It would not make much sense for a salesperson who was trying to get you to buy something for Christmas to make you feel completely uncomfortable about buying the something they were trying to sell. “You need to buy a car for someone you love at Christmas? Have I got the car for you! It’s guaranteed to get you one whole mile a gallon; it only takes you thirty minutes to get it running once you start cranking the engine by hand; and it normally doesn’t start rusting out before a week…” It does not take a lot of imagination to figure out that the normal question anyone would ask, “Do I want to buy what he’s selling?” – and that the normal answer would be, “No way!”
That’s what many people today say – “No way!” — when thinking about the Christmas spiritual sales pitch of John the Baptist when he says that the only way to understand Christmas and to enjoy Christmas is to see in ourselves far worse things than a person would see in such a ridiculous car that that salesman wanted to sell you. “Repent,” John the Baptist said, as he prepared people for the coming of the Christ. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We are told that many people back then did listen to what he had to say, but much of that listening likely resuled from how strange he seemed with his garment of camel’s hair and his diet of grasshoppers; and thankfully some people did appreciate – and believed — what he had to say; but most people back then basically said — just as most people today basically say — “Do I want to buy what he’s selling?” Let’s think about how God wants us to think about that question as we go about preparing for Christmas with John the Baptist.
The only way to avoid a huge car-buying mistake in regard to that car is to admit something about that car. You have to confess how unworthy that car would be of any consideration whatsoever to pay even one penny to purchase it. John the Baptist wants us to avoid a huge Christmas-buying mistake, too. We are told how to do that in verse 6, not quite halfway down our lesson: “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Confessing sins. Do you find it hard to buy into that sometimes? Why is it so hard to buy what John the Baptist is selling? It’s hard because there is absolutely no one who enjoys talking about how unworthy they are to have the Lord God pay even one penny of his Son’s blood to purchase them. In fact, there even is the tendency in our hearts to do what those Pharisees and Sadducees who snooped around the Jordan River did in their hearts and with their actions, leading John the Baptist to call them a bunch of vipers — snakes slithering around the dust of the earth thinking they were head and shoulders above anyone else who was on that earth with them – and also leading John to warn them that the ax of God’s anger was ready cut down the tree of their lives eternally if they didn’t show by the fruit of their lives that they were sorry for their sins and that they needed the salvation he came to bring. “Confess how bad you are if you want to have a great Christmas?”, we can find ourselves saying. No way do I want to do that or think about that all that much. Christmas is about nice-sounding things, positive-sounding things, fun-sounding things, not about “look out for that sin” and “quit doing that sin” and “be sad for all the sin you do all the days of your lives” kinds of things. “I don’t want to buy what John the Baptist is selling, either.”
When you or I find ourselves saying those kinds of things about not wanting to buy what John the Baptist is selling, doesn’t that make it all the more remarkable to think about what about what Jesus Christ is buying? He is buying something far worse than a car that doesn’t work. He is buying people who can’t work, because he’s paying a huge price for people who are dead. All of us are beyond repair spiritually when we come into this world, so God has to start over. And the way he starts over for many of us is the same way he started over with those in the Jordan River, as the water was poured on them with God’s Word for the forgiveness of their sins. When you think about your baptism, think about it as the time the God who made you paid a huge price for something that didn’t make any sense for him to do – but that he did — as through your baptism he connected you to everything his Son did when he lived perfectly in your place and died innocently in your place and rose from death, since death could not keep him in its place, and so that he could return to the place where he is now preparing a place for you.
All those things that Jesus did to pay the price to earn your place in God’s family are part of what John the Baptist was talking about when he talked about another kind of baptism that Jesus would later carry out. That’s what he is talking about in verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus does of course tell us to baptize with water, but what John is predicting here is another kind of baptism – the one that occurred on the great day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon – or “baptized,” we could say – the heads of the disciples in what looked like tongues of fire. That day of Pentecost took place after Jesus did all the work he came to do, ten days after he returned to heaven. The point John the Baptist is making before Jesus even began his ministry is that Jesus would finish his ministry – his ministry of paying the price for all the sins we need to confess, leading us as we confess sins to also thenconfess Christ – and to thank Christ – and to praise Christ – and to live for Christ. That’s the way to prepare for Christmas with John the Baptist – confess with humility that you need what he’s selling, and confess with thankfulness that the one whose way he prepared paid the price you could not pay to purchase what he so dearly wants you to have.
The last verse of our lesson tells us how dearly Jesus really, really wants us to have the greatest gift of Christmas there could possibly be – the whole reason the Christ for whom Christmas is named came to earth – to give us salvation from our sins. That intense desire of Jesus comes through in John’s intense words about him in verse 12, when he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” At Jesus’ time farmers would place the wheat onto a slab or a floor, and they would throw it up into the air so that the heavier grains of wheat would fall to the ground and so that the lighter chaff or waste materials would blow away in the wind. The instrument they used to throw that wheat into the air for that kind of separation was called a winnowing fork.
It might seem like a strange way to think about it, but in some respects we could say that John the Baptist is trying to get us to want a winnowing fork for Christmas – or at least to be thrown up in the air by Jesus as he uses his winnowing fork. By confessing our sins and confessing Christ we don’t have to be afraid that we will get blown away by what life throws at us or blown away from the love of God, even when we may feel like that car and think that our gas mileage is low and we haven’t accomplished much in life, or that it’s hard to have much power or energy to get started, or that many things of our lives feel like they are rusting away. And knowing that God’s love will allow us to never get blown away makes us all the more want to give that same gift to those who don’t know what Christmas really is all about or who have forgotten it. Just like Jesus, we don’t want that to happen – we don’t want anyone to go the place of unquenchable fire — so just like Jesus we want to help people in our families and in our church and in our world prepare for Christmas in what might seem like a very strange way, especially when you compare it to so much of what we continue to see day after day all around us, but it is the greatest way to truly help us look forward to and anticipate the day that is only now three weeks away.
So, do you want to buy what John the Baptist is selling when it comes to preparing for Christmas? What a great blessing it is that God has led us to listen to someone who looked as strange as John the Baptist and who said things as strange as John the Baptist. And what a great blessing to know that everything he did he did to focus our attention on the one whose way he came to prepare, the one who looked far stranger when later hanging on the cross, the one who does the strange, but remarkable, thing, of not only buying people like us for himself, but also using people like us to keep being John the Baptists for the people of our world today. Not everyone will want to buy what we’re selling, but that’s not going to stop God’s people from helping everyone we can prepare for Christmas in the exact same way that God has prepared us – by confessing sin and confessing Christ. God will never say “no way” to that. Amen.