Over the next few days everybody will be making final preparations for Christmas, and it is not exactly something we look forward to. At least I don’t. I admire people who do it weeks or even months in advance, like people who have all their gifts purchased, wrapped, and even mailed by Thanksgiving. I do most of my shopping two weeks before Christmas. However, whether it is early or late, by the final night we will have made whatever preparation we are going to have made. After that it is too late. All we will be able to do is sit back in an exhausted state and “enjoy.”
How do you get ready for Christmas? Most people prepare by buying presents, sending cards, decorating a tree, and putting out decorations. But Christmas is really a Christian holiday, or should be. I am wondering if you have ever thought about preparing for Christmas spiritually.
I have this theme in mind because it occurred to me that there is a part of the Bible story about the coming of Jesus Christ that has to do with preparation, but we seldom think of it as part of the Christmas story. What I am pondering here is something that happened before any of these other, more frequently talked-of things. I am thinking of God’s sending John the Baptist as Jesus’ forerunner. And the reason I am thinking of John in terms of preparing for Christmas is that this is precisely what John was sent to do. He was sent to prepare the way for Jesus Christ.
This was a very important matter to the early Christians, and especially to the writers of the four Gospels. To judge from their accounts, John’s preaching was the essential preparation for Jesus’ coming, more so even than the appearance of the angel to either Joseph or Mary. It is a proof of this perspective that although the story of Jesus’ birth occurs in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, the account of John the Baptist’s preparatory ministry is recounted in all four and at length. It is described in detail in Matthew 3:1-17; Mark 1:1-14; Luke 1:5-80; 3:1-20; and John 1:6–9, 15-35; and 3:22-36.
That makes a total of 167 verses. By comparison the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke require only fifty verses, ninety-four if we include the post-nativity stories.
Nor is this all we are told about John. The significance of John and his ministry are all brought in again later—in Matthew 11:1-19; 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 7:18-35; and John 5:33, 35. If you add those up, that makes sixty-seven more verses.
I want to look at Mark’s first mention of John’s ministry, because in some ways Mark provides the purest, most succinct discussion of the Baptist’s ministry. Strikingly, he begins by reminding us that it had been prophesied in the Old Testament that John would have this preparatory ministry. Malachi and Isaiah wrote, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—”a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’” (Mark 1:2-3; see Mal. 3:1; and Isa. 40:3).
The anticipation of the forerunner was so much a part of the Jews’ way of thinking at this time that many people were looking for the forerunner almost as much as they were looking for the Messiah. They knew that before the Messiah could come, the forerunner would have to appear to prepare the hearts and minds of the people of Israel to receive him.