John the Baptist’s appearance is jarring. There’s no getting comfortable around a man who wears camel fur and eats nothing but bugs and honey. But why? I’m sure there’s someone weirder in Portland.
John is uncomfortable because of what his image brings up. He eats locusts, and yet he preaches a plague far greater than the one which devoured Egyptian crops. It is a plague which even the sons of Abraham may suffer. This is unthinkable who have status in the church—the Pharisees and Sadducees—who have labored so long and hard to preserve the church, would be cut down and thrown into the fire. How could God be so callous and not recognize their many contributions? Doesn’t he see how many hours they’ve labored, they’ve studied, they’ve prayed, how many things they have dedicated (and have little brass plaques next to them). All of it may be gone like the empire of hard-hearted, idolatrous Pharaoh, if they only fear the wrath to come and have no godly remorse (contrition for their sins) and a plea to God’s mercy which endures forever (Ps. 107:1). God will not show favorites, but will honor and bless the faith which He has created.
John eats wild honey like Samson who found it in the carcass of a lion he slayed with his bare hands. Samson was able to slay the Philistines for solving his riddle, but it is with John’s bare words that he slays his hearers–not just the uncircumcised, but all who are uncircumcised in their heart—that is they do not rightly fear God. John announces the coming of the One who “will open [His] mouth in a parable; [who] will utter dark sayings from of old.” (Ps. 78:2) The One mightier than Samson, whose words will bring about “the fall and rising of many in Israel.” (Luke 2:34)
John also wears a leather belt, reminiscent of the garments of skin with which God clothed our first parents after they sinned. They were unable to be conscientious objectors and adopt a vegan outlook. Rather the leather belt taught them that peace with God came at the cost of another’s life. Too often have we, their children, put God to the test, doing what is wicked and then when the lightning bolt didn’t come or we didn’t get swallowed by the earth, we presumed on His kindness and assumed His inaction we could get away with it. That leather belt, like the garments for Adam and Eve, along with the tens of thousands of animals slaughtered on Israel’s altars, and ultimately God’s son sacrificed on the cross, ought to teach us to rightly appreciate what it cost to have “peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)
And finally, he wears a hairy cloak, to remind us of Jacob. Jacob gained the blessing from his father, Isaac, by works not his own. He got the blessing which rightly belonged to his brother, beloved of his father. And yet in this wondrous and mysterious exchange, the one John pointed to covers us with His own robes of righteousness and the Father Himself sees not our treachery, evil works, and lukewarm hearts, but the perfect work of the only-begotten Son.
Nevertheless, John is not someone you would want at your holiday party. There’s also no getting comfortable with John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” There’s no sugar-coating this preaching. It’s offensive, but not for the sake of shock value. It’s invasive because it exposes our hearts. It shows us that God actually is watching our life—“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” (Ps. 32:8) This is necessary, too.
God’s Law comes into our heart and demolished any sense that we’re good enough for God. It exposes our hearts and shows none of us to be righteous. It shows us how comfortable we’ve been in ourselves and our sins, brushing them under the rug and making excuses for them. All the while, the Master of the house is near—at the very gates!
This is the way God prepares the way for the Christ, and how we ought to prepare ourselves for Christmas. While the world is hanging “holiday balls” and droning on about the “spirit of the season,” Christians are watchful, hearing the Word of God and taking an honest look in the mirror of God’s Word, embodied in John the Baptist. What we find is not good, and that’s why we are glad that God sent a Savior.
There’s been a push by Christians to “put Christ back in Christmas” and while that’s admirable, there’s a better way to do that than just saying, “Merry Christmas.” Christmas is about salvation, and Jesus only comes for sinners. “He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) If you say you have not sinned, you don’t need to look forward to Christmas.
John was a spectacle. People from all around had come to see and hear him. Still today, the celebration of Christ’s birth brings out many who ordinarily wouldn’t. While many will be looking for nostalgic feelings and familiar carols, I hope you find what God sent John the Baptist for. Be a real sinner, be someone who knows why Jesus came. Knowing that, repent and be saved!
Christ’s coming is a warning that the axe is laid at the root of the tree. Every tree that thinks its fruit is lovely will be cut down and burned. Everyone who says they have not sinned deceives themselves. But the one who truly bears the fruit of repentance and faith is the one who has heard the spiritual message of Christ’s arrival, and look forward to His coming again. Amen.