A Difficult But Necessary Advent Gift - For You

Text: Mark 1:1-8
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is the time of the year that the Christmas boxes come out of storage.  Yes, it is the time of year that trees are put up, ornaments are hung, and the traditional manger scene is pulled out of that musty smelling box.  Christmas lights are also hung outside, wreaths are carefully placed, and who can forget eggnog and all the baked Christmas goodies? 
There is no doubt about it that this time of year has a Christmas buzz to it.  This buzz really starts around Thanksgiving, followed by the hype of Black Friday, and intensified by the cyber Monday craze.  Consequently, the Christmas culture in America seems to be on an upward euphoric trend—excitement intensifying—as each day moves closers and closer to Christmas.  Upward and onward with the Christmas spirit is the cultural trend; that is until we come face to face with today’s Gospel reading. 
Undeniably, today’s Gospel reading tends to knock all of us off of this euphoric onward and upward Christmas movement, as we read about John the Baptist.   John the Baptist and his message certainly stop this elated upward hype in its tracks and the appearance of John the Baptist certainly does not blend in well with the gold glitter and rich Christmas colors.  Rather, John the Baptist’s attire of camel hair and a leather belt may remind us more of the Scrooge who stole Christmas.  Furthermore, his diet of large grasshoppers and wild honey certainly spoil our visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads.  And that wilderness—with its dry, dirty, lifeless environment—clashes with the white powder of Christmas, the snow that rests gently upon candy canes. 
This leads us to a temptation. 
Maybe we should just go around John the Baptist and his message!  That only logically makes sense, since it appears that John the Baptist, his appearances, his food selections, and his stern message of repentance are all anti-Christmas spirit.  So it appears.   
With the temptation before us to bypass John the Baptist and with the temptation to start some sort of petition to remove him from the church calendar, we must first pause and ask ourselves why our forefathers originally chose to focus on John the Baptist this second Sunday of the Advent Season.  Otherwise stated, before we simply walk around this uncomfortable character—this reading of the Gospel that tends to collide with our modern sensibilities—we should at least ponder for a moment why this text was chosen for the second Sunday of Advent.
As we pause and consider John the Baptist for a moment, what we come to realize is that John the Baptist was basically the last of the Old Testament prophets.  John the Baptist followed in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets that came before him by warning people of their sin and to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, the Messiah that was coming to save mankind from their sin.   
We also need to consider for a moment that John the Baptist and his ministry all took place out in a wilderness.  This is relevant because first-century nationalistic theology said that Jerusalem was the hub of everything great that was to happen, not the wilderness. 
I think this is all beginning to make sense.  John the Baptist was calling the people of Israel to leave the hub and center of spirituality, Jerusalem, and come out to the quiet, empty, and barren desert.  In the desert they would be freed from all the noise and clatter of Jerusalem and come face to face with John’s simple, yet direct, message of repentance. 
Is that not what our text is doing to us today, right here and right now?  Is not our Gospel reading from today attempting to pull us out of all the busyness of the holiday season into the wilderness in order to hear John’s simple, blunt, and important message of repentance over sin?  Is not our Advent Season a kind of wilderness, a season that pulls us out of the commotion of our lives, slows us down, and causes us to soberly focus on our sin and the coming Savior?  Does not the wilderness strip us down to the basics? 
This is precisely the reason why John the Baptist is included in our Advent Season, a season that is leading up the coming Messiah in a manger. 
Thus, the message of John the Baptist is intended to dislodge us; it is intended to be a road block to our euphoric trajectory; it is intended to be that wrench thrown into the works.  John the Baptist and his message are caused to make us do a double take and say, “What did he just say?”   
My friends, John the Baptist brought a message of repentance and a message to be aware of one’s sin.  This was a message that was boldly proclaimed in the wilderness ‘before’ the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Like the difficult messages spoken to the people around the Jordan River, pastors today need to deliver that same hard message.  We all must be confronted with sin ‘before’ we hear about the solution to sin.  In other words, even though the message of sin and repentance and temporal death and eternal death and suffering in hell are not a popular message or even a politically correct message in our culture, these messages and themes are necessary.  And yes, they are necessary before Christmas.  In fact, I would contend that these themes are crucial for us to hear during the Advent Season.
The message of repentance of sin is so important because this message of Advent needs to come before the message of Christmas.  To put it another way, the message of repentance needs to come before the message of faith; the Law of God needs to come before the Lord’s Gospel; the bad news needs to come before the message of good news.  You need the message of John the Baptist before you can receive the message of Jesus Christ coming to you in a manger. 
Why is this, the case?  It is this way because:
“How can faith enter a heart that has not yet been crushed?  How can a person feel hungry and thirsty while he [or she dislikes] the food set before [them]?  No, indeed; if you wish to believe in Christ, you must become sick; for Christ is a Physician only for those who are sick.  He came to seek and to save that which is lost; therefore you must first become a lost and condemned sinner.  He is the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of the lost sheep; therefore you must first realize that you are a lost sheep”[1] before you have any need of a searching Good Shepherd. 
Frankly stated, the Gospel is for sinners only.  Christmas is for sinners only. 
Blessed Saints consider this a moment:
“Had there been no sin on earth, there would have been no Christmas. Had there been no sinners, there would have been no need of a Savior. For this very reason the Christmas Gospel is a message for sinners. And only those who acknowledge their sins can understand the true meaning of Christmas.”[2]
Tying all this together, we are beginning to see that the this strange gift that John the Baptist brought to the Israelites is the same gift that the Holy Spirit must work in us through the Word. 
The reason why? 
It is something that we so desperately need.  Our pride and self-reliance, our stubborn belief that by our own goodness we can please God; these are the things that need to be continually killed in us so that we can be prepared to continually receive the Kingdom of God, especially within the context of our Advent and Christmas Season. Repentance is harsh and painful, but it is a necessary part of God’s plan to have you with Him forever.  Repentance is a gift that prepares you to receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus, your forgiving Savior. 
Personalizing this even more,
“John the Baptist comes along and points his bony finger in your face.  His message is that you are a sinner.  You are the one who is guilty.  You need to repent.  Stop blaming everyone else for your problems.  If you try to hide your sin, its infection will only spread.  Eventually, it will kill you … not just here on this earth, but forever in eternity.  You deny your own sin at your peril.”[3] 
Painfully, John the Baptist and Advent strip you and me of all the Christmas frills and the sometimes superficial phoniness of a secularized Christmas.  Very much, the message of John and Advent strip us down to the basics—naked, vulnerable, and empty towards the One who comes. 
Just when we think that John the Baptist and his message of repentance are about to destroy our Christmas Season though and leave us in despair with nothing, we take note in our Gospel reading that his crushing message is intended to prepare us for something else.  In other words, the whole point of John’s ministry was to prepare the people ‘for’ the Lord.  John even confesses that there is one who is more powerful than him who is coming after him. 
Blessed Saints, it is most certainly true that we must hear the Law preached to us.  Undeniably, it is most important for us—and truly a great gift—to have the heavy hand of God’s perfect and righteous and holy Law pressed against us for “the waters of grace cannot penetrate a stony heart.”[4]  In other words, after the Law has done its crushing work on you and me, God will not despise this status of brokenness and helplessness.[5]  “God does not cast aside sinners, that is, those who recognize their sin…” [6]  For it is in this very brokenness and fallen-ness that you have been prepared for God to meet you with another word, the Word of the Gospel.
Therefore, since you have heard John the Baptist’s message; hear now the coming message of Christmas!  The Lord Jesus Christ two-thousand years ago came down from heaven—for you.  He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary—for you.  He was made man—for you.  This all happened so that he could live a perfect life and be crucified under Pontius Pilate—all for you.  Indeed, He was born in a manger so that He could suffer, die, and be buried—for you.  He now is raised and sits at the right hand of the Father interceding—for you.[7] 
Christmas happened so that the Lord Jesus Christ could die and bind you to His death through your baptisms.  Christmas happened so that the Lord Jesus Christ could resurrect, making His resurrection your resurrection.[8]     
Baptized Saints, as you continue to travel through this Advent Season you will be continually repented so that you can be prepared for Christmas.  Furthermore, this pattern of Advent and Christmas, John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as Law and Gospel, will continue throughout the rest of your lives, so that you can always be reminded that the Lord purchased you; won you from all sins, from death, and from the devil. 
Praise be to God for Advent.  Praise be to God for Christmas.  Praise be to God for John the Baptist.  Praise be to God for the babe born in the manger.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: Thirty-nine Evening Lectures, tr. W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), 92.
[2] Fredrick Wisloff, Hvil eder litt (Publishing Data and Page Number Unknown)
[3] James T. Batchelor, “Second Sunday in Advent Sermon” (7 December 2014) http://lcmssermons.com/index.php?sn=3955 (6 December 2014)
[4] C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: Thirty-nine Evening Lectures, tr. W.H.T. Dau, 405.
[5] Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles:  Concordia, The Lutheran Confessions (Concordia Publishing, 2006), 276.
[6] Psalm 51:17.
[7] Adapted from The Nicene Creed.
[8] Norman Nagel, A sermon preached at Concordia Seminary for the Baptism of our Lord.

CLICK HERE to join in the conversation on Facebook.
CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter.