrs. Nolan, but I am certain she wouldn’t look anything like John the Baptist. John was kind of a rough-hewn man living and preaching in the wilderness. He probably had an unruly beard. His clothes were nothing more than a cloak made from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist.
And his diet! He ate a diet of locusts and wild honey. I don’t know the nutritional value of such a diet, but I suspect he didn’t have a weight problem. He probably didn’t ask for seconds at the dinner table. Maybe, if he had a blender, he could have made some fine locust and wild honey smoothies. Maybe. Maybe not. It would be easy for us to mark off John the Baptist as a mad eccentric on the basis of his diet and wardrobe, but we would be wrong.
John the Baptist was one of the most important men in the New Testament. Do you remember who his mother and father were? Elizabeth and Zechariah, both of whom were members of the priestly tribe of Aaron. In other words, John was a preacher’s kid. To top it all off, his mother, Elizabeth, was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. That made John a first cousin of Jesus. And remember, the scriptures tell us that John’s birth was announced by the angel Gabriel just like Jesus’ birth. Talk about good breeding! He, too, was a “miracle” baby, born to a woman who was far beyond the normal child-bearing years. John the Baptist was the perfect prophet to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.
You may be aware of this, but there is a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments, a time when God was silent. The final voice at the end of the Old Testament was that of the prophet Malachi. And he gave the people a promise. It was a promise of the coming Messiah. But first there would be a forerunner. I will send the prophet Elijah to you. That forerunner was John the Baptist.
John the Baptist knew the scriptures. He knew the role he was to play. Every good Jew knew that before the Messiah came, a prophet like Elijah would emerge. John was that forerunner. Guess how the prophet Elijah dressed, by the way? He wore a cloak made from camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. Does that sound familiar? John knew how to get the attention of the people. Dressing like Elijah was one way of doing that. People flocked out of Jerusalem and all of Judea to hear this exhilarating spokesman for God. Multitudes responded to his message as he proclaimed God’s word on the bank of the Jordan river.
His was the voice crying in the wilderness, calling people to repent and be Baptized, and people responded. Why did they need to repent and be Baptized? To prepare themselves for the one who was coming after him “the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie”. There is so much more I could say about John the Baptist. He was a remarkable man who, like his Lord, gave his life for his convictions. Jesus summed up John’s life like this: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” That’s high praise coming from the lips of the Son of God.
But I need to focus on John’s basic message this morning, this voice crying out in the wilderness, calling people to repent and be Baptized and why I call him our Mrs. Nolan.
Why did John the Baptist tell the people to repent? And why do we need to repent as a part of our preparation for Christmas? It‘s because God loves people with pure hearts. Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. So many people have a mistaken understanding of repentance. They think that God doesn’t want people to have any fun, so He fills our world with luring temptations and then He waits for us to submit to those temptations so that He can zap us. That’s the furthest thing possible from the truth.
We need to understand what sin is. Sin is anything that hurts people. Sin is anything that threatens to break up families. Sin is anything that threatens people with addiction. Sin is anything that causes people years of remorse or regret. Sin is anything that causes us to feel ashamed. Sin is anything that comes between yourself and God.
There are people for whom Christmas is the loneliest time of the year, and one reason is because somebody sinned. That’s not a complicated idea, is it? And so, John the Baptist, or our Mrs. Nolan, comes to us this morning asking if there is anything in our life, however small that could cause us or someone we love serious or even minor pain? If so, it’s time to make a new start during this Advent season. God wants us to have the kind of life that’s filled with peace and joy and healthy relationships.
There is an old story about two theological students who were walking along a street in the chapel district of Pontypool, a section where old and used clothing is sold. One of the students said as he pointed to a suit of clothes hanging on a rack by a window. “What a fitting illustration all this makes!” A sign on the suit read: SLIGHTLY SOILED—GREATLY REDUCED IN PRICE.
There are many people who are wearing a sign like that this Christmas season: SLIGHTLY SOILED—GREATLY REDUCED IN PRICE. But it’s not too late to chart a new course. Listen to the voice of John the Baptist this Advent season, or Mrs. Nolan if you will. Repent! Jesus will give you a heart attuned to God.