Santa Claus is Coming To Town

Wanted: Santa Claus It’s Saint Nicholas Day – a feast day for celebrating one of the great saints of the ancient church.  Still, when we hear “St. Nicholas” we don’t think about the ancient church…we think of SANTA CLAUS.

Santa Claus is Coming To Town

You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh! You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

When I was a young child, I always knew when the Christmas season began.  Each Thanksgiving Day I would sit in front of the television and watch the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”  As you know, at the end of the parade, the last float would appear, carrying “Santa Claus.”  He would be sitting in his sleigh; surrounded by several “Santa’s Helpers” who would be waving to the crowd and throwing candy to the children who were along the parade route.  As “Santa” approached the staging area in front of “Macy’s Department Store,” he would start calling out the names of children watching at home via television.  It always amazed me that he knew I was watching the parade.  He would call out to me: “Billy” (among dozens of other names) and encourage me to be on my best behavior.  He was talking directly to me.  I just knew it.

When I was a child, that is how I knew that Christmas was near.  It was because “Santa Claus” was coming to town.  It is still that way for many young children (and some adults too).  They watch the “Macy’s Parade” or perhaps they might see Santa during his whistle-stop tour up and down the Eastern Shore.  In whichever way it happens, the appearance of “Santa” means that is it time to straighten up, fly right, eat you veggies, get good grades, and stop fighting with your siblings.  After all – Santa is everywhere and Santa knows everything.  He sees you when you’re sleeping.  He knows when you’re awake.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

A child knows that Christmas is near when Santa comes to town.  In the church, we know that Christmas is near because of the appearance of a different person.  In traditional Advent scripture readings, it is the appearance of John the Baptizer that tells us Christmas is near.

Of course, John’s appearance is not welcomed with as much fanfare as the arrival of Santa.  I mean really.  Can you imagine watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and seeing the “John the Baptist float” go by?  That would be quite the site!  John would be standing there, shaggy-haired and wild-eyed, clad in his camel’s-hair coat.  His beard would still be dripping with the residue of the locust dipped in wild honey that he had eaten for breakfast before the parade began.  As the float appeared at the staging area in front of Macy’s, John would grab the wireless microphone and shout “Repent!”  – and I do not think he’d be lip-synching.

If that does not get you, imagine what the John the Baptizer line of Christmas cards might look like?

“From our house to yours this holiday season: Merry Christmas … you brood of vipers!”

“Season’s greetings to you, from across the miles … who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

“Let’s all pass the cup as gather round the Yule log … as we watch it burn like the unquenchable fire that will consume you in the pits of hell!”

Not exactly a Hallmark moment, is it?

The Baptizer’s arrival is not what we are looking for or expecting during the Advent-Christmas season.  Really, we do not want to be around this kind of person at any time of the year, but especially not at Christmas.  Aren’t we stressed enough already?  Our shopping list grows larger and so do the charges on our credit cards!  Our calendars are filled with social functions, family affairs, and office parties.  It hardly seems like the way to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.  Then we come to church and the preacher throws a guy like the Baptizer into our faces with his mean spirited name-calling and harsh judgments.  Who wants to deal with that sort of thing?  We want the heavenly choir, the humble shepherds, and the babe in the manger.

The stress is already bad enough, but when John arrives on the scene, his preaching becomes an all-new high-stress event.  Listen to what he says!  “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now that sure makes us feel good!

The image comes from the world of agriculture.  It was common practice, in John’s day, for a vineyard owner to kill the grapevines that were not producing fruit so that the healthy vines could even be more fruitful.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”  John proclaims.  If you do not, you will end up like one of those shattered, barren grapevines — good for nothing but to serve as fuel for the fire!

Whoa!  What a Scrooge!  What a Grinch!  Somebody turn the page to the story about the heavenly choir!  Why are we listening to John?  This is a season for hope, peace, joy, and love.

I’ll tell you why we have to listen to John.  It is because the only way to know the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season is to hear and respond to John’s message.

Here is the thing!  We have an opportunity today have a life-changing encounter with God.  You may not have thought about that when you woke up, got dressed, and came to church this morning.  This Sunday morning routine can become such a ritual that we often end of missing the opportunity.  Okay, now you have no excuse.  I am telling you that right now, today, this morning, in these very moments, you and I have an opportunity to have a life-changing encounter with God.

Actually, we get many opportunities like this, but they often come in so many ways and with so many different faces that we often do not recognize it, or when we do recognize it, we resist it because it does not fit into our sense and sensibilities.

John the Baptizer does not fit into the sensibilities of many people.  John offers us an opportunity to meet God that is almost ferocious in it nature.  When you read his words, you do not think it is an opportunity at all.  It sounds too harsh, too rough, and too ragged.  William Barclay says that John’s message “was not good news; it was news of terror.”  I what Barclay is saying, but I see it differently.  It seems to me that good news must sometimes come dressed in rough clothing.

That was surely the nature of John’s approach.  When we read the brief gospel summaries of his messages, we wonder why people went to so much trouble to hear him.  Were they gluttons for punishment?  Did they enjoy being on the receiving end of verbal abuse?  They certainly flocked to him.  I wonder why!  I think it was because they felt, in the integrity of his message, that there really was an opportunity to encounter God.  JOHN’S message was one of judgment; but in the judgment was opportunity – and the gift of this opportunity was wrapped up in the word repent.

This was John’s message hope.  “Repent,” he cried, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  How was it a message of hope?  Think about it.  With that one word, John was telling the people that they did need not remain as they were.  We are not held captive to our failures, our past, or our inadequacy.  We can repent.  We can get rid of the past.  We can start over.

That is good news.  I do not know about you, but I would certain hate to live in a world where there was no chance to repent.  Somebody once defined hell as a place where there is no possibility of repentance.  That is what makes hell, hell.  There is no way out, no chance to get rid of the garbage of life, no chance to start over again.

That is why repent is a word carries with it a message of hope.  We can do something about the course we have taken.  If we are on the wrong track, we can turn round, or get on another train.  We may not be able to change what we have already done; and we may not be able to escape the consequences of those prior choices.  Nevertheless, we need not continue in the same destructive path.  We can repent.  We can turn around.  We can change course.  We can start again.

If it were not for the blessed opportunity to repent, all we would be left with is a lifetime full of regret and regret leads nowhere.  Regret is a misery which will eventually overtake and destroy us.  Repentance, however, is a gift from God that allows us to leave the past behind us as we move forward in a new direction.

Maybe that is why we keep coming back to John.  We hear in his harsh and incisive words a door to hope and joy.  “You can repent,” he says.  “There is a way out of the dilemma you’re in.”

That does not mean it is easy.  When people began flocking toward the wilderness to hear John preach, he sensed that, for some of them, it was all about easy religion.  Many in the multitude had trekked into the wilderness to hear John because they were gatherers of religious experiences.  They went to this church and then another.  They hooked up with this religious movement and then another.  They went from preacher to preacher to preacher.

“You brood of vipers!” the Baptizer said.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

In those days, the brushwood and stubble, which covered the ground, would sometimes set afire and the flames would leap quickly through the dry nettles.  When this happened, vipers and snakes would scurry wildly from their hiding places to escape the flames.  That is how many people approach religion.  That is how many people approach church.  That is how many people approached John.  “You brood of vipers!”  John could not let the moment pass without confronting the superficiality of those who would bounce from preacher to preacher, from movement to movement, without setting down roots in the power and presence of God.

Not only that, but the Baptizer did not mull around in the niceties of superficial religious talks which is long on words and short on content.  John had the nasty habit of getting down to specifics.

When the people asked, “What then shall we do,” John answered with line-on-line counsel.

“If you have two coats give one to someone who has none.”

“If you have more food than you need to survive, give to those who don’t have enough!”

When the tax collectors asked, “What then shall we do,” John answered, “If it is your job to collect taxes, collect no more than is appointed you.”  The secret of wealth for those first century tax collectors was in cheating; and John quickly set them right.

When the soldiers asked this question, John gave a two-pronged answer: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”  (Luke 3:14b)

The Baptizer’s words were direct and practical.  He did not offer clichés, like “Pray about it,” or “Seek the will of God,” or “Work for a just social order.”  He spoke directly to the world in which his people lived, in terms they could put to work that very day.

What might he be saying to people in this church today?

To some he is saying, “It is time for you to connect to that person who hurt you, offering and receiving forgiveness and the restoration of that broken relationship!  Moreover, do not put it off till tomorrow!  Do it today, before the sun sets another day on your hurt feeling and anger!”

To some he is saying, “You have been blessed with an abundance of material blessings.  You have been blessed is to become a blessing, so stop hoarding your wealth and give sacrificially to help those who are poor and struggling.”

To some he is saying, “You have the ability to talk about anything with anyone at any time, but you never say anything to anyone about God.  Start talking with people about God!”

There is a practical application of God’s word to your life – a rubber hits the road kind of deal.  If you want to be ready for the Advent of God, then you need to REPENT, and actually let the rubber hit the road.

That said, this is not just a message about turning over a new leaf.  If you think that’s all repentance means, you have missed the point.  If that is all it is, it would not be enough.  Repentance means changing course and direction.  That’s why John also gave a new course and direction by proclaiming the Advent of the Messiah.   “I baptize you with water;” John said, “but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  (Luke 3:16)

The one coming has all the power.

The one coming has the fire of God.

The one coming holds the winnowing fan, to separate the wheat from the chaff; and he will burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire.”

The one coming is worthy of your worship and obedience.

The one coming is the one you are to follow.

This brings us back to our word of the day.  Repentance is the grandest expression of opportunity, because it is the door by which our Lord comes into our lives with grace, mercy, favor, and the ability to actually change directions and life as citizens of God’s Kingdom.  He burns away the chaf so that the gold of His presence in our lives remains.

Sometimes I feel – as I look at neglected places in my own heart, and at the people of the church – that we Christians have forgotten how to repent.  We act as if repentance were something only the ungodly should do; in truth, as the apostle said, repentance should begin at the house of God.  Repentance is a particular gift to us believers; we know by experience what benefits it brings.  We ought, therefore, to be all the more ready to put this good gift to use.

Right now, we are in the best season for repenting.  How better can we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ coming than by clearing away the trivia and troubles of past days, to make clear a highway for our God?

When it comes right down to it, the true meaning of Christmas is not “sleep in heavenly peace,” but “rise up and follow.”  The song of the season is not a lullaby, but a battle cry.  There is somebody coming to town – and it is not Santa.  It is not even John Baptizer.  John has only come to prepare the way the ONE who is now coming in our direction.  He is the one we call Savior, not because he slept in a manger, but because he bled and died on a cross.  There is much to celebrate during this Advent-Christmas season, but of it all, nothing is as great as the gift and opportunity of true repentance.

This is our season of opportunity.  We can repent at any and every hour, but here we are at the best of all hours.  Now is the time, here is the place, and opportunity knocks.  Repent – begin again as followers of Jesus the Messiah – our Savior, Lord, and Life.  Thanks to God for such an opportunity.

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