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“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

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An unconventional Christmas message

Are you still reading? I don’t blame you if you aren’t. This is a jarring message at the best of times, but how much more so at Christmas? 

At Christmas we are inundated with voices sending us messages of joy, love, and anticipation. These voices are both sacred and secular ranging from messages like “Joy to the world,” to, “It’s the hap, happiest season of all.” We know there is a tension running through these many, divergent voices yet most of us have negotiated a tenuous peace between them. It is a peace that the Baptizer’s words do not so much disturb as shatter.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

We don’t often associate this message with Christmas. I have yet to read or even write a Christmas story that includes it. It doesn’t seem to fit. John’s message and ministry as a whole don’t seem to fit. And yet, when our four chief storytellers set out to tell us the Christmas story in the most basic of terms, they each include John’s message and ministry. So Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth with the story of John’s. Matthew ends his account of Jesus’ beginnings with an account of John’s. And the Gospel writers Mark and John skip over Bethlehem completely, going straight to John and his message in the desert as their “Christmas story.” For the Gospel writers it is clear, if we want to be prepared to understand and celebrate the message of Jesus’ advent—his coming, then we need to be prepared to hear and respond to John’s as well. It is why Christians over the centuries have connected this season we call Advent not with Bethlehem, angels, or shepherds, but with John the Baptist in the desert.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

It is a jarring message. It is the message to look at what we are doing and where we are heading. To acknowledge the need to change the direction of our lives and what we spend so much time grasping after. To instead head towards God and what he has to bring. And not just this, but then John speaks warnings about wrath, an ax, a winnowing fork, and fire—his message confronting us with all the subtlety of an ax and fire. John’s message seems to have no place among messages like, “Peace on earth! Good will to all!” It can feel like his message threatens to burn up whatever peace we might find and chop down whatever good will yet grow.

And yet it is John’s voice that the people needed to hear and respond to if they were going to be prepared to hear and respond to Jesus’. They needed to hear his voice calling out their hypocrisy, exposing their need, pointing them in the direction of life, grace, and wholeness. John’s voice confronted the people with the reality of their situation. It exposed it like a fire and cut away at their false hopes and empty practices like an axe, the scorched soil and pruned limbs making room for the new life Jesus and his kingdom brings. Rather than destroying their hopes, it pointed them to where their true and deepest hopes are found.

And it is John’s voice that we need to hear not just even now at Christmas, but especially now at Christmas. It is a voice that confronts all the others we are listening to, revealing what has our hearts and our hopes and where we are looking to find peace, joy, and love. Rather than destroying these things, John’s voice opens the door to being able to actually receive and experience these things as we stop looking to the people and things around us to give us what they were never meant to give. Maybe we experience John’s voice like an axe or fire cutting and burning away those obstacles that we don’t want to or even know how to let go of. But maybe we experience them like a lantern’s light or surgeon’s scalpel that works to reveal and to heal as we come to realize that what we need is more than a baby in a manger or some other sentimental moment of beauty or innocence. What we need instead is a King who comes for a throne by way of a cross. The one who invites us to change course and follow him.

 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

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