The Trial of John the Baptist


This 3rd Sunday in Advent comes closest to the world’s pre-Christmas preparations. Joy is the theme for this Sunday. The historic introit is Paul’s admonition, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” We light the only pink candle on the wreath as symbol of joy. The purple of penitence is tempered with the white of Christ to give us pink for joy. Today it seems we’re in step with the world’s Christmas prep. The rejoicing we’re called to do goes with the world’s Christmas parties, shopping sprees, and revelry. Since we’re meshing with the world’s Christmas preparations, I propose we jettison John the Baptist. We don’t need him crying on the banks of the Jordan while everyone else is in town guzzling eggnog. But in the interest of due process, let’s put him on trial first.

First, I present the circumstantial evidence. There never have been Christmas cards with J the B on them. There’s no commemorative porcelain John the Baptist Christmas figurine. The J&B on those bottles of Christmas cheer don’t stand for him. And to seal the circumstantial case, I ask: Have you ever heard of a John the Baptist Christmas Special? That’s enough for me. If John the B. did fit into Christmas, he would have his own special along with Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch, and Charlie Brown. 

Okay, the circumstantial isn’t enough for you. So, let’s go into a pretrial investigation. Into John’s background we go. We find that he was born in a city of the Hill Country of Judea around 5 B.C.. He was the child of 2 descendants of the priesthood. Liz and Zach were old, eccentric, religious types. His parents were known for their intense longing for the Lord to fulfill His promise to send the Redeemer. His dad when last on duty as priest in Jerusalem came home mute and probably deaf making signs about some vision he had there. You know already what type of upbringing he had. His parents took religion in the home very seriously. Religion wasn’t something that took place outside the home in ‘church’. Nope. Religion and the faith saturated his home life. You can see how John’s home life would make him different, but you don’t know the half of it. John wasn’t like our faithful children. One reporter, Luke by name, records that he “lived in the desert till the day of his public appearance.”

Where he lived indicates to me that he might not be playing with a full deck. Isn’t that enough of a reason to not let him have any part of decking our halls with boughs of holly? But you want more than my opinion. Okay, how about the fact his dress of a camel hair shirt and leather belt imitated a prophet from almost 900 years ago? And neither was John’s diet that of a Jerusalem gourmet. It was downright un-Christmasy. Oh wild honey might be considered a delicacy by some foodies, but I don’t’ think locusts would be. Isn’t this enough to hold John for trial? He invades our idea of Christmas. Christmas is Gucci shirts not camel hair turtle necks. Christmas is fruitcakes not locust bread even if it is topped with wild honey.  

But you can’t try a man for the crime of being different, least not legally. Not to worry, we can charge him with creating a public disturbance. Josephus, a contemporary Jewish historian, reports, “When others joined the crowds about him – for they were deeply stirred at hearing his words – Herod grew alarmed: such great influence over the people could lead to an uprising, for they seemed ready to do anything John might advise” (Maier, Josephus, 271-2). Another writer, Matthew, testifies: “People went out to John from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” (3:5). Okay, he made waves; he upset the status quo, so do internet influencers today. Is that a crime? No, but insulting the powers that be and inciting others can be. If my letters to the synod we left said, “Dear brood of vipers”, you’d think me guilty. If I sent them holiday greetings, “Merry Christmas you Bunch of Snakes”, you’d think I was inciting them.

I could make his ‘crimes’ even more personal. What if I told good Lutheran people, proud of their Lutheran ancestry, that they aren’t descendants of who they think? What if I said that just because you’re physical descendants of Lutheran believers, doesn’t mean you’re Lutheran or even a believer? What if I said that saying sincerely, “I’m so sorry for my sins”, without bringing forth fitting fruit, means your sins are still on you? What if told you it’s no repentance to tell God, “I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I am”? What if told you what John told them: the ax is already laid at the roots of trees who persist in unbelieving ways even though they think of themselves as members in good standing? This is the equivalent of receiving a Christmas card with an ax embedded in the trunk of a dead tree. This is not in the spirit of the world’s Christmas. We want warm feelings in our heart. We don’t want them laid bare to the winter’s cold exposing our private and pet sins that we think we can hold on to without judgement or even consequences.

This isn’t going to help his trial, but John is a pet sin specialist. He used the fire of God’s Law to smoke out the pet sins the people of his day were content to let sleep underneath their dinner tables while praying pious mealtime prayers above. He confronted the king himself with living in adultery. They didn’t have the polite term of our day ‘cohabitate’ or even sweeter still ‘living together.’ But he didn’t stop with sexual sins; he went on to expose greed, cheating on taxes, and being uncontented with your pay. There wasn’t a tree within earshot that didn’t feel the bite of his ax.

I’m ready to throw John out right now. All he does is stir up the filth in my life. He decks my halls with dead branches not living holly. He rattles my cage not jingles my bell. Still, our system of justice demands we give him a chance to speak for himself. 

He says, “I come into your Christmas as a herald of the One who is coming. I don’t come in my name. I don’t come with my own message. I proclaim that of the Christ. I reflect His message the way a mirror reflects light. You can’t stand my reflected light because you can’t stand the holy light that radiates from Christ. You have trouble with me being in your Christmas because you have trouble with Christ being there!”

That’s preposterous John! We’re Christians followers of the Christ. Why do you think we’re in church today? Christ is the center of our Christmas. He’s the reason for our season. Don’t you try to turn the tables in this trial. You’re the one on trial.

“Am I now?  If you’re all about Jesus the Christ how come as I said to the Jews, He stands in the midst of you, yet you don’t know Him?”

I see now why this Baptist character caused such a stir. He annoys me – especially because he’s right. I don’t see Christ in our midst. I regularly forget, ignore, or just don’t care that the waters of Baptism are the way Christ comes into my life and claims me for Himself. I don’t see a gracious water of life there but simple water only. It’s the same with Communion. Christ comes to me in a way that confronts all my senses to comfort my timid heart, and I take it for granted. I don’t see Him. I act as if it's ordinary for the 2nd Person of the Trinity to come into our midst through bread and wine. And when we hear the pastor’s absolution how many of us really receive it “from the pastor as from God Himself”?  It is because we don’t know the presence of the Christ among us in Word and Sacrament that we are able to celebrate His birth while living with the pet sins He comes to suffer and die for. Yes, John makes me uncomfortable because I’m not ready for Christ of Christmas only for ‘Christmas’. There’s room in the inn of my heart for parties, presents, and people but there’s no room in this inn for Him, and so not for His forerunner either.

In this trial of John the B., I find I’m the one convicted. The angel sent by my Savior to prepare me for Him has no place at my Christmas table. His constant call to repent of the pet sins I’ve learned to live with and enjoy, angers me. His burning zeal for the things of God rather than the plush, pious ideas of men, stabs me in my fat, contented heart. You’re right John. Bring the Lord’s ax down on this miserable dead tree; sweep this chaff from the threshing floor and throw me into the furnace.

It’s here that John begins to fit into my Christmas; actually it’s here that I begin to fit into the Bible’s Christmas. John was sent to prepare the way of the Christ so Christ could come with salvation not damnation. He came preaching repentance for sins, so that I might know and believe that I needed Christ to come not only to me but for me. Holy people have no need for a Savior; only sinners do. 

Has John shown you how deep your darkness is? Rejoice. He is a faithful mirror and wants to reflect not only your sins but the light of Christ into you. True, our darkness is great, but John proclaims the Sun of righteousness has arrived brining healing in His wings. Yes, the preaching of the Baptist wounds, but he wounds only to heal in the same way a surgeon cuts to save not hurt. John comes to us before Christmas so that we might not wander in the darkness and so miss the true light of Christmas. He comes to show us that when we speak of pets sins, we really mean that we are the pet of our sins not the other way around. Leading us to repentance and faith in the coming Christ, John breaks the leash by which our sins have us chained showing us the broken power of canceled sins, the destroyed power of forgiven sins. He frees us to welcome Christ on Christmas Day.

What do you say? Let’s keep John the Baptist in our Christmas. The only thing he is really guilty of is convicting us of our sins and leading us to our Savior, Christ. You know how some folks with good yet mistaken intentions put a kneeling Santa in their manger scenes? I think John the B. would be a much more fitting figure. We can have him holding an ax but pointing to the manger. Wouldn’t that grab a lot of people’s attention? I know he’s got mine. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Third Sunday in Advent (20231217); John 1:6-18;19-28