Is John the Baptist in your Manger Scene?

By Joel A. Hess

You better watch out, you better not cry. Better not pout, I’m telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town! He sees you when you’re sleeping…. Wow, Santa sounds scary! Why would kids be excited about this guy? Of course, speaking as a parent, this song is brilliant. What better way to get a kid to behave better than tell her she will get rocks in her stocking if she doesn’t shape up?

John the Baptist sort of sang this song, didn’t he? Instead of Santa is coming to town, John sang, “God is coming to town!” And you should be afraid, very afraid! Therefore, repent and be baptized—meaning, clean yourself up or no presents for you! People rushed out to John because they were rightfully afraid. Their house was a mess!

To the inquiring Pharisees, he warned, “He sees you when you’re sleeping!” Or in John’s words, “You brood of vipers!” Why? Because they didn’t think their poo stunk. They thought they were well and ready for God to come. They were verified purebreds in the Abrahamic gene pool, and they looked good on the surface. They might have even cheered John on as they saw all the scummy people rush to him. They came out just to investigate. Unfortunately for them, John caught them as onlookers and called them out: “He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice!” John tells them that the one coming after him was coming to judge. They should be scared, because they were on the naughty list.

We might do well to put the mangy, crazy-eyed, finger-pointing John the Baptist in our manger scene. It couldn’t hurt to bring a little shock and awe into our Christmases. Many people don’t really appreciate how amazing Christmas is because they are like those Pharisees. They think they have it all together and that God must love them just the way they are. I can certainly count myself in that group of onlookers cheering John on as he told “other” people to repent. I’m a Christian. I’m a pastor. I’ve never been caught. I have never done anything publicly terrible.

“Repent!” our battery-operated John the Baptist figurine can shout.

Yet the goal of John the Baptist was not to make a people perfect for the Messiah, for God to come. John’s goal was to get people to acknowledge how unprepared they were and to see their total need of God to completely save them. Although I’m not sure John actually understood this at the time as he questioned whether this mercy-giving, gentle Jesus was really the Messiah.

John, like all of us, was shocked to discover that God is not like Santa Claus. He didn’t come to reward good people and punish bad people. As Jesus says, “For God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it!” (John 3:17).

The wonderful gift in the manger scene is undeserved grace! The angels sang: “For unto YOU a child is born!” There is no greater gift under the Christmas tree than the completely free gift we have in Jesus Christ, no strings attached!

So let John point at you this Christmas! Let him yell at you and show you your sins. Strangely enough, the more we see our unworthiness, the more we see God’s love for us in Christ.