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In our gospel reading today we hear about John the Baptist. The New Testament doesn’t talk much about John the Baptist—only a few short passages. But John plays an important role. John is like a siren, or a flashing red sign, or an emergency alarm going off. He is standing out in the wilderness of the Jordan River, dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and proclaiming, “After me comes one who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” John is sounding the alarm. He’s saying, “This is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.”
To us, John probably just looks like a crackpot—a crazy guy dressed in camel’s hair, wearing a leather belt around his waste, and eating locusts and wild honey. But for those who knew what to look for, John was a flashing red sign. The prophet Malachi spoke of a coming day when God himself would make one final dramatic appearance.
For the most part, God seems to be somewhat behind the scenes. We know God is present throughout life and throughout time. Sometimes it strikes us with amazing force that God is present, maybe when we witness the birth of a child or when we gaze at the beauty of the sunrise. But in many respects, God also seems to be hidden from us. And that’s especially true when we look at the way the world goes. The world is not as it should be, and it often seems like God has turned his back on his creation. This was especially true for God’s chosen people Israel. God himself led them out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land. But for a long time now, God seemed absent from his people; even seemed to have abandoned them altogether.
But the prophet Malachi declared that the day was coming when God himself would finally show up. God would make one final dramatic appearance and set this world right once and for all. And before that great and awesome day of the Lord came, God would send his messenger to prepare the way. “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me,” the Lord said. “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” And who is the messenger? How will they know what to look for? “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Elijah is the one who will come and prepare the way. And what does Elijah look like? Elijah was known as a man who wore a garment of hair, lived in the wilderness, and wore a leather belt around his waist.
So when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Jerusalem, dressed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, declaring, “After me comes one who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie,” it was like John was a flashing red sign or an emergency alarm going off: “This is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.” And everyone seemed to understand exactly what was going on. Mark says that, “the whole region of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
This man, John the Baptist, has one purpose. God has given John one job—to point to the one who is coming, to point to Jesus and say, “This is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.” And even though there are only a few passages in the New Testament about John, John plays an important role. He speaks to all times and all places, to all people and says, “This Jesus is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.”
God sent John to speak to us too. When all is said and done with this world, Jesus is the one thing that we don’t want to miss out on. Jesus is the Lord, the one who is to come. And when he does he will finish the work that he started and set all things right. In the creeds that we confess every Sunday—the summary of the faith—we say about Jesus that, “He will come again to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.” When all is said and done, Jesus will have the last word with this world, and Jesus will have the last word with us too. Sooner or later everyone will have to deal with Jesus—either in joy, relief, and thanksgiving, or with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on.
Now this is good news for us, because this Jesus is our Lord. This Jesus, who will come again to judge the living and the dead and of whose kingdom there will be no end, he has grabbed hold of us in the waters of baptism and said, “You belong to me.” This Jesus brings us here week in and week out and forgives our sins. Even though we sin against him in thought, word, and deed, Jesus is faithful to us and forgives our sins. This Jesus gives us the New Covenant in his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, giving his own body and blood as a pledge and promise of his faithfulness. Through the written and spoken word that is proclaimed here, Jesus speaks to us, assuring us of his faithfulness and guiding and nourishing us in his promises.
For us, it’s good news that when all is said and done, Jesus will have the last word with this world. But we still need to hear John’s warning alarm: This is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.
We need to hear it too, because we’re really good at turning things all around. We’re really good at thinking that our lives and all that we have going is the most important thing. It’s not that we don’t have a place for Jesus in our lives, but it’s that we often have only a place for him. Jesus is great and all, but Jesus needs to fit into our lives, our schedules, our hopes and dreams and desires. We can squeeze him into an hour on Sunday, but what difference does Jesus make to your everyday life—to the way you face suffering and adversity, to the way you deal with conflict, to the way you deal with other people? We come here on Sunday to receive Jesus and all the joy and blessings he comes to give, and then we place him neatly on a shelf for the rest of the week so we can get back to real life, to the important stuff.
And often times, what seems really important, really essential to us, is all the stuff of life. Whether it be our families, or our work, or our hobbies, or our health, or our finances and possessions; it might be our holiday traditions, it might be this building, or the liturgy and hymns we’ve known since childhood—you name it. Often times, what seems really important, as if we can’t possibly miss out on it, is all the stuff of our lives. And so we grab hold of all these things that seem so important to us, and we stand with our fists clenched around them, saying, “This is mine; I won’t let it go.” And when adversity comes, when something or someone threatens or gets in the way of these things we hold to so firmly and tightly, we either get angry and gripe, complain, and fight, or we despair as if we’ve lost everything. And what’s worse, we even begin to downplay or despise Jesus and all that he comes to give. We think, “Yes, Jesus is great and all, but that’s not enough, or that’s not good enough. What I really need in life is to be around family, or time to pursue my hobbies, or my holiday traditions.” This may sound far-fetched, but I recently heard someone say that if our Advent traditions are different and our worship isn’t what we’re normally used to, then we should just close the doors. As if Jesus and all that he comes to give us week in and week out meant nothing.
You see, when we stand like that—when we stand with our fists clinched in a death grip around the stuff of our lives—then we cannot receive what God gives; we can only try to fit in what God gives, try to squeeze it into a place—into our schedules, into our personal plans, into the way we think things should go, and into what we want our lives to be.
But John has come to call us to repentance, to turn us from all that. He has come to loosen the death grip we have on all the stuff we think we can’t possibly miss out on or live without. God has sent John the Baptist, in his camel’s hair and leather belt, to tell you and me that we’ve got it all backwards. This Jesus is the one thing you don’t want to miss out on; and if you do, you will regret it.
So open your hands; let whatever it is you think you can’t live without fall to the wayside, and receive the body and blood of your Lord Jesus Christ. Let him fill your hands to overflowing with his death and resurrection, with the forgiveness of your sins, with everlasting life, and the kingdom that has no end.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”