“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Malachi 4:6

When you think about it, the Christmas story is the story of not just one miraculous birth, but two. The first miracle presaged the birth of Christ in much the same way that one infant would grow to presage the other.  This one had been prophesied as well; in fact, the last words of God for 400 years, His closing words through Malachi in the Old Testament, were, “the next time you hear from me, it will be through the new Elijah.”

Who was this anachronistic prophet? This strange, charismatic hermit crying out in the wilderness? And, what does he have to do with Christmas, anyway?

His message was simple: “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2).  Most of us would say that John’s purpose was to say, “get ready, the Messiah is coming.” That’s certainly true, but if that’s all we see, we’ve only partially understood John’s purpose. If we’re not careful, we let the simplicity of John’s message overpower its profundity, and we miss part of the joy of Christmas.

See, John’s message isn’t only, “the Kingdom of God (Jesus) is at hand (here).” It’s also, “REPENT!”.  It could even be said that “repent” is the main message. William Stringfellow has said, “there is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe outbursts of either frolicking or rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the message and the sentiment of Advent.”

But why repentance? Why would John want to tell us to deal with our sin, to turn away from it, before the coming of the Lord? In fact, isn’t that really impossible? If not for Jesus, can I even repent? If repentance is saying, “I’m done with sin and dying from sin, I’m now dead to it, I’m turning away and living a new life”, isn’t that really an exercise in futility, a fool’s errand, without the One who makes that possible? Without the One who would be “wounded for my transgressions, and crushed for my iniquities”, regenerating my heart, giving me a new will and a new life, I’m just spinning my wheels when I try to repent, right?

Why is this sucker telling me to repent? That makes me really mad! It’s stupid! I can’t repent—my heart is broken and dead and separated from my Father who loves me and created me to be with Him in perfect relationship always! Doesn’t He realize that? Doesn’t He realize that I need someone to help me, that I can’t do it on my own, that my sin is horrible, that I have to die for it, to be punished for it, that when I’m rightfully executed for my sin I won’t be alive to turn my life around?  It’s useless!! It can’t be done!! I NEED HELP!!!

Oh…wait…maybe that’s the point, after all. Maybe the only way I realize my need for a Savior is by someone telling me to save myself, like a man who’s never seen water being thrown into it and told to swim. Maybe the reason I let the trappings of Christmas distract me from the all-consuming greatness of the coming of my Savior is that I forget the all-consuming devastation and the havoc wrought by my sin. Maybe I’ve grown way too comfortable in my own decaying flesh, and I can’t even smell myself anymore. Maybe it takes a locust-eating weirdo giving impossible commands to shake me out of my slumber, to cause me to cry out to my Savior through tears of joyful regret and to really, really rejoice in the day of His coming.

And, the guy was imprisoned and decapitated for his troubles. He was not worthy of this world. Thank you, John, my Elijah, for reminding me every year who I was, what I needed, and what I have.

Jay Ferguson, PhD, writes regularly on his blog, The Head and The Heart.