Excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Gayle Clifton at Olney Baptist Church in Olney, Md.
John the Baptist came to “prepare the way of the Lord.” In the third chapter of Luke, we are told he came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John seems to be an intruder in our Christmas celebrations. Didn’t anyone tell him that this is the season of good tidings?
He talks about crooked roads made straight and rough place smoothed, and even says to a crowd, “You brood of vipers.” Flee from the wrath to come. How he proclaims Christ’s coming is in sharp contrast to what we like to hear at Christmas.
Maybe there is a reason he was so odd. He lived out in nature, wearing a camel’s-hair garment, rugged and carrying a staff. His diet was strange, though Bible scholars tell us now that eating locusts was a common source of protein that it even tastes like shrimp when it’s cooked. John might seem odd, but Jesus said that none born of woman was greater than he. John told us what we must do to receive the Messiah: “Prepare your hearts for repentance.”
May we take John’s words seriously as a first thing we can do to prepare for Christmas. Those who are believers know this experience of conversion. We acknowledge our sins, yield our hearts to Jesus Christ as Lord, and profess our faith. We don’t have to go back and be baptized for Christmas. But couldn’t God cleanse from our hearts any sins or hurtful thoughts lurking there?
I read once about an IRS agent getting an anonymous envelope in the mail. Out of it fell several crisp $100 bills, and a letter said: “I have cheated on my taxes, and the guilt has gotten the best of me, so I am paying part of it.” The letter ended, “If I still cannot sleep, and God does not free me of this burden, I will send you the rest.”
People can be entirely free of sin and guilt because God will take it away. John the Baptist tells us that the heart of Christmas is not the bright lights and good cheer and gifts, but it is bound up in Jesus Christ and His grace. We have to prepare our hearts to receive Him, and that begins with repentance.
In this Advent season, we can do a second thing to prepare for Christ: remembering the promises of God. We are told that before the foundation of the world, and before it became entangled in sin, there was a plan. God was not caught by surprise. It was in “the fullness of time,” the right and appropriate time, that God sent His Son.
Christmas celebrates not only the babe in the manger but the entire redemptive event of history. He came into this world. He taught, healed and suffered, He died on the cross and rose on the third day. And today He lives in our hearts. Most people who celebrate Christmas in our society miss this full context.
Eugene Peterson, author of “The Message,” tells of how one year in his youth, his Norwegian mother read in Jeremiah that pagans had cut down and decorated trees to worship idols. Well, she took Scripture perhaps too seriously on this, and that year decided, “No Christmas tree.”
So the family gathered at their house for a big Norwegian Christmas feast, the agnostic uncle could not believe what he saw. “How in the world can we have a Norwegian Christmas with no tree?” She said, “My brother, we are not celebrating a Norwegian Christmas, but a Christian Christmas.”
Many will celebrate an American Christmas, a cultural event of enjoyment and indulgence. I pray you will be among the many others who celebrate a Christian Christmas. He was born into a world caught up in sin to free it, and that is God’s promise.
Christmas finally culminates in renewal. It is a time when Christ is born anew in our hearts. Could this be a season in which you come to life? Is it a time to know God through Jesus like never before? It is the perfect season to adopt His kingdom lifestyle and take the path to true Christmas joy.
Next week: a sermon at a Virginia congregation.