John the Baptist, the anti-Santa
I am always surprised by how much airplay John the Baptist gets in the four Gospels compared with the attention given to baby Jesus. With all the emphasis this time of year on the nativity narratives, you would think the birth of Christ must be a major focus of the biblical record. But compared to what the Gospel writers say about John the Baptist, the story of the babe in the manger seems like side B of an old hit 45. (Young people, ask your grandparents what that means.)
By my informal count, there are 102 verses in the Gospels devoted to the birth of Jesus. Remarkably, there are over twice as many, 218, dedicated to John. His ministry is featured in all four Gospels and referenced several times by Christ himself. Yet, of the four Gospels, only Luke mentions the angel appearing to Mary. Only Matthew describes the angel appearing to Joseph. Only Luke talks about the shepherds in the field and the baby in the manger. Matthew alone mentions the visit of the magi. Meanwhile, Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Christ at all.
I guess this means that whatever your favorite detail is of the Christmas story (ex. the choir of angels, the no-vacancy inn, the star in the sky), there are at least three Gospel writers who felt they could tell the story of Christ and leave that detail out. Yet not one of these writers thought they could explain who Jesus was without highlighting John.
I am not sure why this is the case. But I think it has to do with the purpose of John’s ministry. John was sent to get the people ready for Jesus, to call them to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness from God. Apparently, when it came to the first Advent, being prepared for the Messiah was more important than knowing all the details of how he came.
Interestingly, this same principle is at play when we read about the second Advent of the Messiah. When Jesus and the Apostles talked about the end of time and the return of Christ, their language was deliberately cryptic, difficult to understand. Yet one thing they all made clear was that we need to be ready. We need to be sure that we have repented of our sin, that we have placed our trust in God’s Son, and that we are living obediently for his glory. Being ready for his Advent is more important that grasping all the details of how it will occur.
So this time of year, in addition to rejoicing in the miraculous birth in Bethlehem, it is also helpful to remember the ministry of John. You don’t need to put John’s face on your Christmas cards or have a “baptizer figurine” in your manger set. But at least remember the focus of John’s message: We must be prepared for the arrival of Christ.
Pastor Philip Reinders wrote: “John the Baptist has always felt like the right person to get me ready for Christmas – he’s the anti-Santa needed for our day. Trade the jolly laugh for an in-your-face intensity, the twinkle in the eye for a wildness about to interrupt your life, commanding our attention but always redirecting it toward Jesus. ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’ is the Advent call to get ready for the coming Messiah.”
The anti-Santa! I like that.