An Advent Angel
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made popular putting an angel on top of a Christmas tree. In 1846 a London paper had an illustration of their family round the tree. On top of the tree were beautiful angels. Angels singular or plural represent either Gabriel who announced the conception of Jesus to Mary or the angels who heralded His birth to shepherds. In Advent, however, John the Baptist should be on the top of our trees because he is the one and only Advent angel. Our text says this. Quoting from the Old Testament, Mark indentifies John as "the messenger" literally "angel" who God sends ahead of Jesus to prepare the way.
Imagine John the Baptist perched on top of your Christmas tree. He is burnt from being in the desert sun for years. Not only does he wear a leather belt but his skin is leather like. In the words of Willie Nelson his skin is like iron and his breath as hard as kerosene. He is clothed not in white, glistening garments but in camel's hair. The food of this angel is not milk and honey but honey over grasshoppers.
I dare you to top your tree with this angel. Instead of the anemic, feminine one you put on your tree now, place a bearded, brown, masculine John. And you know how your angel radiates "peace on earth and good will toward men?" John the Baptist radiates repentance. In the words of the OT John came calling, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for Him." In the words of the NT John came "preaching a repentance Baptism."
John's on top of your tree pointing out all that is wrong and has been wrong in your house this past year. Many years ago Christianity Today had an article about the disparity between the faces of church members at home and at church. A family of four with hurt, mad, bitter, teary faces is shown reaching into their closet for four sets of church clothes with happy, carefree, pious faces attached to them. I don't know how it really is in your home, but the Lord does and He sends His angel John into your homes to show you.
He points at you disobedient kids and shouts, "Repent." He points at you bickering spouses and says, "Repent." He points at the ugly, hateful, shameful things you say and the many more you don't but think and says, "Repent." John says all of this must be put right in Advent before Jesus can come.
This tension of not being ready for Christmas is in virtually every Christmas special. Either that special toy has not been bought, the family member is not yet home, or perhaps the feuding family members have not been reconciled. Only the last of these is real. The other two are imitations of the real problem. Christ is coming to your home regardless of the status of your Christmas shopping and who comes to Christmas dinner, but a feuding, unreconciled, bitter, unforgiving heart bars the door to Him.
So do you think you can straighten up all the bumpy, crooked paths in your home or heart so Christmas can come to you? Here's the problem. Fun, food, family, and mood can smooth out the bumps in your roads and make the paths seem less crooked. They can give you peace on earth for a while. But that's not what John is on top of your tree demanding in the name of the Lord. He's demanding repentance, real change, a real difference. And you and I have as much chance of doing this as the Grinch had of making his own heart bigger or Scrooge had of waking up a different man without the spirits visiting him.
There John the angel sits on top of your tree with his finger pointing right at you, but the word aggelon in Greek also means "messenger" as the insert translates. John comes to bring you a message this Advent, and it's more than pointing out your sins. John ultimately points to Jesus. In John's Gospel, John the Baptist says, "The reason I came baptizing with water was that the Christ might be revealed to Israel." That's big. The reason John came preaching a baptism of repentance was not to rub people's faces in their sins. The reason the angel John is perched atop your tree is not to point out your sins but your Savior from sins. However, before you'll use the cure, you have to be convinced you have the disease. Before you'll drink the water of life, you've got to be thirsty. Before you'll eat the Bread of life, you've got to be hungry.
Sick enough of your sins? Sick enough of what you've done to or with your life? Thirsty for a better way? Hungry for that which can really satisfy? The angel John doesn't point to repentance to cure your sins. He doesn't point to the waters of "being sorry" to slack your thirst. He doesn't point to the bread of "trying harder" to be a Christian spouse, sibling, child, or person. John points to Jesus.
John says, "After me will come one more powerful than I." Neither you nor John can deal with your sins, cure your sickness, quench your thirst, or fill your soul. You and he can see the sickness in all its ugliness, the thirst in all its dryness, and the hunger in all its emptiness, but you can't do anything about them. The best you can do as I said earlier is hide them. Worse would be to deny them, but the absolute worst you can do is to try harder. Overcome the sin sickness and bring healthy peace to your home. Be the water bearer for everyone, and the one who makes sure everyone is fed.
This is exactly where some of you are heading which means you haven't even gotten the first part of John's message yet. You still think you're not that sick; you're not that dried up; you're not that starving. You still have the health to follow the austere, dedicated, devoted life of John. Don't misunderstand, John is all these things. Jesus Himself says that, "Among those born of women, none is greater than John." But John doesn't point out your sins and then point to himself. He points out your sins and then points to "One more worthy than I."
You don't need more John; you need more Jesus. John can point our your sins, but He can't deliver or save your from them. O John can be your example. His life is certainly worthy of that, but you don't need a mentor, a goal setter, a purpose giver, a motivator, or trainer. Is your life screwed up because you don't know the right thing to do? Is the problem with your relationships that you don't know how to treat someone else? Does the sickness, hunger, or thirst in your life come from not having the right goals, enough motivation, or someone to train you how to act like people do dogs? John's worthy to bring the message repent, prepare. John's worthy to set on top of your tree this Advent showing your sickness, making you hunger and thirst for what neither he nor you can cure or satisfy. But only Jesus is worthy to cure you, water you, and feed you.
John's the angel of Jehovah; Jesus is Jehovah. Jesus didn't come because John did. John came because Jesus did. Without a runner, what need would there be of a forerunner? Without forgiveness, healing, water, and food, it would be cruel to send an angel to point out sins, sickness, dehydration, and starvation.
Confessing that you are no match for your sins, admitting that you can no more put your life back in order than a dead man can raise himself, a blind man can make himself see, or an enemy can make himself a friend, is only despair unless the forgiveness, sight, and friendship are available. What good would it do to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins if there was no forgiveness in the waters? The angel John couldn't put forgiveness in his water, sight in your eyes, or friendship in your heart. He wasn't powerful or worthy to do these things. John too needed forgiveness, sight, and to be reconciled.
It takes God Himself in flesh and blood to do these. Jesus came to live under the same laws of God that you are suppose to. Only while they condemn you, they couldn't condemn Him. There was not one law, one command, one word of God that Jesus failed to do perfectly in thought, word, and deed while there's not one that you and I haven't failed to do. So there was hell to pay. The seriousness of sin is judged by whom it's against. You wrong the President, and youll suffer on earth more than if you wrong me. So how much suffering does wronging the eternal, holy, loving God deserve? It deserves an eternity in hell, and that's what Jesus suffered in your place. He went there, so you don't have to.
Now we come to the end of our text where many trip. The Advent angel John is thought to be scorning his water baptism in favor of a Spirit baptism that Jesus brings. First, Jesus describes John's baptism in John 3 as water and Spirit. Second, what John says here is explained by the Gospel writer John in his chapter 7. St. John quotes Jesus saying, "Whoever believes in Me streams of living water will flow from within him." Then John explains, "By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified."
John was able to baptize, that is "pour out" out water which water had the Spirit as Jesus says in John 3, but only Jesus was strong enough and worthy enough to baptize, that is "pour out" the Spirit on Pentecost. John compares persons not baptisms. As John fulfilled his ministry by baptizing for the forgiveness of the sins his preaching of the law caused people to confess, so Jesus fulfilled His ministry by ascending as the perfect Man into heaven to pour out the Spirit on fallen mankind.
As soon as John brings you to see that you are hopeless and helpless to heal, water, or feed your situation for the better, look past him to the Jesus he points to. He is strong enough and worthy enough to bring Christmas to you. He levels the mountains; He straightens the paths to get to your house. So take down John the Advent angel and put up the Christmas angel. Peace and good will has come to your house because in Jesus God and even sinners such as you are reconciled. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20081207); Mark 1: 1-8