This is the text I prepared for the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th December 2018, the second Sunday in Advent in year C. It was also a communion Sunday.
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Last week in my introduction to the Church’s season of Advent I spoke about it as a time when the Church remembers the arrival of the Messiah on earth as the baby of Beit Lechem, and our preparations for when he returns at the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth. Today our reading from the Hebrew traditions come in the words of the prophet Malachi who lived during the Persian Empire days of Jerusalem’s history, so somewhere between 500 and 350 BC. Malachi told the Judahites that a messenger was coming who would herald the Lord’s return to the city; in fact Malachi’s own name means “my messenger” and he certainly did act as a prophet and a messenger of God, but it is clear that he was not writing about himself.
Malachi wrote that when the Lord comes he will bring refining fire for purification and righteousness so that the people will be pleasing to God as they once were. Under colonisation the Judeans had become cynical, complaining that God had left them under foreign rule to live in a ruined version of the Promised Land. God’s response was that the people were disobedient, expecting God to make things good while they sat around whinging and disregarding God’s will and word of correction. God’s word to them was that when God will come in response to their complaint not only will the temple and the city be physically and gloriously restored, but God’s lordship over the people will be too, and that will require them changing their attitudes and behaviours and being made pure. Hebrew tradition connects the soon-to-be-coming messenger with Elijah who would return (since Elijah was already dead at this point) to herald the return of the Lord of Glory to Jerusalem. Christian tradition connects this messenger with John the Baptiser, who spoke into a similar cultural and economic situation for Judea four centuries later than Malachi. Malachi and each John hear the people’s complaints and say to them in God’s inspiration “you want God to come and save you, but you aren’t yet ready for what God brings”. Malachi warns the people in an oracle and John goes a step further as he begins to denounce the self-satisfied and baptise the repentant.
In the days following the birth of God’s new messenger, the first Jewish prophet in four centuries (who broke that long period of darkness and silence), John’s father Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son. Zechariah says that the child will be the witness to the coming of the Davidic king, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory as the nation of God. In Luke 1:76-79 we hear how John will prepare the people for the Messiah, telling them what the messianic mission will be so that when the Lord comes they will be ready to respond, and the dawn will come to end the long night of God’s silence. When the saviour comes he will fulfil the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73) and liberate the people from their enemies and show mercy to Judea so that they could worship God without restriction (Luke 1:71-72). This is what the audience around Malachi might have wanted to hear if worship was as high on their list of desired freedoms as self-governance was. The news is exciting for Zechariah because he knows that God’s deliverance is at hand; it will come in his son’s lifetime because John himself is the herald. Zechariah quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in his praise, and Isaiah 9:1 in his identification of whom it is that God will send: it is the Wise Counsellor and Mighty God whom is the Everlasting One. John’s proclamation of who is coming in Luke 3:4-6 is also a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5. Adonai, the Lord Godself is the one who is coming, and is coming for all humanity, in the lifespan of baby John. How exciting!
I like how Luke’s narrative, his telling the story of Elisabeth’s pregnancy and then of Mary’s is interrupted by this song of fatherly worship. This can be a reminder to us not to get carried away with the events of the day, even God’s marvels, but to stop and adore and worship and praise: we are reminded to “Selah” as the psalmists say, to pause and consider. Zechariah in his song is pointing to repentance; but not only to the forgiveness of sins through the coming of the Lord but also the need for the world to stop, rethink, and change direction in the light of this latest news. The Lord who is coming has come to restore justice to Israel and to bring light to the whole world, not just the Jews. The Lord who is coming is coming for everyone, that’s a new idea for many people.
In Luke 3:1-6 we read how the Spirit fell on John when John was already in the wilderness. The message of God was the one prophesied by Zechariah, that John must proclaim that the Lord is coming and the whole world needs to prepare. I like the detail that Luke includes in Luke 3:1-2, setting the ministry of John in a specific time and place, and with a specific theme: John is in outback Judea in 29AD and proclaiming repentance for purification through baptism. This is just as Malachi 3:4 suggested, but it also makes a stark contrast between what is occurring around the emperor, procurator, and client kings in their various capital cities, and where God is at work which is actually in the wilderness. The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Exodus: this God works in the wild places which are the places between other places. God chooses to be active in the places others rush through (or past) on the highway to other places, so the places where God’s people live are often places where other people stop only for a toilet break and a photo of the brick line across the road demarcating a barrier which God’s people in God’s wisdom don’t consider significant. John in preparation to declare his message, which is the preparation of the way of the Lord, is already in the place where the Lord will be. What is also significant is the number of authority figures listed: Judea is under the authority of empire, province, and local warlord forms of control, this is not a free country and the Judeans are not a free people. Who John is speaking to in the wilderness, who John is calling to repentance are people who are living directly under heavy burdens of governance and colonisation but who are also marginalised and ignored. These people are of no consequence to the big-hats in Rome or Jerusalem or Caesarea, except when it comes to taxation and conscription, at which time they are very much in the crosshairs.
The wilderness is outside polite and formal society, so it is a place of disorder and chaos. The wilderness is a place you only pass through if you have to, and you do so as quickly as possible. To make an unnecessary journey through the wilderness is weird: to go there deliberately, and to stay there, is madness and maybe even demonic. Yet look at what God does in Luke 3:5-6, the chaotic and demonic will be ordered and rescued by God: no place, and the residents of no place, will be left behind by God because all will be made whole and all will be saved. This is great news for the poor, but confusing news for the merchants and the ruling classes who don’t believe they need saving and believe they don’t need saving. The elites are told that God is coming, which is great news. The prophecies of John and Zechariah point to God doing what has been promised, the salvation promised by God through Malachi and all the Hebrew prophets is at hand, God is about to deliver the good news into a world where there is so much bad news. However, God is arriving way outside and God’s ministry is beginning with the weird mobs that live out the back of beyond.
There is so much more going on in John’s proclamation than God delivering the Jews from the Romans, Zechariah and John each acknowledge this; but I wonder if even John thought that a coup would indeed be part of the messianic mission. Later in the story of John we find him sending his disciples to Jesus to question him about whether he really is the messiah, and whether he is the only messiah. Perhaps we want to ask the same question sometimes.
We do not live beneath an obvious empire as did Malachi and John, there are no Persians or Romans here, and if the British remain well we actually are them. But I think we do still live with a misguided idea of what the Lord’s coming will mean for The Wimmera and The Tatiara: after all with no empire and no slavery, with relatively fair taxation and no degrading or onerous religious demands what do we need liberating from? Why do we need a saviour when we have already been saved through the cross? Perhaps, with pun intended, we need to ask why in Advent it would be advantageous for us that the Lord come back at all.
Selah, pause and consider. Amen.