Advent begins next week! During Advent—this dark time of the year—we remember that Jesus is the Light. One way I do this is to light the candles on my Advent wreath. A quick google search for DIY Advent wreaths will show you that the word “wreath” is only a suggestion. Advent candles can be lined up on your mantel or scattered around your table. Our wreath is a green ceramic circle with a simple Celtic design, and it holds four taper candles. Every Sunday at lunch or dinner, we light a new candle and the candles of the previous weeks. We talk about the character (or characters) for that specific week of Advent. Because the girls know these stories pretty well, we don’t do any formal readings—we just talk, and I remind them of any details they’ve forgotten. Some years I get distracted, and we light the candles the four days before Christmas instead of the four Sundays. On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, we light all four candles and I put a pillar candle in the middle of the wreath and we talk about Jesus.
Advent candle traditions vary. I like connecting the candles to people, and talking about stories. Some families follow schedules that use concepts like hope and joy. I use all green candles, but many people use three purple and one pink. (The pink candle is for the third week, when they talk about joy.)
But today it is not quite Advent, and we are going to talk about someone who is not the Light of the World.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)
Read Luke 1:5-24 (All the scriptures not directly quoted on the blog today are right here). to read the pregnancy announcement that begins the story of John the Baptist. Who were his parents, and what kind of people were they?
Read Luke 1:39-45 to see who visited John’s mother while she was pregnant. What do you think Zechariah felt as he was unable to speak, while the two women filled his home with conversation and praises?
Read John 1:19-34 to see John meeting Jesus years later. They are both adults now, and interestingly, John says he didn’t know who the Messiah was until this moment. I always pictured the two boys talking about their futures as they grew up and keeping in touch (or perhaps their mothers keeping in touch!) as they began their ministries. But this was not so. They may have stayed in contact, but John didn’t know all the details about Jesus until he proclaimed him to be the Lamb of God.
“Behold the Lamb of God!” was the statement John had been waiting to make. This was his big line in the drama of salvation. He had preached a message of repentance from sin, but now here was the Sacrifice, the perfect Lamb of God who would pay the penalty for sin once for all.
Later, John had his moments of doubt. And he had good reason to be depressed—he was stuck in a prison cell. Herod the King was wicked and immoral, and when John spoke out against him, he threw John into prison. When John’s followers visited him, he asked them to go ask Jesus if he truly was the Messiah. Read Luke 7:18-28 and Isaiah 35:3-7. What do these passages have in common?
I love the way the Bible never turns its characters into superheroes. John was human, he was discouraged and he had doubts. Jesus answered him gently, quoting a prophecy that John knew well. Jesus went on to praise John, and then to make a statement about the kingdom of God, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I have puzzled over his words about John many times, but I don’t think John found them puzzling at all. John’s goal was always to “decrease,” to become less popular in order to glorify the Messiah. None of this “greater” and “least” stuff would have concerned him.
This last scene from John’s life touches my heart. John has played his part and now he waits to see how his story will end. He wonders if he really has lived his life well and if he pointed people to the true Messiah. You probably know the rest of the story: King Herod ordered John’s execution because his wife and stepdaughter/niece asked him to. It is a senseless tragedy. Why did God allow this to happen? I wish I had an answer.
Last night I attended a Communion Service. As I heard the words, “This is my body which is broken for you,” I remembered that Jesus experienced horrible tragedy himself. But it was not senseless. God allowed Jesus—his perfect sinless son—to die for our sins. He died for all the believers in ancient times who were looking forward to his coming (and that includes John!) , as well as those of us who look back at the gospel writings about the cross.
When tragedy strikes our lives, God rarely tells us why. But he does give us Immanuel—God With Us, Jesus who promised never to leave us nor forsake us.
If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny who he is. (2 Timothy 2:13 NLT)
…be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20 NLT)
What do you admire about John the Baptist?
What are the doubts and questions that you are taking to Jesus today?
As I looked for a hymn about God’s faithfulness, I thought of “We Gather Together.” When I was a kid, my church always sang this song the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It’s an old hymn, originally written to celebrate a Dutch military victory in 1597.
We Gather Together
We gather together
to ask the Lord’s blessing;
he chastens and hastens
his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing
now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name,
he forgets not his own.
Beside us to guide us,
our God with us joining,
his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning
the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side,
all glory be thine!
We all do extol thee,
thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still
our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation
thy name be ever praised!
O Lord, make us free! *
—Adrianus Valerius, translated by Theodore Baker
Photo Credit: John Gonsalves