Formations 12.06.2020: You Better Watch Out

Billy Sunday, 1917

Malachi 3:1-4; Mark 1:1-8

If your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist always shows up around this time of year to rain on our Christmas parade. Seriously, who invited this guy to the party? Between his severe asceticism and his defiant calls to repentance, he doesn’t easily mesh with our expectations of the Christmas season.

And yet, every year, here he comes again with his message about getting ready for something wondrous and at the same time a bit scary. Someone is coming to town, so you better watch out! No matter who you are or how important you think you may be, the one who is coming is greater. That one demands our attention, our obedience, and our love.

In both of our Scripture passages for this week, we find the theme of preparing for the arrival of one who is greater. Malachi foretells the coming of a messenger to prepare the way for God. Though he draws on Isaiah, Mark describes John the Baptist in similar terms. Both messengers declare that this royal visitation requires us to get ready. Malachi paints images of a refining fire and caustic fuller’s soap while John baptizes those who come to him confessing their sins.

It may not be the message our culture has taught us to expect. John isn’t asking us to buy anything, overschedule our lives, or get ourselves into the “Christmas spirit.” Even so, I’m grateful that John comes by every December because the heart of his message is at the heart of Advent. His unorthodox ministry, he says, is but a prelude to the more powerful one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit—the one whose birth we are getting ready to proclaim.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John says. How do we do that? How are we to prepare the way for Jesus to come into our lives and into our world? Maybe we can answer that by pondering who we know who could use an encounter with Jesus. Who needs to experience his love? Who needs to be touched by his healing power as it is expressed through you and me?

John the Baptist may not be the kind of person we’d invite to our Christmas parties. But when he barges in anyway, he and his message turn out to be exactly what we needed.

Discussion

• Why do you think the lectionary invites us to read the story of John the Baptist every Advent? What does he add to the Christmas story?
• What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord? What are some practical ways that we can do this?
• What is our role as messengers of Christ this Advent season?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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