The good news of Jesus Christ starts with a messenger: John the Baptist.
The gospel of Mark opens with John out in the wilderness preaching his message. And although John’s beginning is “In the beginning,” the first character to appear and take action is the Baptist.
Matthew and Luke start another way, with Jesus’ birth, helping us understand who Christ is by understanding how he arrived. There’s a danger in Matthew’s account, though: he could tempt us to put John the Baptist’s message second. Matthew begins with Jesus’ family tree, then covers the angel’s visit to Joseph, and after Jesus’ birth tells us about a visit from some wise men. Much later, after the divine family have been to Egypt and back, John the Baptist appears.
Luke’s recollection of the events of Jesus’ birth is a nod to the one who would prepare his way because in that gospel, John comes first even in birth order. John’s parents get angelic word of his supernatural birth first – before Mary and Joseph. And then, after Mary and Elizabeth celebrate their unexpected pregnancies together, John is born first –before Jesus.
This intentional prioritizing would seem odd to us – why would anyone else come before the Son of God? – if we didn’t know John’s purpose: to prepare the way for Christ. And how can you prepare the way without coming first? John was like a messenger running ahead of Jesus, preaching a message that would get the people ready to hear the true Good News that Jesus would preach.
Now at this point during my sermon on Sunday, we were unexpectedly interrupted by a delivery man! Since we don’t typically get packages during worship, I was a bit confused. But when I saw who the package was from, it all made sense:
It turns out, our speedy delivery was from John the Baptist himself! And inside we found two messages.
The first one: Repent. This can sound awfully gloomy during all the festivities of Christmas. Who wants to repent? But this is exactly what John asked the people to do in order to get them ready for Christ.
Repent in its original usage held the meaning of turning away – as in, if you’re making a bad choice, then turn away from it and turn toward the right choice. The Greek is metanoia, and it implied a change of mind. John wasn’t just asking the people to feel bad about their mistakes. He was asking them to see their mistakes and then turn away, stop doing them. To turn to something better.
The second message in our package from John the Baptist: Forgiveness of sins. Here the Greek is aphesis, which meant a release from debt. Have you ever wronged someone and you know there’s this way in which they’ve kept that score, they’re holding that as a mark against you? When forgiveness happens, that score is zeroed out.
So here is John’s two-step message for those who would be Jesus’ followers: repentance and forgiveness of sins. This is what would prepare them to receive Christ.
Since John has sent this to us today, I think perhaps this message is for us as well. After all, this is Advent, and we’re preparing ourselves to celebrate Christ’s birth. So let’s take John’s advice by repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness.
To do this, I invite you to stand up.
Imagine that some sin, some mistake you’ve made is directly in front of you. It could be a bad choice you ought to avoid, or a good choice that you are neglecting, or a way of thinking about others that is contaminating your soul. Whatever it is, try to imagine it clearly in front of you in some kind of physical form.
Now, repent: turn 180 degrees in the other direction.
That sin – that mistake – is still back there, but we are taking the first step of turning away from it. We have repented.
Now, as you continue to face in this new direction, say out loud: “God, I’m sorry I’ve been doing this. Please forgive me.”
As you rest into God’s forgiveness, imagine that sin becoming smaller and smaller, fading back into the distance, until finally…
It’s no longer there.
I’ll warn you – if you decide to turn back, those sins have a way of rushing back up upon us. So before you return to your seat let’s say one more prayer out loud: “God, give me the strength I need to turn away from that old sin. And if I should have a moment of weakness and turn back – then God, remind me to repent again, to turn away. Over time, let this turning become permanent. Above all, let this turning be toward you.”
John the Baptist might not send you a message personally this Christmas season, but I guarantee you – this message is for every one of us who wants to receive Christ.
Repent, and be forgiven.