John the Baptist came to get the people ready for the work of the Messiah. John began his work some thirty years after Jesus’ birth on that first Christmas. John came to testify concerning the Messiah, the Christened One or the Christ, the Savior. Our text puts it these terms, “[John] 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” (John 1:7-8). Our Lord wanted to make sure that the world did not miss the coming of His Son, so He sent a messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare the people for His coming. John came, not to call attention to himself, but to point the people to the Messiah, or as he calls Him in our text, to the Light.
Jesus is the Light. He is the Light that shines bright in the darkness. He is the Light who draws all people to Himself. In much the same way as a very small light will brighten up a very dark room, so Jesus is a very bright light who came to brighten up the universe. In much the same way that we are drawn to a light in order to be able to see better, so we are drawn to Jesus who helps us to see clearly.
So John came to testify concerning the coming of the Light of the world. He came to call all people to faith so that all people might believe in the Messiah. John never speaks about himself, he only talks about the Light. He only points to Jesus.
When he was questioned by the priest and Levites John made his confession concerning Jesus. “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ’” (John 1:20). John knew that he was not the one who came to give his life for the people. He knew that he was not the Christened or anointed one. He knew that he was not the Messiah and so he freely confessed that he was not the Savior.
Rather, John did confess that he came to prepare the way for the Messiah. John’s work and calling were simply to call the people to be ready for the coming Messiah. His work was to point, not to himself, but to Jesus. Notice how, when they asked him pointedly, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22b). John’s reply was to point to Christ. In the words of Isaiah the prophet John says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23b).
And John knew his limitations. He tells the people, I baptize with water for the remission of sins. I am here to call you to turn from your ways of sin and unbelief, to forgiveness and faith. I am here to call you from following the gods and idols of this world, to believe the words of Holy Scripture concerning the coming of the Savior.
Again, he was questioned by the Pharisees who asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:25b). Although we are told elsewhere that John came in the spirit of Elijah, he confesses that he himself is not Elijah. Many among the Jewish people expected the return of Elijah, whom you might remember did not die, but was bodily assumed into heaven, or they were expecting the return of a variety of persons in association with the coming of the Messiah, thus, the barrage of questions to John. John confesses, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27). Again, John knows his place. He knows his role. He came, not pointing to himself, but pointing to the coming of the Messiah.
In much the same way as John came to get the people of his day ready for Jesus’ first coming, so we read and hear his words still today to help us get ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth. At the same time, our getting ready for Christmas today is also much different than that of John’s day. Please bear with me as I bring to mind some of our customs today of getting ready for Christmas and especially as we have been talking about some of these customs at our Wednesday evening services, and as I attempt to put them into a Christian perspective. Today our getting ready for Christmas often includes putting up a Christmas tree. Our custom of putting up a Christmas tree, either real or artificial, reminds us of life. The green of the tree reminds us that we worship a living God. Very often our green tree is decorated with lights and with ornaments. The lights reminds us of the stars shining through the trees and in particular they might remind us of the star which lead the wise men to the house to see the newborn King. The tree is often topped with either a star or an angel. The star, again, reminding us of the star which lead the wise men to the house of the newborn King or the angel reminding us of all the work of the angels at this time of the year, making announcements to Zechariah and Mary, and to Joseph and the Shepherds.
Our Christmas preparations often include putting lights on the outside of our houses. Just as Jesus is the light of the world, so we would share our faith, not by hiding it under a bushel, but by letting our light shine before the world so that they might bear witness to the faith that is in our hearts.
A more recent custom is that of hanging a nail toward the center of the Christmas tree. This nail is quietly placed in remembrance of the reason for Christmas, that is that the reason the Child was born was to die, nailed to a cross. Most of the time we do not like to talk about death and dying, and especially during this season of celebrating the birth of a child death and dying talk seem so out of place. But for us Christians that is the reason for the season, the birth of this Child, God in flesh, who came to give His life, to die on the cross, to pay the price for our sins, for your sins and mine, so that we might have forgiveness and eternal life.
Our Christmas preparations often include putting a nativity set, either under the tree or out in the yard, or both. The nativity reminds us of that night on which Jesus was born. It reminds us of the fact that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn and so they had to spend the night in a barn. The barn was probably not a vacant barn, but was most likely filled with barn animals, cows, sheep, a donkey, some chickens and the like. The aroma of hay filled the barn. And very often, the manger, the feeding trough for the animals, is left empty until Christmas Eve or Christmas morning when the birth of the Christ child is celebrated at which time the baby is placed in the manger.
Most of us include the custom of exchanging presents during the time of Christmas. Certainly this would remind us of the season of epiphany when the wise men came and brought gifts of gold, incense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
For many the season of Christmas brings an anticipation of “getting” gifts. Children and adults alike anticipate “what they are going to get for Christmas.” In keeping with the eight commandment and in putting the best construction on everything, I pray this anticipation is also an anticipation of “getting” or begin given the greatest gift of all, the gift of God’s grace through His Son, Jesus.
For some there is the custom of baking a cake to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world. Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior, Jesus Himself. Just as we have a custom of baking and eating cake for our own birthdays, why not celebrate Jesus birthday with a birthday cake.
My intent this morning is not to exhaust all the customs that we Christians have or all the traditions each and every family has during the season of Christmas. I simply wanted to name a few in comparison and contrast to the preparation which happened at Jesus’ first coming. Sometimes it is good to take a look at the traditions we have in order to understand why we do what we do and that we are doing what we are doing not just for the sake of doing something. Some of you may have heard this story before. There was a young mother who cut off the ends of the ham before putting it into a pan and into the oven. When her child asked her why she did this, she did not know why. All she could say was, “that is the way my mother always did it.” So, she called her mother to ask her way she cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it and her mother did not know either, she simply said, “that is the way my mother always did it.” So, she called her mother (who happened to still be living) to ask her why she cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it and her mother told her, “because we did not have a pan large enough for the whole ham.” Why do we do the things we do? I can think of some positive reasons for many of the customs and traditions we have at this time of the year. If I cannot, then maybe it is time I think of a different custom or tradition.
Most important in getting ready for Christmas is the getting ready, not of the physical things of our lives, but of the preparing our hearts, minds and souls for our celebration of the newborn King. We prepare ourselves by making use of the means that God has of getting us ready, His means of grace, His Word, the Bible, as well as we do every Sunday morning, confession and absolution, and His sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and Holy Baptism. As we even quietly and unassumingly prepare our own lives for our celebration of Jesus’ birth we may also be a light for others, pointing them, through our actions and words, to Jesus whose birth we celebrate. And we may also reap the benefit of continuing to get ourselves ready for Jesus’ second coming.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty as the saying goes. What we are preparing to celebrate is a done deal, and yet at the same time we continue to prepare ourselves for Jesus; second coming, on the day of judgement. We are prepared, then, when we have our hearts, minds, and soul firmly secured in Jesus, who was born, who did live a perfect life, who did take our sins upon Himself, who did suffer and die, paying the price for our sins, eternal spiritual death, who did rise from the dead, who has ascended into heaven where He is watching over us, ruling over us and interceding for us, and who is awaiting the day when He will return to robe us with His robes us righteousness and take us to be with Himself and all the saints who have gone on before us, to heaven to be with Himself for eternity.
As I have said from time to time, we do not know what might lay ahead of us in life, how much time our Lord will give us in this present world and so it is so important to always be ready. It is important to be ready for when Jesus comes again, and it is important to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us. May the Lord work through the means that He has given us, as we make uses of those means, in order to get us ready, so that when He does come again we might stand with all the saints and say, to Him be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.