A few years ago, I came across a Christmas card featuring John the Baptist.
You can imagine my surprise—since John isn't a character usually featured on greeting cards.
I can still remember the comical drawing on the cover—of John in his camel hair toga arriving at a Christmas party, casserole of locusts and wild honey in hand.
The locusts were trying to escape the dish, and the host was frowning with displeasure—at both John and his culinary offering.
Of course, I had to buy those cards, and I sent them too—mostly to Episcopal clergy, because I knew they would see the humor.
Recently, I read about a pastor who is toying with the idea of creating a "John the Baptist" line of Christmas cards.
So far, here is what he has produced:
Outside card reads: "From our house to yours this holiday season."
Inside reads: "Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers!”
Outside card: "Let's all pass the cup as we gather round the Yule log."
Inside: "which will burn like the unquenchable fire of hell that is soon going to consume you for all eternity.”
Outside card: "Season's greeting to you from across the miles.”
Inside: "Hey, who told you to flee from the wrath to come?"
These are not exactly tidings of “Comfort and Joy!”
And while they may not exactly put the receiver in the Christmas spirit, the words and sentiments are straight out of Scripture—from John’s lips to our ears!
John the Baptist is a perplexing figure at any time, but especially so when he insists on entering into the Christmas story—as he always does during the season of Advent.
He comes out of the desert to point us to Bethlehem.
He comes to make certain we know how important it is that the Son of God has been born.
Yet, John’s message collides with the thoughts Christmas generally brings to our minds.
John himself is the most unlikely character in the entire Nativity cast.
My hunch is that no one ever really wants to be bothered with John—given his wild appearance, his sharp words of admonishment, and his appalling manners.
Of this I am absolutely certain:
John is not an Episcopalian!
No one is ever tempted to place him in the Christmas pageant—or in the manger scene.
But come he will—each Advent—and we are required to deal with him.
We may want to shake our heads, and say, “Bless his heart.”
But we cannot be so dismissive of him, because he has come for our reclamation.
He is here for our good.
I mean this in a figurative sense.
John the Baptist is here to remind us why Christmas matters!
He points us to the reason for the celebration we are making ready—by reminding us that the coming of Jesus is nothing less than the central event of history, and the crucial act of God.
In Christ—God is with us.
He has come to his people.
He has sent a savior to reclaim us—from all those things that threaten us!
God has sent Jesus to live as one of us—and to die for all of us—and in doing so, give us lives that are purposeful and fulfilling.
John tells us that everything has been changed by the Christ event.
He puts Christmas into perspective.
He also brings us into the drama.
Well, if Christmas is as we say we believe, about God taking on flesh and coming to live among us humans, then John reminds us of our need to turn our lives toward the One who is coming—and follow him.
If, as we say we believe, Christmas is about God assuming the vulnerable form of a human infant, then John reminds us that being vulnerable to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—and open to the weak and vulnerable among us—is how we embrace this infant being born into our lives.
If Christmas is wise men traveling from afar, angels singing, and shepherds being astonished and afraid, then John reminds us that joining the cosmic celebration means confessing our failures, owning our weaknesses and seeking healing for our wounds.
He calls us to repent, and be baptized in Jesus, with the Holy Spirit and its refining fire.
If Christmas is about renewing our hope in the idea of peace on earth and goodwill among all people, then John reminds us that we are to be an integral part of bringing such an idea to fruition.
What John does for us during this Advent season is to focus our attention on what the most important item is—on our list of things to do to get ready for Christmas.
With laser precision, John calls us to look at our own lives, our relationship with God, and the ways that relationship impacts how we live.
For, you see—if Christmas is to happen for us this year, it will not happen in a far-away and long-ago stable.
No—if Christmas is to happen, it will happen in the lives of people—young and old—who invite and embrace the birth of a renewed experience of God in their lives.
A few minutes ago I suggested that John the Baptist is the most unlikely character to find at the manger.
But that is not quite so.
The most unlikely characters are us!
All of us!
How amazing is it that God has called us to be part of his plan?!
How amazing is it that God has blessed us through his son—giving us wonderful intangible gifts, including the gift of “peace that passes understanding?!”
God wants us in the Christmas drama!
John comes early to tell us, “Whatever you are doing, stop it—and get ready to receive the greatest gift ever given!
“Make a place for Jesus in your life!
“Receive the gift God has prepared for you!
Christmas will come.
What John wants to know—is whether or not Christmas will happen in you.
Are you getting ready?
“If not”—he says—“time’s a wasting!”