By Paul Koch –
It happens every year. Every year the stores seem to explode with Christmas decorations and music and greetings of “Happy Holidays.” Every year we make plans and figure out what we want to get that specials someone in our lives. Every year we think about the traditions of our families, those we love and those we could do without. Every year, at least for us gathered here in our Lord’s church, we are greeted by the call of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare a way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” That’s right; every year we are greeted by John the Baptist. One thing we can be sure of when we hear from John the Baptist, his voice will definitely go against the grain. It is a harsh and bitter word that he speaks, and it stands out in contrast to the Christmas carols on the radio.
We find John out in the wilderness of Judea preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He is wearing a garment made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He eats locus and wild honey and people are flocking to him. They are heading out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John; you can well imagine the religious leaders of Israel are more than a little concerned. So, a bunch of the Pharisees and Sadducees head out to participate in this phenomenon and they intend to go ahead and get baptized by John. How does John respond? “You brood of viper!” he says. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Now, that will shock you out of your Christmas groove. In the midst of decking the halls and trimming the tree, John is shouting at people, calling them the offspring of snakes, and challenging their intentions to flee the wrath of God which they most certainly deserve.
I was joking around with a few of my colleagues the other day about adding a John the Baptist to our nativity scenes. Can you imagine, out there on the lawn where we have that beautiful nativity scene depicting the arrival of our Lord in the little town of Bethlehem, and out in front would stand a disheveled guy screaming at those who slow down to take a look, saying, “Who warned you? Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?” John the Baptist doesn’t allow Christmas to be just about good feelings and happiness and joy. No, his voice speaks up to call attention to our sin. As he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as out father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Whew, that is intense! Everyone else is singing Jingle Bells and White Christmas, but John is shouting about an axe that is ready to fall upon the root of the tree that doesn’t bear good fruit. He’s talking about repentance, about fire and brimstone stuff. And he’s right. We can’t silence his voice, and we can’t ignore it. Oh sure, we could try. But it is a crucial part of this whole time of year. The arrival of our Lord that first Christmas morning is the other side of the coin of the Baptist’s work. He is preparing the way for our Lord. Crucial to that preparation is the terrifying proclamation of what you face because of your sin. The wrath of God, the unquenchable fire, this is the fate for all those who have failed to live as God has called them to live, those who have mocked His patience and mercy, those who have taken from His blessings but given nothing in return. Christmas isn’t just about gifts and traditions, it is about death and life.
The questions leading up to the arrival of the only begotten Son of God are not questions that we like to face, especially in the midst of an overly commercialized Christmas season. For these are serious questions; questions that get to the heart of who you are, and where you place your hope, and what is the real reason for this whole season. The questions are, who warned you? Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Are you producing fruit keeping with repentance? Are you bearing that good fruit? Will you endure, or will you be cut down and cast into the fire?
The shocking picture that is painted by the words of John is one of division and eternal separation. These are not simple scare tactics but a bold declaration of the state of things. Because of sin, because of your active and continued rebellion against God there will be separation from him. That separation will not be pleasant, rather it is eternal torment, and unquenchable fire. So, in the midst of our Christmas celebrations John produces a certain amount of frantic terror. For when you examine yourself you don’t see the good fruit. Oh sure, maybe a time or two, but not a continual harvest. There are so many times when you haven’t produced the fruit that a good tree ought to produce. If those Pharisees and Sadducees were warned by John, how much more should you be concerned? Will you be cut down?
John says to those who are terrified of their sin, he says to each and every one of you who see in your own life that you have not lived as you should, that you have not honored your God’s name, that you justly deserve His eternal punishment, he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John prepares the way by calling for your repentance, by showing that you cannot do it by your own reason or strength. Your repentance leaves you empty handed. You have nothing to barter with, nothing to increase your position before God. Either you will heed the call of repentance and fall on the ground pleading for the mercy of God or you will reject the call for repentance and stand in your own pride. To those who repent, Christ comes to baptize with the gift of the Holy Spirit. To the one who rejects? Why, they will receive the fire.
John’s warning is that there is now a line drawn in the sand. There is Christ and Christ alone or there is eternal wrath. There is no middle ground, no gray area. Good tree and bad, Holy Spirit and fire, these are laid out before us.
So in the midst of our holiday preparations, in the midst of it all, John the Baptist reminds us about what we are really celebrating. We are celebrating that we have been warned of the coming wrath. We have heard the call of repentance. We have fallen empty handed trusting only in the mercy of our Lord. We are celebrating that Christmas is the arrival of your salvation. Christ has done what you could never do. For Christ took your sin and rebellion and made it his own. He bore your transgressions on the cross of Calvary. He suffered and died so that you might be declared this very day to be good trees. That’s right, in Christ you are now good trees who bear good fruit. You are those baptized with the Holy Spirit. You are those recreated as the faithful children of God.
John leaves us with the image of the ongoing work of our Lord in our midst. He says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is the threshing floor, the place where His Word, His law and His Gospel separate out the good wheat from the chaff. Just as you are made the good tree bearing good fruit not by your working or strength but by the declaration and work of Christ alone, so it is by His gift alone that you are made into the wheat. His body and blood given and shed for you, His washing and clothing you with His garments of righteousness, these are the means by which you become that precious wheat.
You are wheat that He will gather into his barn. You are wheat that will find security and hope and life everlasting in the blessings of Christ alone. And so, we cherish the warnings of the Baptist for they send us running again and again to where it all began: the arms of Jesus.