Over this past week or so, we have considered the centrality and importance of St. Mary to the Incarnation of the Son of God, to the coming of Christ in the flesh. That seems obvious enough, I suppose, and all the more so if you’re a mother with babies of your own. There would be no Christ Child or little Lord Jesus without His Mom! Even the U.S. Post Office makes a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary — the Madonna and Child — as an alternative to its Santa Claus stamps.
What may or may not be so obvious, but not nearly so comfortable in any case, is the place and importance of St. John the Baptist. I’m fairly confident that we’ll never see that fiery preacher of repentance on any U.S. postage stamps! The world has little patience for the Season of Advent, and even less desire for repentance. The world doesn’t want to hear about it, doesn’t want to think about it, and certainly doesn’t want to do it.
No, the world is far too eager to celebrate its own version of what it calls “Christmas,” beginning earlier every year. Bright lights and decorations; parties and pastries; shopping and wrapping, sending and exchanging gifts; and the proverbial “Christmas spirit,” which frankly has nothing to do with Christ, nor His Mass, nor His Holy Spirit. It’s all really something, except that, by the time the days of Christmas actually begin, the world is already tired and ready to be done with it all.
For the moment, the world has time and energy for all its much-to-do about nothing, in the interest of the economy, if for no other reason than that. But the world has no use for Advent, and it has no stomach whatsoever for St. John the Baptist. Sad to say, neither do many would-be churches.
But do not be bothered by that. The world will always go its own way, but let us not go with it. In any case, the Word of God will not allow us to leapfrog over Advent and St. John the Baptist in our hurry to get to the Christ Child. All four of the Holy Gospels begin as much or more with St. John before they get to Jesus. And long before either one of them appeared, St. John had already been the object of various Old Testament Prophecies, according to which it would be necessary for the Forerunner to come first and go before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way. The Angel Gabriel, righteous Zacharias, and the Lord Jesus Himself all affirm that Word of God.
As there would be no Christ Child and no Christmas without the Blessed Virgin Mary, so would it be impossible to receive the Christ in Christmas or at all apart from His Forerunner, St. John.
But, why? Doesn’t everybody love the little Baby Jesus? Who would not receive Him gladly?
Well, to begin with, No, not everybody loves the Baby Jesus, as the stories of the Gospel make painfully clear. Not only that, but it is neither correct nor sufficient to love the sweet little Baby apart from the bitter agony and bloody sweat of His Cross and Passion. For He has come in the flesh to sacrifice Himself on the Cross, to bear away in His own body the sins of the whole world.
It is also necessary to understand and believe that it is no mere man who suffers and dies for you, but the true Man who is at the same time the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God. And His true beauty and divine glory are not to be found in the romanticized images of Hallmark greeting cards and holiday specials, but in His gracious mercy and His humble obedience even unto death.
The Lord Jesus comes, not only in the flesh, but under the curse of sin and death, in order to obtain forgiveness, life, and salvation for sinners, like yourself, who do not deserve a bit of it. He comes and takes your sins upon Himself and atones for them by the shedding of His blood. He suffers your death and damnation in your place, and shares with you instead His own divine, eternal life.
The sad fact of the matter is, though, that in your sinful ignorance and rebellion, you do not want these divine gifts of your dear Lord Jesus Christ. You don’t want to give up your sins, nor even to admit your bondage to death and the devil. For it is at the very heart of your sin to deny and reject the Word of God and the Life to which He calls you. And you are so blinded by your sin and by the devil’s hold on your heart, mind, and mortal flesh, that you are not even capable of realizing your own situation. It is a trap from which you cannot free yourself, no more than anyone else can.
Such is your predicament apart from the Word and Spirit of God. And it cannot be turned around without a lot of kicking and screaming on your part, because you are the core of the problem. So it is that everything you are apart from Christ must be put to death: crucified, dead, and buried. Only then can you be raised up to a new life in Christ in His own Resurrection from the dead.
Dying and rising, being put to death and made alive. That is the shape of your Baptism into Christ, and that is the pattern of your Christian faith and life in this world. It is the shape of repentance, which is where and why St. John the Baptist enters the picture with his preaching and baptism.
Now, to be sure, the “rising” part of this equation sounds attractive. But you do not rise and live with Christ unless you have first been put to death and have died to yourself through repentance, and that on a daily basis throughout your life, until your body returns to the dust of the ground.
And the thing of it is that neither the dying nor the rising is a do-it-yourself exercise. You cannot will it to happen nor make it happen. Not by choices or decisions. Not by personal reflection or pious meditation. Not by good works or sincere efforts. Not by your own self-imposed guilt, and not be making yourself feel really bad about your past sins. None of this is right, nor does it work.
What you need — and what has to happen if you are to be saved — is that the Forerunner must go before the face of the Lord to prepare you for His coming by the preaching of repentance. He must level your mountains of pride. He must straighten out your crooked ways. He must slay your old Adam, nailing you to the Cross of Christ, and drowning you in a Baptism of repentance for the remission of your sins. In short, he must put you to death by the preaching of God’s Law.
Only by that Word of God do you die to your sins, and die to the world, and die to the devil, death, and hell. Only by that Word are you turned away from all of your self-chosen self-destruction.
But that is only the beginning of repentance, and only the first part of the ministry of St. John the Baptist. For along with his preaching of the Law, he comes also with the preaching of the divine Word of the Gospel. Indeed, as fundamental and necessary as St. John’s preaching of the Law is, he is most distinctively the one who ushers in the Christ of God, who is the Savior of the world.
When Advent comes along each year, and St. John comes to you with the Word of the Law and the preaching of repentance, they are announcing and declaring the coming of the Lord your God. And He comes, indeed, to save you, to redeem you from sin, death, and hell, and to grant you the eternal life of righteousness and holiness with God, which is found only in Christ Jesus.
When the preacher of repentance exposes your sins and your sinfulness, he does so to prepare you for the forgiveness of all your sins. When he puts you to death with the sharp Word of the Law, it is to raise you up with Christ by His sweet Word of the Gospel, His Word of Holy Absolution.
So, too, when he preaches and administers the Baptism of repentance, it is for the forgiveness of your sins. For it is the death by drowning of your old Adam, that the New Man might daily arise in you, and you in Him, to live before God in His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
None of this is possible, nor is it even available to you, except by the Word of God. Of course, it has all been accomplished for you, obtained for you, and manifested for you by Christ Himself. But all of this that He has done would be for nothing, if it were not actually conveyed to you, delivered to you, and bestowed upon you by the preaching of His Word, His Law and His Gospel. Only by that Word — in which Christ and His Spirit are actively present and at work — are you put to death and raised again to newness of life. Only thus are you turned away from your sin and death, and turned to the Lord by faith in His forgiveness of your sins, in order to share His Life.
Which is why, from the Old Testament Prophets to St. John the Baptist, from Christ Himself to His Holy Apostles and Evangelists, and to this very day, the Lord in His mercy has never failed to send His messengers before His face: His preachers of repentance, who prepare His way, who give the knowledge of salvation to His people by the forgiveness of their sins.
And so now also unto you. By the preaching of this Word, the Dayspring from on high continues to visit you, and to shine upon you — to give you His Light, even when you sit in darkness or walk through the valley of the shadow of death — and to guide your feet into His Way of Peace.
It is in this way that the Lord who loves you brings you through this penitential Season of Advent to the feasting and celebration of His Holy Nativity. God grant you, by His grace, by His Word and Holy Spirit, the repentance and faith to receive that most precious gift, unto life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.