John, the great witness, stood at the collision of the ages. He was the final face of the old; Jesus, whom John announced, is the face of the new age.
I. The first face of Advent is the fearsome face of John. He is the final O.T. prophet, stern and unflinching in the face of change.
There is a sketch somewhere of the “Laughing Jesus.” I saw it hanging on the wall of a pastor friend years ago. Since then I have been looking for my own copy but without success. It pictures Jesus as loving, approachable, and joyous at the work. You would never see a similar picture of the “Laughing John the Baptist.” John, the forerunner was stern and condemning. John stood up against the powerful of his day, and lost his life for his unflinching candor. John was the messianic herald who stands on the frontier as the ages collide, destined to bear the impact.
John throws his accusation against the religious leaders of his own time: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We read that last Sunday, confident that he was addressing the religious leaders alone and equally confident that he would have welcomed people like us with open arms. If John could have baptized the Pharisees and Sadducees in a vat of boiling water, he would have gladly done it. In the same way, we are confident that John would have chosen a calm stretch of the River Jordan, free of turbulence and debris, for our baptisms. We are confident, you see, that John’s face would have softened on sighting us heading down to wash in the River in preparation for meeting the Heavenly Father. Still, John the Baptist represents the Old Testament, the old way, the old thinking and the God we saw in the O.T.
That old thinking is still with us. Around the world, religion continues to be a source of division and criticism among peoples. This is the legacy of the old.
+ The Washington Post this week showed a gallery of pictures portraying the armed and violent conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic. This nation sits immediately west of South Sudan where United Methodists have missionaries and churches. Is it politics or ancient tribal conflicts that divide them? Is it truly religion that separates the people of that nation? Sadly, the news portrays the conflict as one between Christians and Muslims. It is the old legacy at work.
+ People have been talking about the new category of believers identified in the U.S. recently. They call themselves the *NONES.* When a computer form asks for religious affiliation, their answer is “*None*;” thus they call themselves the “*None’s*.” Only in America can a decision not-to-believe become an identified religion.
+ When Americans look at the Arab world, we are often reminded that our Christian religion is not welcome there. To make matters worse, it is often illegal to make efforts to convert a Muslim person in those nations to the Christian faith.
The old way, which John represented, divided the world into those *like us* from those *different from us*, those *with us* from those *against us*. Even within the land of Israel, the old way drew a dividing line between those who are *good enough* from those who *do not measure up*.
As the people of John’s day got the idea he was proclaiming, they went out to him in the wilderness to be baptized with the waters of repentance in the Jordan. Hearing his idea, they made it concrete in their lives by that act of humility and return.
II. The passage we read for Christmas this morning is one that connects the old and the new. It identifies the role and the place of John in the great plan of God. He is the forerunner. He prepares the way. He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
At the same time, the Prologue points toward the Word of God taking flesh in Jesus Christ so forcefully that the Word overshadows John’s role in history. Such is the fate of those who faithfully announce the one who comes after them. As they are clear and successful at their work, the one who follows takes center stage, leaving the faithful witness in the shadow. How else could it be?
3 Through him all things came into being,
not one thing came into being except through him.
4 What has come into being in him was life,
life that was the light of men;
5 and light shines in darkness,
and darkness could not overpower it.
What more can John possibly say? In the days before Jesus’ ministry began, there was no other one to make the announcement. There was no other way to explain what God was about to do. God has no interest in dropping down out of heaven like some space visitor. In Jesus, God is not popping up out of nowhere; God is taking flesh in the fullness of time. The great history of Israel, the prophets, and even the Star that the Magi followed all point to the fullness of time when the Christ should be born. So, with all this preparation, the Christ is born.
Think about it: what a wonderful metaphor God chose for entering our common life when God chose to be born of Mary. The woman conceives; the child grows in her womb; in the fullness of her pregnancy – in the fullness her time – she delivers her child, a living being. Again, God’s idea now taking flesh in the child born to Mary.
III. Then, in the birth of Jesus, this new initiative of the Heavenly Father moves from idea to a living being walking among us on this earth. As the Prologue says:
14 **The Word became flesh,
he lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that he has from the Father as only Son of the Father,
full of grace and truth.**
How do such words, such ideas, become real in human history? They might have remained lofty thoughts of seers and sages. They might have remained the hopes of the prophets. But, in God’s great work at Christmas, those words took human form and walked among us.
Years ago, my mother was killed in a tragic car wreck. A friend, Dennis, went with me to see the wrecked car and retrieve her belongings. We found the junkyard where the car had been taken. We went to the office to get directions. Finally, we found it. I was struck as I stood there looking at the wreck that the collision must have been a terrible blow for my mother. Dennis, realizing how the sight of the wrecked car affected me, said, “This is getting too incarnational. You wait, I’ll look for the personal things.” With that, he knelt down beside the car and began to explore the glass-littered carpet for anything she might have dropped. When he found something, he turned to offer it to me. I saw that his hands were bloody from reaching through the broken glass. And, I thought to myself that I was supposed to be the one who bled. So, this is what taking flesh means.
The incredible joy of Christmas is that God has taken human flesh to dwell with us. God is no longer faraway in heavenly splendor; God is with us! God no longer stands in regal distance from the affairs and the troubles of human existence; God walks with us.
The other night rather late, I was walking through UT Hosp to the MRI Lab. I have been there before, so I didn’t have to stop for directions. As I walked through the main lobby of the hospital, I saw a fellow who appeared to be lost. He was on the house phone asking directions but it was not working. As he hung up the phone, he seemed about as lost as he was before he called. I realized that he had others in his party who were fanning out looking for his destination.
So, I asked if I could help him find some place. He said, “Yes, I’m looking for the MRI Lab. Do you know the way.” I said, “Not only do I know the way, I’m going there right now. We can walk together.” Soon the fellow was beside me with his group of family following along. Because I had been thinking about this passage and its message, it occurred to me that our walking through the hospital was a bit like Jesus walking on earth showing us the way. I was able to take the scribbled directions on his piece of paper and live them out beside him.
Well, I’m not going to claim any more of Jesus than that. Yet, every time we share the journey with another who does not know the way, we give something real and concrete to the ideas we are following.
John said: “He who comes after me
has passed ahead of me
because he existed before me.”
How do we give the unreachable God flesh and blood among us? On Christmas, this unreachable God humbled Himself, and taking human flesh like ours, he was born of Mary. The Almighty Creator of all worlds came among us in vulnerability and incredible grace. As a result, the Christmas season is the sum of our many efforts to give God’s incredible love size and weight and time in our world. Suddenly, I understand the awe of the shepherds on the night the angels announced his birth. Sit with the incredible gift of Christmas this morning. Wrap your mind around all that God has done in the birth of Christ. Then, go out to make it real somehow so that others get it, too.