John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, is truly the great Advent figure. The Bible tells us that the whole function and purpose of John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the Messiah. In fact Jesus himself made reference to this function. He said that John was a prophet and more than a prophet. John was the one about whom it had been written in the Old Testament, “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
What did John the Baptizer do to prepare the way for Jesus?
All four Gospels speak about this but the shortest and most direct account is Mark chapter 1. It says:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, I send My messenger ahead of You,
Who will prepare Your way;
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
Make His paths straight.’”
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
The way that John prepared people for the coming of Jesus was this. He preached about the need for repentance and then he baptized folks in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.
This tells us something very important in terms of preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ. It tells us that people need to repent. Why did and do people need to repent? Well, so that they can receive the forgiveness of their sins.
What does it mean to repent? Contrary to what you might think, to repent doesn’t mean to beat ourselves up or to wallow in guilt. To repent means to turn: to turn away from one way of life, one set of habits and dispositions and frame of mind, and to turn toward God. It means to change direction. You’re going down the road in a certain direction, and now all of a sudden you’re turning a different way and going in a different direction. That’s what to repent means.
Baptism is designed to be the occasion when this kind of repentance takes place. But obviously this can only occur in the case of adults who are baptized. They can and should be prepared for baptism over a period of time with teaching about the need for repentance and opportunity for the confession of sin. In the case of infants and young children who because of their tender age cannot understand repentance, the Church must teach them about repentance at a later time. This is typically done as part of confirmation teaching and preparation for first Holy Communion.
So how do we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ? By repentance, confession, and baptism.
But repentance is not a one-time affair for Christian believers. That’s because sin does not automatically and completely disappear from a person’s life following baptism. Or at least I haven’t ever known anyone for whom this happened. Maybe you have, but I have not! So, then, there’s clearly a need for each and every one of us to repent for the sins we commit after baptism.
The Church provides for this need sacramentally by means of private confession and absolution by a priest. In the traditional Anglican expression of the Catholic Christian Faith, we do not mandate that people make a private confession, but we do encourage it.
And by the way, the importance of repentance, confession, and absolution has always been recognized in the Anglican expression of the Catholic Christian Faith. This is why we have a provision for a General Confession and Absolution in our liturgical services: in both Holy Communion and Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. And even in the Family Prayer section of the Prayer Book, at the very back of the book, Confession is provided for.
So whether you engage in private confession and absolution with a priest or simply confess your sins privately to God, the fact remains that as a Christian you and I have the duty of repentance and confessing our sins to the Lord. I say it’s a duty, but it’s really a privilege and a joy. There’s nothing worse than going around with the burden of sin on our conscience, and God doesn’t want us to be burdened but to be free. That’s why he sent his Son, Jesus, into the world: so that we could be set free.
So what are you doing to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, of Jesus at Christmas? How are you going to celebrate this event?
Well, we know how the world around us is preparing for Christmas, and sad to say, we ourselves often fall into the same pattern.
The world prepares for Christmas by frenetic shopping. How many billions will be spent this year on presents for people who already have more than enough?.
The world also prepares for the celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas by going to parties and festivities with lots of eating and drinking and self-indulgence.
But how does the Church, the Bible, and our Christian faith tell us to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Savior?
If the example of John the Baptist is any indication, then we have to say, it is through repentance, confession, and the forgiveness of our sins.
I can think of at least three good ways each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ at Christmas.
The first is by repentance and confession of our sins. We need to take some time to be with the Lord and really make a good examination of our conscience, and then confess our sins and ask God for forgiveness. I heartily recommend the General Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer as a wonderful prayer to use for this purpose.
A second way each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus at Christmas is by coming to recognize one or more of our besetting sins and asking God to help us overcome it. All of us have certain sins that we find ourselves drawn to and practicing on a regular basis. We need to bravely face up to at least one of these and and ask God to help us cease and desist in this sin.
A third way each one of us can prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus at Christmas is by forgiving another person some wrong or slight he or she has done to us. Recall the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is at the heart and center of our Christian faith. And just as we ask God to forgive us our sins, so we must be willing to forgive other people for their sins against us.
By doing these things, we can truly prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus our Savior–his coming as a baby some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, which we celebrate every Christmas; his coming again in glory at the end of time when he will judge all human beings who have ever lived; and his coming to us individually, in ways both small and great, each and every day and moment of our lives.