Turning up the heat
There is a cartoon depicting a preacher right before a worship service. The preacher is standing in the vestry wearing a black robe, and he has a sneer on his face. Through the vestry door you can see the congregation seated waiting for the service to begin. In his hand the preacher has some papers with the heading "Sermon on Hell". And as he stands there before the service begins, he is turning up the thermostat on the air-conditioning to 40 degrees.
It is clear that the preacher is turning up the heat to make a point about hell and to get people to change from their sinful and hurtful ways; to turn their lives around and be the people God had intended them to be.
In Mark 1:4-8 we hear John the Baptist turning up the heat and calling out, to all those who would listen, to repent, to turn away from their sinful ways. A wild sort of man he was, who wore a one-piece camel hair suit; whose idea of a gourmet meal was a handful of grasshoppers and a glob of wild honey. And if his appearance and his diet aren't bizarre enough, he has a message that is the ultimate kill joy, "Repent!" he cries. "Get on your knees! Change your mind and prepare the way of the Lord!"
John the Baptist was no softy. By no stretch of the imagination was he a meek and mild kind of preacher. He laid into people when they only made half-hearted attempts at repentance and godly living. When they thought that they could just turn up and listen to a few of his sermons, then undergo baptism and that would do the trick, he surprised them with rude words. He really turned up the heat even more. In Luke’s gospel John called the crowd "a bunch of snakes". "Do something to show that you really have given up your sins…. An axe is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire" (Luke 3:9 CEV). The fire of God's judgement is coming.
John even dared to openly turn up the heat on King Herod himself and accused him of gross misconduct. John was rude; he was tough; fearless when it came to speaking about his listeners’ relationship with God.
How out of sync is this message of John’s with what is happening in these last days before Christmas. This is the season of joy and merriment, parties and liquid cheer. We want to put aside the gloom and the doom, we want to forget, for just a short while, the fear that terrorism has brought into our lives, the effect of the drought on our land, the threats of war, our sickness and grief and enjoy the merriment, the peace and the good cheer that Christmas brings. We like singing the Christmas carols and hearing the story of the baby born in poverty in Bethlehem. Christmas lights brighten our streets and we are living in expectation of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It hits us when we come to church during Advent and hear John the Baptist turning up the heat on our sin. John the Baptist was preparing for the coming of Jesus – when he would start his earthly ministry. Today as we hear his cry to "change our ways and prepare the way for the Lord", he is not only preparing us for our Christmas celebration but also for the day when Jesus will come again.
To talk about sin, the judgement of God, the eternal punishment of those who do not change their ways, is tough to listen to. And if I were to speak like John and not just talk about sin generally, but to turn up the heat on each of you personally, and mention the sins in your life and your lack of love and commitment to God and your fellow human beings, I think you would react much the same way as King Herod did. If I called you a "bunch of snakes" and highlighted in what ways you have failed to change your ways, I imagine you would be mighty upset. Perhaps you would point out that this is the season of good cheer and that I am completely out of order.
And yet, strangely enough, if the Christmas season is to mean anything to us, John must be heard! Not just heard but taken seriously. If we want to experience the true blessings of the coming of the Prince of Peace, we must first change our posture, that is, get down on our knees, and own up to God that we have shamelessly ignored him and been unkind to the people around us. And while on our knees, vow to do a better job in our commitment to God and to living God's way.
John won't let us off the hook: "Repent! Change your ways!" he cries in the wilderness. Down on your knees. Looking at someone else's kneecaps is a good posture to be when it comes to humility. As long as we think there is nothing wrong with us, as long as we try to ignore our sin, we maintain a distance between God and ourselves.
The Bible says, "If we say that we have not sinned, we are fooling ourselves, and the truth isn't in our hearts" (1 John 1:8). In this time before Christmas, before the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who brings to us saving forgiveness and a new start in life, let us not mind John the Baptist and those who speak God's Word and prepare us with tough messages. You see, if we don’t take our sin seriously then neither will we take God seriously who became a human at Christmas. If we don’t listen to John’s damning words, his warning that God's judgement is near, then neither will we appreciate the extreme measures that God has taken in order to deal with our sin by becoming a tiny, helpless baby.
There are many people, too many people, who will sing "Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled" (from Hark the herald angels sing) and not have a clue what they are singing about.
They don’t see any need for God and them to be reconciled. They don’t see themselves as the kind of sinners that need any help, after all they do their best and surely God won’t hold that against them. They don’t see that this baby in Bethlehem is their Saviour, that God came to earth for them, "born to give them second birth". They fail to see that even the smallest and most trivial of our sins is disobedience toward God and that Jesus came to earth to deal with sin and bring forgiveness and hope.
Therein lies the challenge that Christmas brings us – to tell our children, our grandchildren, our friends and even strangers that Christmas isn’t just about a baby resting in sweet smelling hay, but about God who has laid aside his glory and was "born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth born to give us second birth" (from Hark the herald angels sing).
Perhaps I could say that we all need to be John the Baptists, and in an unmistakable way, help those whom we love prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace both this Christmas and especially for the time when "he will come again to judge the living and dead" (Apostles’ Creed).
John the Baptist calls out again, "Repent! Turn away from your sins!" He isn’t calling us to beat our breast and say what a miserable sinner we have been over and over again. Rather he is calling us to change our ways, to do things a new way, a new way that allows Christ to enter more deeply into our hearts, a new way that follows God's ways more closely, a new way that forgets about greed and self-centredness and puts other people and their needs first.
When John turns up the heat and points out how far we have moved away from God, the Holy Spirit points out that we have a God who forgives. We hear God say, "Comfort, comfort … your sins are now forgiven" (Isaiah 40:1,2). The God we meet at Christmas yearns to forgive us. That’s the reason he sent his Son to become human and then to die on a cross. Christmas and Easter, the Manger and the Cross, fit together. This is God's way of ensuring that all who believe and have faith will live forever.
Advent is just four weeks of the year, but John’s call is an all year-round thing. The Messiah who comes to us at Advent will not go away. Even though we pack away our Christmas trees and gifts, he will always be there. Our sin is with us all year round. Our need to be confronted with our sinfulness and to repent is an all year-round matter. And all year Jesus Christ will remain a constant, forgiving, restoring presence in our lives. What remains for us is to remember who we are: We are the forgiven ones. Let's forgive! We are loved by God in Christ. Let's love! We are those visited by God. Let's visit others with God's love!
When John the Baptist turns up the heat on sin, it is God's way of bringing us closer to him. Mark opens his gospel by saying, "This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God" and then immediately he records how John the Baptist turned up the heat on sin. We fall to our knees realising our desperate need. The only way to be close to this child in the manger is on our knees. He will reach his tiny hand out from the straw and touch us with his love. He will reach out with his nail-pierced hand and show what lengths his love caused him to go for us so that we could belong to him and serve him. John’s tough message is good news.
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