If you did a random survey about what Christmas is about, what would you predict the replies to be? I don’t have specific data but I think that there is a general view – based on anecdotes of children’s conversations about Christmas – based on a general feeling as gleaned from newspapers and columnist’s ruminations – based on church attendances – that less and less people associate Christmas with Jesus. I suspect that there’s been discussions somewhere about whether we should observe Christmas at all with public holidays and the like – though I also suspect that the retail industry would insist on it!
Questions nevertheless do arise about Christmas and its role and place today. What is the bottom line about Christmas? What is it really all about?
An answer comes from an unusual source – the figure of John the Baptist.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
(Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8, 19-28 ESV)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke present John the Baptist in considerably more detail than does John. From the other gospel writers we learn about John the Baptist’s aged parents, his task, his diet, his wardrobe, his ministry, and his death. In today’s text John doesn’t let himself be pigeon-holed so easily. He is described as a person in a relationship to another. He isn’t the light. He isn’t the Christ. He says he isn’t the Elijah figure but he was just being cantankerous because Jesus said he was and I figure that John said ‘No’ to make sure that no focus was put on him. He wasn’t the Prophet. Rather John is the voice crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.
This crying out is a warning and an invitation. The Lord is near. So near, John said, that he is among us and people don’t even know it. This crying out, this voice in the wilderness has just one task – to bear witness to the light. And as we study John the Baptist we can see that he devoted his life to preparing the path for Jesus – through baptizing Jesus and declaring to everyone that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
For Christians today things are easier. When John the Baptist was imprisoned he sent word to Jesus asking if Jesus was the Messiah or should people wait for another. Jesus replied with a clear message – yes, he is the Messiah. Christians today know more than John for we know of Jesus’ sacrifice, suffering, death, and resurrection so that we (and everyone!) might be forgiven for our sins and sinfulness and not be punished for them but live with God all the time. The Lamb of God was truly sacrificed for us!
The carpenter from Nazareth whom the Jewish leaders thought they all knew became the deserted fool on the cross and later still Thomas would say as Christian do now ‘My Lord and my God’. Jesus was among them and they did not recognize him. Jesus needed to be pointed out – basically that was John’s job. This revelation of God is common throughout the Bible. A voice needs to point our ears and eyes to something that we’ve missed, passed over. The angels sang of God’s revelation on the hillside for shepherds. John only lived to bear witness to Jesus. Jesus revealed himself to his disciples after his resurrection rather than let them win at playing hide and seek trying to find him. Countless voices in countless wildernesses have continued the task of pointing communities and individuals to something they keep missing. (Usually it’s the cross.)
It’s the same at Christmas. If Christmas is just a story of rather strange birth among animals, where we feel sorry for the harsh conditions for Mary and wonder what a motley crew of shepherds would be like gate crashing a birth then we are missing something. If Christmas is just a sweet and sentimental account of the baby Jesus who never cried once then we are putting a lot of sugar on this story. If the telling of Christmas does not lead you in the direction of Easter (because society says it’s poor taste to talk about suffering and death around babies) then why bother singing carols and having nativity sets around? If Christmas doesn’t at some point make us shudder in awe and anticipation at what Jesus’ second coming will be like then we mightn’t have understood his first coming to Earth. Christmas remains in constant danger of being missed. Maybe it’s because of materialism, wrapping paper, and a ‘Gimme presents quick!’ attitude but maybe also because the story is so familiar that people miss hearing it.
It needs witnesses who will testify to what Christmas is all about. I think singing Christmas carols in our schools and on street corners is a good thing in this country. The culture here remains bound up with the Christian Church year and the life of Jesus. But if that is the Church’s contribution to witnessing to Jesus at Christmas – pretty lights, carols, and helping others – then pretty and nice and noble as those things are – we are still woeful witnesses. Those stuck in a wilderness without a rescuer are lost and in danger and they need to hear a voice pointing to a rescuer – pointing to Jesus clearly and often. Those stumbling around in the dark need to hear a voice declaring that Jesus is the light of the world. Those who find Christmas irrelevant and feel threatened if their children start singing carols need a voice to bring the relevance of Jesus’ birth home to them. No matter what the wilderness there needs to be a voice.
We, as Jesus’ disciples, are that voice. May we listen carefully in the wilderness! May we never be silent!
- John 1:6 - 8
- John 1:19 - 28