Scripture: Luke 3:1-6
It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go. However you decorate for the holiday there is a good chance you have everything up by this point. The way that some of these decorations have evolved is interesting to me, because they have moved a long way from where they used to be. The Christmas tree is a good example of this. Christmas trees find their roots in Germany. The origins of the Christmas tree begin with passion plays that were put on to celebrate the feast of Adam and Eve. These plays, which took place on December 24th, would reenact the fall and fir trees were often used. It then became tradition to decorate these trees for the Christmas celebration. The tree became a symbol that connected the fall of humanity to the redemption of humanity. Legend then says that Martin Luther, the great reformer, had the idea to add candles to the tree as a reminder that Christ is the light of the world. From there the tradition developed. Christmas trees moved from just being in the village square to being in people’s homes. The simple decorations of fruit and string began to be replaced by blown glass ornaments. However, it mostly was a German tradition. Even in the United States Christmas trees were only common in German communities. However, an image of a young Queen Victoria with a Christmas tree popularized the tradition in the middle of the 1800s. The advent of electricity and light strands cemented the tree as a lasting and ubiquitous Christmas tradition. What is interesting to me is just how much the tradition has evolved. Now 63% of people use an artificial tree that can be up for much longer, and the ornaments we hang on these trees have evolved. A lot of Christmas ornaments tend to be enshrined memories such as from places we have visited, or they celebrate things we like. It is interesting to me how the Christmas tree started with a symbol of deep religious significance that pointed to the saving nature of Jesus and over time morphed into something else.
Now do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the Christmas trees we put up, and I am fairly confident my Christmas tree is decorated with more Star Wars characters than it is religious symbols. It does point out though that even though we say Jesus is the reason for the season, not all they ways we celebrate the season have a lot to do with Jesus. For instance, snowmen are an extremely common Christmas decoration, which honestly is a little odd. It is not like there was a snowman at the manger for the birth of Jesus. Snowmen are popular today, because in 1950 the song Frosty the Snowman was released as a character driven song to follow up on the success of 1949’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another example is it is not uncommon to see nutcracker soldiers as Christmas decorations. That has mostly endured because of the Nutcracker, a ballet that’s only connection with Christmas is that its odd story starts on Christmas Eve.
There are so many songs, images, and traditions that we associate with Christmas that have no real connection with the birth of Jesus. These non-religious traditions are so prevalent if you asked a random person doing Christmas shopping tell you about the Christmas story the person is just as likely to tell you about Ralphie and a BB Gun as they are to tell you about Mary, Joseph, and a baby. Again, there is nothing wrong with the ways we culturally celebrate Christmas. If snowmen, nutcrackers, and pop-culture Christmas ornaments bring joy into your life this time of the year then that is great. Even though our Christmas decorations may not always point to Christ anymore, the way we live our lives still should. This morning’s scripture about John the Baptist helps show us how we can prepare the way.
John the Baptist is a significant figure in the gospels. Only two of the four gospels have a narrative about the birth of Jesus, but all four gospels focus on John the Baptist. There are only handful of details that appear in all four gospels, but John the Baptist being the one prophesied in Isaiah as the voice calling out from the wilderness is a detail that all four gospels mention. However, only this morning’s scripture quotes the full prophetic section that mentions this voice calling out in the wilderness.
Much like a fully decorated Christmas tree, John the Baptist commanded attention. In some of the gospels it is mentioned that he had an unusual get up involving camel hair clothing. People were naturally attracted to him and they came from places that were days away. He attracted the attention of the religious leaders and authorities. He created quite a spectacle when he did not back down but called them out. John had the makings to be a first century celebrity but that is not the route he took. At the first coming of Jesus, it was John who prepared the way. He preached repentance, he led people in turning back to God, and he pointed towards Christ. John did not make dramatic predictions, he did not focus inward, but instead he focused on leading people to have changed hearts so that they could better accept the saving grace that Jesus was going to offer. John prepared the way.
Sometimes I think as Christians we have collectively lost our way at preparing the way. Today people outside of the church are more likely to know Christians for what they are against, not what we are for. This is not a new problem either, but one that has been brewing for decades. For instance in the 1970’s only 5% of the U.S. population claimed no religious affiliation, today that number is close to 30%. If we were collectively preparing the way then there would be more people coming to Jesus not less. For the people outside the church, for the people who do not yet know God’s love and who desperately need grace, they see our church buildings a bit like Christmas trees. It might be beautiful and reflect a personal, friendly touch but it no longer points to Jesus like it used to. As we consider how John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus in this morning’s scripture, I think there are three things we can learn and apply today so that we can better point others to Jesus.
The mission of John the Baptist was to be a voice in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. The scripture quoted from Isaiah laid out how he was to do that, and how we are supposed to do it today First, it states “make straight paths for him.” If Jesus was sent because of God’s love for the world, you would think it would not be hard for people to find Jesus. However, over the centuries, Christians have made a lovely mess of things. Instead of a straight path, we have put up barriers, gates, obstructions, and made things needlessly complex. Churches should act more like gigantic billboards that clearly point the way to Jesus, but for too many people we are viewed more like traffic jams. The band Casting Crowns gets to the heart of this in their song “What this World Needs”. The band sings, “What this world needs is not another sign waving super saint that is better than you, another ear pleasing candy man afraid of the truth, another prophet in an Armani suit. What this world needs is a Savior who will rescue, a spirit who will lead, and a Father who will love them in their time of need.” The world does not need our ideal of what is proper, our politics, our doctrine, or even our building. What the world needs is Jesus, and we must not get in the way of that. We must not set up artificial barriers that make it harder for people to get to the Savior they are clamoring for. The first way we can prepare the way of the Lord is by making sure that everything they say and do points people to Christ and does not hinder them from getting closer to Him. It is not our place to be the one who decides if someone else is suitably righteous to come to Jesus. Sometimes to prepare the way, we need to get out of the way
Second, this morning scripture states “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low the crooked road shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.” It is not just enough to make sure we are not getting in the way, to prepare the way to Jesus we need to actively be removing the obstacles that are already there. From racial issues to generational difference to polarized political views. There are chasms that separate us, and big boulders that divide us. It might feel like that is a fool’s hope, the issues that separate us are too great to overcome. However, history has shown that stranger things have happened. In 1914 Europe was at war. The opening battles of World War I had seen horrific casualty rates as the machine gun and artillery shells proved the nature of war had changed. On December 25th that year though something unexpected happen. Over 100,000 soldiers laid down their arms and the fighting ceased for one day. Opposing armies met in no man’s land and celebrated Christmas together. For one day, enemies who had assembled to kill each other met in no man’s land and stopped being enemies. In that moment, the trenches, the valleys of war, were raised up. The politics of conflict, the mountains of war, were made low. The rough ground of hate was made level and I dare say the Prince of Peace was glorified. It was a Christmas miracle, and if soldiers on opposite side of the conflict could find common ground then we certainly can as well. We do this when we stop viewing the world with an us vs. them mentality and instead we recognize that everyone is loved by God and is created with sacred worth. We do this when we stop insisting on uniformity but instead celebrate diversity. We do this when we make the choice to love our enemies, because we can stay enemies for long with someone we work at loving. To prepare the way of the Lord we need to fill in those holes, smooth out those bumps, and destroy the barriers.
The final part of the prophesy from Isaiah that defined John the Baptist’s ministry is “and all the people will see God’s salvation.” John the Baptist came preaching and offering a baptism of repentance, but he was quick to point out that he was not God’s salvation. He was pointing the way. The whole reason John did what he did was so that he could point others to see God’s salvation, to see Jesus. We should be similiarly motivated, though I think our calling is a little bit different than John’s. The bible consistently states the church, the gathering of believers, the followers of Jesus are to be the body of Christ. All the people should be able to see Jesus through us. To the desperate, to the lost, to the hopeless, to the unloved we need to be the body of Christ. We need to be the hands of Jesus that help up those who have fallen, we need to be the feet of Jesus that walk across rooms to talk to the forgotten, we need to be the shoulder of Jesus to comfort those in despair. We need to prepare the way for the Lord, by loving others, by loving strangers, like Jesus does. We can tell people “have a blessed day” or “Jesus loves you” but if we want to truly point to Jesus then we should let actions speak for us. This is how we prepare the way.
Even if our Christmas decorations do not always point to Jesus, may the way we live to do so. Between ringing bells, constant advertisements, and busy shoppers December is filled with a lot of noise, so may we be the voice calling out in the wilderness. May we be the voices of compassion and comfort in this busy day and age. May we make sure that we are not doing anything to make it harder to get to Jesus, may we build bigger tables instead of bigger walls, and may we show people the saving love of God by how we care for them. May we prepare the way of the Lord.