Christmas is coming. And through this season of Advent that prepares us for it, we hear many voices that are part of the Christmas story: of angels and prophets, of key characters, and of minor characters, too.
And then there’s John the Baptist.
John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, is a cousin of Jesus, born only a few months before him. In fact, his birth story in Luke 1 is parallel, but opposite that of Jesus. John’s parents are elderly and unable to have children, but the angel Gabriel appears to his father and tells him that they will have a son who will be the one to prepare people for Jesus. When John is born, Zechariah sings a great song of blessing about his child: “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76).
But – and it’s a big but – this isn’t the only part of the story we hear. We also meet the very adult John, who comes out of the wilderness to call people to repent and be ready, to “prepare the way of the Lord,” because the very adult Jesus is about to appear. Sure, he baptizes, but he’s an announcer, an advance man for Jesus.
Okay, you might think, Jesus is about to appear, it’s Christmas. But with all the prophets predicting the messiah and all the angels telling people what’s happening and all the characters in the story, do we really need this cousin from the wilderness, right now, too? Luke says that he’s lived in the wilderness all his life, doesn’t cut his hair, and doesn’t drink. Mark and Matthew both say he wore camel hair clothing and ate locusts and honey. a real rustic cousin who also seems to be plain speaking and truth telling.
Colourful and charismatic, sure, but why do we need this voice calling to us now? Because the prophets and angels and magi are all part of the story we celebrate as an anniversary at Christmas. John calls us to remember that Jesus didn’t just come in the past. Jesus said he would return and, while that might be at sometime in the future in the style of the book of Revelation, it might also be even now. John reminds us to be ready to meet Jesus at anytime, anywhere, in anyone. He reminds us that we prepare not just for a specific event or a specific Jesus, but for the coming of the love, hope and grace embodied by Jesus. What John really calls us to is an open heart and an open mind, a willingness to be able to see the love that is all around us here and now, in each person, each life, each creation.
One of the things I appreciate most about hearing John in the midst of the Christmas story is the contrast between him and the other main “announcers” in the story, the angels. There’s no description of Gabriel or “the angel of Lord” who appears to the shepherds or “the heavenly host” that join them, but think about how we envision them. Light – “the glory of the Lord” – is the only clue in the story, but we imagine them beautiful with long white robes, wings, halos, and they fly in the sky, of course. John comes out of the wilderness, dirty and unkept, wild, raw and rough. Yet each has a message to share.
In preparing for Christmas, in preparing to meet Jesus, it’s not the trappings, the dressing up or the decoration that’s important. It’s the love. It’s the hope. It’s the grace and the peace. It’s God.