Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist was such a powerful preacher in his day that many who heard him or of him via others believed that he was either Jesus Himself or a prophet of near-equal importance.

The Revd Scott E Hoezee, in ‘When Advent Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas’ (Reformed Worship, September 1997), wrote about this confusion which extended even into the era after the first Pentecost.

Hoezee says that everything John the Baptist did was designed to shake people out of their spiritual slumber. ‘The Lord is coming — get ready and prepare the way!’ In a more materialistic way, think of the way we prepare for Christmas: we clean the house, order festive food for the day, buy new clothes for family get-togethers and purchase presents for each other. If this prophet were amongst us today, he would surely exhort us to put more of that energy into preparing our souls!

Hoezee took as his text Luke 3:7-18. Imagine John the Baptist saying this to us today:

7He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

 10And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

 15As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 18So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.

Verses 10 and 11 shine some light on the additional charity that Christians show during the run-up to Christmas.

Note also verses 7 and 8, with the exhortation to repent of our sins. As Hoezee says:

No Advent figure has less of a “Christmas feel” than John the Baptist. But for that reason, no single biblical character can better reveal to us the hue, highly disruptive meaning of Advent than John—which is perhaps why he is so roundly ignored in most of our Christmas reflections …

Yet, according to all four gospels, John the Baptist is the necessary forerunner to Jesus. If you do not meet John the Baptist and heed his message, then you are unprepared to meet the Baby of Bethlehem …

In the verses from St Luke’s Gospel, note how interested John’s audience was and how he specifically instructed each group of people, including tax collectors and Roman soldiers — not exactly well-received members of society in that era. Yet, John included and accepted them all, Jew and Gentile.

Hoezee points out that this reverence for John the Baptist spread far and wide:

Indeed, as late as the days after Pentecost, the apostles kept bumping into John the Baptist churches on three continents. Even the great preacher Apollos needed to be pulled aside by Priscilla and Aquila after they heard Apollos proclaiming John to be the Messiah.

My regular readers understand the soul-searching importance of Advent.  However, many agnostics and unbelievers will use this time for revelry. Those who do so are missing the point of John the Baptist’s teaching and Christmas itself.

As Hoezee concludes (emphasis mine):

For John knew that the Messiah was coming to die for sin, to banish evil, and to inaugurate shalom. So if you are to meet and greet this Messiah correctly, you must admit that you need him in the first place. If you don’t, then you’ll have no use for Jesus once he’s born

Only those willing to turn their lives over to God are ready for the Christ. The rest, John says, are fuel for the fire. None of that is very Christmaslike. Or is it?