In the weeks of Advent, leading up to Christmas, we meet some of the characters of the Christmas Story. The angel Gabriel (who really should have appeared nine months ago), Mary, Joseph, we’ll meet other angels, shepherds, an innkeeper, maybe even the magi (they seem to arrive earlier every year) and, of course, John the Baptist.
John the Baptist?
Yes, John the Baptist. He usually appears on the second Sunday of Advent. He became known for the baptizing thing, but he was meant to be a messenger, “the” messenger, a voice from the wilderness crying “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Well, of course, that makes sense. Announcing Jesus’ arrival. So he was also at the manger then? Well, no.
When Mary put Jesus to bed in the manger, John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were likely changing his diaper and putting him to bed in his own crib. According to Luke, John and Jesus were cousins and born only months apart. John was older, but not by much.
The John we meet in Advent is an adult. He’s been living in the wilderness, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6). He calls people to repent (loudly and not always nicely), his signature move is baptism and he tells everyone that someone much greater is coming. “I have baptized you with water,” he says, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John the Evangelist, who wrote the gospel, even tells a story of him pointing out Jesus to a couple of his own disciples, saying “there’s the guy I’m talking about.”
Well that seems a little out of sync, at least chronologically. Why do we need the adult John to tell us who the adult Jesus is right before he’s born? Here’s a few thoughts on why you should listen to John.
I don’t know that the adult John knew he was doing that. I think he was calling people to repent and be baptized because someone was coming, he doesn’t seem to know who or when. As far as he was concerned, he might well have been announcing a birth. John was probably ready to meet Jesus anytime.
Christmas doesn’t just mark an event of the past by celebrating it in the present. It reminds us also that Jesus promised to return. And, just as importantly, that we might be prepared to meet Jesus anytime. What if Jesus never really left? What if Jesus is alive in each of us and we might meet Jesus anytime, anywhere?
Maybe that’s the most important thing about John. He reminds us to be prepared to meet Jesus, in child and in adult, in story and in person, in friend and in stranger, in this moment and in tomorrow. Be prepared to meet Jesus anytime, anywhere. Because you will.
And just like Jesus, be prepared for the figures that point you towards him, that help and guide you on your way, to not necessarily look like you think they should. The Christmas Story is full of angels. What if they didn’t look like our traditional vision of an angel, with white robe, wings and halo? What if they all looked like John the Baptist? Or someone we might call “less desirable?” What if they looked like you and me? Are you prepared for that?