Our Advent lectionary readings this year are a rich tapestry. In Matthew’s Gospel, we are swept up together in the comforting but challenging reality of the “already” and the “not yet.”
Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus and moves directly into his birth narrative. In fact, we receive a large portion of the traditional Christmas story from this Gospel. But John the Baptist takes center stage during Advent. As we continue our journey toward Bethlehem, we are invited into the wilderness.
When we first read Matthew 3, we might find ourselves thinking, “Well, this is an interesting journey to the manger.” What does John the Baptist have to do with Christmas? According to Matthew, everything.
John the Baptist had a message. This bizarre wilderness-wanderer preached a message of repentance and preparation. His duty fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3).
In Matthew 3:7, we hear in John the Baptist’s fiery Advent sermon: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (If you haven’t sent your Christmas cards yet, try including this phraseology: “Happy holidays, you brood of vipers!”) At this time of year, many people have the traditional Christmas story foremost in their minds. Consequently, his message may sound especially peculiar.
This thing called Christianity often beckons us to places we may not want to go.
This thing called Christianity often beckons us to places we may not want to go. While the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas, we are drawn into the wilderness, called to repentance. Even today, John the Baptist stands in the wilderness, calling to us, “Prepare the way! Make his paths straight!” Jesus is coming. Are we ready?
We may be asking ourselves, “Shouldn’t our message now be about hope, peace and joy?” But John the Baptist’s call to repentance is at the heart of who Christ is. After all, “repentance” simply means to turn away from the sin that easily creeps into our lives and robs us of the very things we deeply desire (e.g., hope, peace and joy).
As we heed the wilderness preacher and turn from sin, we simultaneously turn ourselves to Jesus. In so doing, we prepare our hearts to receive the babe in the manger. Can there be any message more fitting? Is there any message filled with more hope, peace and joy than turning our faces to the warmth of the Son?
The good news for us today is the same good news John the Baptist’s original audience received: Jesus is coming! Jesus is here! And we are ready!