There are still lots of things to do between now and Christmas. Unfortunately, many of us are so busy we will miss the person standing between us and Christmas, a man who’s pointing us in the direction we need to go: John the Baptist.
How can you miss John the Baptist? There he is, standing in the middle of the Jordan River, speaking in a loud, commanding voice. He’s a bit on the eccentric side. He looks like a weird character you might see on the streets of San Francisco. He looks a little bit like a caveman standing there in his garment of camel’s hair. His home is in the desert. I bet he had body odor. After all, how many baths can you take in the desert?
He’s a rough, tough-looking guy. He eats what the desert lets him eat: locusts and wild honey. I bet he had halitosis (bad breath) too. And yet, there on the edge of the wilderness, people come out of the cities and the villages to hear this man preach. Before you can get to Christmas, you need to hear the message of John the Baptist.
John’s entire purpose is to get us ready for the coming of Jesus. He fulfilled the words of Isaiah the prophet, who said that God would send his messenger. His voice would be a voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3b).
This was John’s role, and he fulfilled it by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The gospel writer Mark paints a picture of people coming from the cities and villages and entering the water of the Jordan River, confessing their sins as John baptized them.
As you make a list of Christmas gifts to purchase for others this season, have you stopped to think what you might give the Lord? John the Baptist stands between us and Christmas Day, and he bellows from the Jordan River that you and I need to repent of our sins.
A man with a nagging secret couldn’t keep it any longer. In the confessional, he admitted that for years he had been stealing building supplies from the lumberyard where he worked.
“What did you take?” his parish priest asked.
“Enough to build my own home and enough for my son’s house,” the man said. “And houses for our two daughters. And our cottage at the lake.”
“This is very serious,” the priest said. “I shall have to think of a far-reaching penance. Have you ever done a retreat?”
“No, Father, I haven’t,” the man replied. “But if you can get the plans, I can get the lumber.”
This man came to the priest to admit his guilt, but he didn’t come with much desire to change his habits. Giving this kind of confession to God is like giving a kid a battery-operated toy, but no batteries. It looks good, but it has no power. Admitting guilt may look good, but without repentance, confession has no power. Repentance happens when we turn away from our sin and move toward God.
What does the Lord want for Christmas? The Lord would love to receive our confessions. But believe me: The Lord knows whether our confessions are coupled with a sincere desire to make changes. Repentance is the battery in our confession. Repentance is the power that makes our confessions mean something.
John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We must immerse ourselves in the waters of repentance as we confess our sins. Otherwise, we’ve done nothing more than wrap a piece of coal in pretty wrapping and present it to Jesus as his gift.
Do you want to give the Lord something for Christmas? Then begin with the one issue that weighs the most on your conscience and admit to the Lord your sin. Then pray to God for the discipline and strength to make the changes you need in your life. Know that the Lord will keep his promise to forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.
John the Baptist may have had BO, he may have had halitosis, but he didn’t smell nearly as bad as those of us who try to fool others and fool the Lord with an occasional token of religious activity that seems to pop up during the holidays.
The fact that we come down to the waters to hear John the Baptist preach doesn’t mean we are willing to get wet. We can all admit we are wrong about certain things, but how many of us are willing to change?
The Lord would like nothing better for Christmas than to receive our confessions and help us make the changes we need to make in our lives.
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column first appeared in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.