Dear brothers and sisters,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That is the exclamation and invitation of John the Baptist near the Jordan 2000 years ago. And again: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That is the opening statement of Dr. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg 500 years ago. John the Baptist preparing the way by calling people to repent and Luther calling for the whole life of a person to be a life of repentance, both are essential statements about human nature: Man, something is deeply wrong with you, come to yourself, see your unworthiness and your inequities; come to yourself as a corrupted being, see the evil and filthiness in yourself, turn from your own evil and seek forgiveness of your guilt and long for a rescue from your desperate state of being.
These weeks, we live in the time of a cold and dark Winter. Here in Prague, the sun rises at 8 am. and sets at 4 pm., so only 8 hours of light. And when you go to Northern Europe, it gets even worse. We cannot have fun outside, like breaking our legs and hands from running crazy, and some people fall into depression from the gloomy dark days. In the old days, it was even worse, our ancestors knew that the dark and cold Winter can be not only gloomy but also brutal and threatening to their lives. And they were right. More people used to be dying in the Winter than in any other season. I remember my great-grandmother running outside to catch the first sun rays in the Spring to warm up her paining knees. And here in all the European cities and towns, you see what we do to have at least some light in our lives throughout this dark season, we decorate with lights our streets, our windows, our trees and even our trams.
But the apostle John in the first chapter of the gospel and our evening prayer song Phos Hilaron talk about a different Light. We see and feel the darkness and cold outside and we are looking for the Spring rays of the sun. But John the Baptist and Luther are earnestly calling us to repent, for our very lives to be the lives of repentance, because they both know there is much deeper and much more terrifying darkness in our souls and much more harming coldness in our hearts. And these destroy not only eventually our bodies but also our whole lives and souls. These are our dark passions, our pride and our hate and anger, the coldness of our hearts when we fail to love, to care, to help, to be faithful and show kindness and mercy to others. In short, the darkness and cold of our sin that dwells deep in our being, rules over us and is sinking us into evil, into death and destruction. Our dark passions and our sinful hearts would have long ago destroyed us and the world, had not the Law been in place to curb our destructive tendencies. Want to see this dark and cold nature of us at work? See how we are hurting each other in relationships, in “free love” that hurts and bruises and how we are using each other on the “free market” in the brutal and merciless economical fight that leaves a few successful and many unlucky, resentful, devastated and ripped off. Jan Amos Comenius was right in his Letters to Heaven that the voices of these unjustly treated are crying to heaven. Or see how we are destroying each other in wars, for sure, years of peace have been rather an exception than the rule in the history of mankind. But as Mother Theresa said, what is the evil of a war in comparison to the evil of a mother destroying her own baby that she carries under her heart?! Surely, if God´s grace had not been shown to mankind in the Law, we would have long time ago destroyed the entire world and ourselves.
But like my great-grandmother ran outside to get the first Spring warm rays of sun after gloomy and cold European Winter, for all those who are crushed and lamenting over themselves, there is the Light of Whom John the Baptist said: “He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (John 1:15) Clearly, John is talking about Christ for Whom John is preparing the way and to Whom John is pointing in his preaching. Historically, John the Baptist comes first on the scene and is pointing to Jesus who is coming later. However, John clearly states, that Christ was before him. This points to Christ´s deity that has ever been from eternity to eternity. This is the first wonderful gospel of this Christmas text that is so craftly painted by Cranach: John the Baptist points to eternal God Himself who came as Emmanuel, God with us and walked among sinners. Have you sinned? God came for you. Have you messed up in your life? God came for you and shared table with those who messed up badly. Have you hurt or disappointed somebody? God came for you and knows the pain and still forgives.
Not even Moses or Abraham saw God in His fullness of truth and glory. Had they seen Him directly, they would have died because pure and full goodness and holiness annihilates or, rather, replaces and cannot tolerate sin and evil. Nor can the Law in its just judgment tolerate sin and evil; they would be destroyed by it. But the apostle John witnesses that the Son, Christ, has seen God, that the Son is in the closest relationship with God, that the Son has made God known. And the apostle John makes an even more direct statement: The one and only Son is himself God. Not even Moses or Abraham was so close to God as we are: John is pointing to the baby in the swaddling clothes – this is the almighty God who was born to show us true power in meekness. John is pointing to the baby that will be nailed on the cross – this is the King of kings who came among us to show us true love in suffering. John is pointing to the baby whose cut and bloody body will be put to grave – this is the Savior who came among us to show us true victory in humility and defeat, so no-one must despair, but can have faith and hope.
The witness of the apostle John, in verse 16, is one if the greatest and sweetest comforts ever heard: “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Go to the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes! Who do you see? A defenseless and meek baby that was born on straw because there was no hotel room left that evening. Yet, this is the way God chose to come to be with us, a way of pure grace and love, a way to which we cannot add anything but to fall on our knees and adore this Child. No surprise that there was no room for this baby, there could have not been, for the sinful world cannot accommodate the holy God. Yet, God showed His mercy that He chose this lowly way to come to be with us. The fullness of love and peace came among us, this baby born in a barn is the fullness of all our hopes and longings. This baby is so peace-bringing and comforting that the anxious old Simeon could cry: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation…” We too, have seen and continue seeing our own salvation in the baby whose birth we celebrate today.
Are you poor and struggle to keep your job or to pay your bills? Run to the baby! “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53) Run to the baby born in the stable who thought us to pray for our daily bread, and not to worry about our food and clothes for our heavenly Father knows we need it all, and who fed thousands by His mercy. Are you despised by the society or are you lonely and crying for love? Run to the baby! This child was born as a homeless, despised by the world, spit upon, left by all, crushed by our sinful nature and still, this baby is here to love you when nobody else loves you or when everybody hates you: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Are you afraid of the darkness of the world and of the darkness of your own sinfulness, are you afraid of life and death? Run to the baby! This baby suffered and endured it all, your darkness of sin condemned Him to suffer God´s wrath and shameful death on the cross and still He rose again victorious and the defenseless and meek baby on the straw assured and comforted us : “Do not be afraid…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:10, 18, 20). Run to the baby! For this baby born in the barn is the only Light in our lives. And rejoice today! For in this baby our Savior has come. I say it again, cry aloud and rejoice! O come, o come, Emmanuel.