“You are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.” (Luke 1:13-14)
“And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” (Luke 2:18)
In the lead up to Jesus’ birth, John the Baptist is one of the most vital characters, promised as a forerunner to the Messiah and a source of many people’s rejoicing. As a preacher before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John preaches to the crowds outside of Jerusalem in rural spaces near the Jordan River. His outfit is eye-catching and his diet is more than a little interesting, but not in the socially acceptable ways: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). His first recorded words at the start of a sermon were “You brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). If John is trying to live out the part of an outsider prophet, he is doing a good job. But how does that fit with the promise of rejoicing attached to him in the angel Gabriel’s prophetic message to his father, Zechariah?
Sometimes, real joy requires a wake-up call. A study of people who had breakthroughs to greater meaning and joy in their lives, sometimes called “awakening experiences,” showed that these breakthroughs were often triggered by some form of psychological turmoil, such as stress, loss, or bereavement. While the breakthrough was an overwhelmingly positive experience, the pathway to get there was intensely difficult. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Difficulty, even suffering, can serve as a wake-up call to joy.
And so, John the Baptist stands by the Jordan River’s edge, issuing a wake-up call to humanity. He refuses to mince words about what is distracting them from God’s best, whether it be specific sins or the pleasures of life. Even today, John’s words call us out of zombie-like distraction and back to attentive anticipation as we prepare for the joyful wonder of Christmas. All around us the frenzy of activity and acquisition ratchets up higher and higher in this holiday season. But do we hear the grating words of that camel-skin-wearing, locust-eating prophet cutting through the false promises of the sales pitch?
He tells us that there is another way to joy, a way that is found in Jesus the Messiah, who has come and will come again. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus prayed we “may have the full measure of joy” (John 17:13), and that it is found in Him who is the bringer of “great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10).
- Have you experienced a “wake-up call” that has led to greater joy in your life? If so, how did God turn it around into something to rejoice over?
- How specifically has the arrival of Jesus in your life brought you joy? List as many ways as you can.
A Prayer for the third Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):
God of timeless grace,
you fill us with joyful expectation.
Make us ready for the message that prepares the way,
that with uprightness of heart and holy joy
we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ,
who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.