Dear disciples of Jesus throughout the North American Lutheran Church:
The season of Advent is a wondrous time of preparation and anticipation. I encourage you to immerse yourself in this season, instead of enduring it as a necessary requirement in order to get to Christmas — the true focus of our energy and attention. One of the key figures in this season is John the Baptist and his message and ministry.
In thinking about his ministry, I thought about the challenge that Smith Magazine offered its readers — to attempt to write their autobiography in six words. The results were profound.
In reading those very brief autobiographies, I was reminded of the renowned theologian Karl Barth, who was asked at a press conference, “What is the most profound truth you have learned in your studies?” Without the least hesitation he offered six words: “Jesus loves me this I know.” He paused and added another six for good measure, “for the Bible tells me so.”
What would John the Baptist’s autobiography look like in six words? Wilderness preaching, repent and be baptized or Change and transformation, essential Kingdom living. If we follow his life a little further, perhaps we would write, Arrested and imprisoned, lost his head.
Throughout his life, his message was focused on these six words: Jesus, Son of God, world’s Savior.
John had an urgent message for this world. Where do you hear this message today? We hear many commercials that make us feel a sense of urgency to buy things we don’t need or give things to people they will never use. The commercial message of Christmas is found everywhere, but where is the spiritual message of Christmas? Who will bring a word to this world about the only true meaning of Christmas — Jesus Christ?
The world says this is a time for caring and sharing, and for family and charity. Even churches begin to sound like the rest of the world saying the same things. “Come to our church,” they all say. “We are the friendliest. We have the best pastor. We have the best Sunday school. We have the best worship services. Come to us, and you will experience all the love and sharing and caring and hugging and singing that you’re looking for this time of the year.”
This is not bad, but it is not what God intends or what the world needs.
The witness of John the Baptist reminds us that the goal of faithful living is not to blend in with the rest of the world. It is not to be politically correct or to be led by political agendas, no matter how popular. John is not trying to sell something or convince people to purchase something, as if Jesus were a possession or commodity that could be purchased. His message is focused on reaching the heart of every person he encounters.
John’s message is powerful because it comes from God. The priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask, “Who are you?” He tells them clearly that he is not the messiah. He is not Elijah, and he is not a prophet. Then they ask him the most important question of all. “What do you say about yourself?” John says, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord!”
Voice and crying go together. The voice preaches faith; the cry calls for repentance. The voice offers comfort; the cry signals danger. The voice sings mercy; the cry announces judgment.
John the Baptist’s entire life and ministry point to Jesus. John removed all false suspicions about who he was. He is not the Christ! The people around him offered him glory. Instead, he deflects all the glory toward Jesus.
John admitted the limitation and incompleteness of his ministry. His baptism was with water, but he pointed to Jesus who baptizes people with the Holy Spirit, providing forgiveness, transformation and new life. John spoke of his own unworthiness to untie the sandals of Jesus, he recalled the imagery in the book of Ruth of the kinsman redeemer removing his sandals in preparation to receive his bride, something that John was unwilling to do because he was not the bridegroom. One of the Church fathers writes, “When Christ does remove his sandals, he leaves his footprint on our souls.” John was not the perfect one, but his work was to prepare the way for the One who is the perfect Savior and Redeemer of the world — Jesus Christ.
John’s message reminds us that spiritual preparation begins with repentance. The process of repentance begins by recognizing our sins and confessing them to Christ. Whenever we confess our sins, we remember God’s promise of forgiveness to us in Baptism. In this process of repentance, we receive forgiveness. The power of Christ’s forgiveness is in the cross and the empty tomb. The magnitude of His grace assures us of our complete forgiveness.
Reform, which is often overlooked, is the final part of the process of repentance. Our lives begin to change. Forgiven for impatience, we become more patient. Forgiven for our anger, we become gentle. Forgiven for our greed, we become generous. Forgiven for selfishness, we focus on the needs of others. Forgiven for disobeying God and making excuses, we begin to obey God, not because we have to, but because we want to.
The courage to confess, the assurance of forgiveness and the power to live a transformed life all come from the same source, the grace of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. The answers do not come from within us but are transcendent and come to us from the Holy Spirit of Christ. Often that is where we end our preparation, taking care of ourselves. But John the Baptist reminds us of our need to be a witness to Christ in this world. We are called to point to Jesus with our words and deeds. We must find ways to tell people who we are! We are followers of Christ, disciples of Jesus, who have only one purpose for living, to point people to Jesus. This is the greater goal of Advent — to share our hope and expectation.
Jesus is the only hope for the world. He is the only way, the only truth and the only life. We live with the constant expectation that He is coming again in power and glory and that one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
There is no greater love for others than to share the truth of Jesus with them. This is the message of hope that the world so desperately needs: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 ESV).
The biography of John the Baptist is not nearly as important as the biography of God. It too is a series of just six words — “For God so loved the world.”
The most powerful and important biography of all time: God loves us so much that He sent His only Son, Jesus. Through Him we receive unfathomable grace, infinite love and life in Him that is eternal.
In the midst of our Christmas preparation we often forget that there is a message that desperately needs to be proclaimed! We must use this as a time to point to Jesus! The amazement of the Incarnation will one day be overshadowed by His coming in glory and power. In the meantime, we live in the reality of His presence among us now in the Word read and proclaimed, in the water and the Word of Baptism, and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
He is here leading His Church, guiding our congregations in mission and ministry. He is Emmanuel, God with us, inspiring us through His example of servant leadership and obedience to the will of His Father. In obedience to His Father’s will, He endured the agony of the cross and died the death we deserve. He paid the price of our forgiveness so that our sins might be washed away in Baptism, and the relationship with Jesus by faith in Him secured for all eternity in His glorious resurrection.
He is with us to strengthen us for our witness to this world. John the Baptist knew that he was nobody compared to this special somebody. In a world where leaders want to point to themselves, the number of members, the size of their campus, the number of books sold, honors received, interviews given, and endorsements requested, John shows the nature of leadership in the Church — point to Christ.
Unfortunately, there are many teachers and leaders, even in the Church, who believe they are greater and wiser than Jesus. Mohammed taught that he was a greater prophet than Jesus. The founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith, taught that his revelation was more authoritative than the teachings of Jesus. There is a long list of messianic pretenders and founders of sects and cults in North American culture, and throughout the world, who believe that Jesus must decrease so that they might increase.
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He told his own followers, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John knew that Jesus was not one among many. He was the one and only. You should follow no religious leader who puts himself above Jesus or points to his own accomplishments. We must follow the example of John the Baptist and boldly point to Jesus with all we have and are, even in a world that despises Him and may hate us for proclaiming Him.
My point in talking about the power of a few words is that a few words are all you need to witness to Jesus. You do not have to preach a sermon, teach a course in theology or be able to attract a crowd. With a few words you can point to Jesus. Your decorations can point to Jesus. What you wear can point to Jesus. How you spend your time and what you do can point to Jesus.
Don’t be surprised that the world does not know how to celebrate Christmas appropriately. How can it unless people of faith are even more committed to pointing to Jesus?
As we celebrate the Eucharist we hear another group of six profound words that make the grace of Jesus Christ real and tangible — “Do this in remembrance of me.” In those words, Jesus is saying that this is the best way to prepare your heart for Christmas and receive power for an effective witness. What we receive is what we proclaim.
The ministry and message of John the Baptist could be summarized in these six words: Christ’s the Word; John’s the voice.
The implications of this Advent season for our own life is similar: Christ’s the Word; you’re His voice! May your witness to the world be strengthened this Advent season and throughout this new Church Year.
With you following Christ Jesus,
Bishop John Bradosky