It is a beautiful song with lovely lyrics. But John is not about gathering us around the manger. He's about delivering a "Welcome to Advent" sermon that shakes our nativity snow globe so hard it cracks and all the water flows out along with the little white coconut flakes. The baby has escaped from the hermetically sealed snow globe of our cultural Christmas.

John is about welcoming Jesus to the Jordan River and the people standing by it. The crowd who stands listening to John wonders, "Is John the Messiah?" (3:15).

Oh no, my friends. We are not about to get off that easy. At Advent we don't just welcome to our world a prophet who tells us the truth about ourselves and baptizes us with water to symbolize our repentance. We welcome a baby grown to a man, a crucified and resurrected Savior who comes with mercy, but also with judgment. He comes with the Holy Spirit's burning power and a winnowing fork in his hand. Herod didn't like the sound of this coming competitor, so he gave John the welcome despots always give to prophets. He said, "Welcome to my world, John," by shutting John up in prison (Luke 3:20). Perhaps Herod thought that would be the end of this Messiah business.

But it's too late. The baby has already been born.

The child has already grown and become strong (Luke 2:40). God's wisdom, power and healing have already been unleashed and are about to be witnessed in Jesus' teaching, exorcisms and healings. Those who open their hearts to God with generosity and justice are about to be forgiven and empowered. And those who reject God and God's Son? Well, they are what winnowing forks are for. They are the dross that will be burned away. Even as John the herald offers his acerbic sermon, we can hear the approaching footsteps of Jesus the Savior.

Understanding John's Sermon Today

I'm still sitting here waiting for my plane to Dallas. It occurs to me that our job as 21st-century hearers of John's sermon from Luke is to welcome Jesus to Tucson. Not the perfect Tucson, beautifully cool in December, artfully retouched for tourist consumption, but the Tucson that struggles—like any city—with crime, drug trafficking, domestic abuse and poverty. My job when I get home will be to welcome Jesus to Allen, Texas.

Chris Rice's lyrics end with words that focus on the gift of the Savior's coming to our world:

So wrap our injured Flesh around you
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy,
Perfect Son of God. Welcome to our world.

Bring Your peace into our violence.
Bid our hungry souls be filled.
Word now breaking Heaven's silence.
Welcome to our world.
Welcome to our world.

In Advent, we remember that we have a job to do—to welcome Jesus the Savior into our lives by repentance and participation.