"The Messenger"

 

 

Malachi 3:1-4

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

 

  

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

   make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled,

   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

   and the rough ways made smooth; 

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

 

 

 

“Embracing the Messenger”

Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 3:1-6

December 9, 2018

sculpture-st-john-baptist.jpg



John’s challenge is to repent and prepare.

Later he will give very specific and practical examples of what this rightly oriented life will entail, but this week we live in the poetic world of the prophet Isaiah, who called all people to prepare for the Lord by making crooked paths straight, lifting up valleys, and making rough places plain. The punch and the promise of the poetry is saved for last: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

         - Kathy Beach 

***

Walter Marks was a state policeman and a saltwater cowboy. After a childhood friend of mine lost a second parent, it was Walter who took her in. I remember the day he took the two of us riding and the moment he made the offer. “Rachel, meet Cinnamon. She’s all you.”

It was written all over my face: No sir. 

I may not have known Cinnamon. I knew about Cinnamon, though. I had no reason to believe that she had fallen in love with the domesticated life and every reason to suspect that she would like to “re-orient” someone like me. 

Since 1925, every July, the Eastern Shore puts on “Pony Penning”. [1] From Assateague Island, the ponies are driven across the channel to the Carnival grounds on nearby Chincoteague Island. The next day, some of the foals are auctioned off. All proceeds benefit the local Volunteer Fire Department. 

Cinnamon was once one of those foals. She was wild. And wild things (or the wild ones of God) are often unpredictable…sometimes ill mannered…nearly always a threat. 

It is where the gospel takes us, this morning: into the presence of Wildman John. [2]

He is hiking the banks of the Jordan River (in sandals). He is about as interested in being at the center of things as Cinnamon was in taking teenage-me for a casual ride on the mainland. 

It is a bit like the opening scene to The Sound of Music. Luke gives us a top-down look. We are offered a sweeping panoramic view of the landscape as the camera pans for a human subject. When it finds one, we meet John. 

The hills (of Judea) are alive, but he’s no Fraulein Maria.

It is the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod ruled Galilee, and the properly religious looked to high priest Annas and his deputy, Caiaphas. 

The Word comes to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Outside the power structure. Outside Jerusalem. Outside the temple. Outside

***

On the face of it, this isn’t particularly newsworthy. The son of priest has gone rogue? Preacher’s kids do that. 

You and I tune in without having lived the hundreds of years prior to this one, featured in Luke Chapter 3. We are not the original audience. This moment – John emerging in the Judean wilderness – it does not pull the same punch. 

Admitting that much can put us on humble ground and humble ground can grow a measure of fresh interest. Who was the original audience? For whom did this news break, like china sliding off the cupboard shelves in an earthquake?  

The Book of Malachi clues us in. They were God’s beloved, who, after enduring exile in Babylon, were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. They had been allowed to come home. 

Instead of responding to that grace they were living without direction and discipline. This is Malachi’s take. As one pastor paraphrases it: They had grown skeptical of God's love (Mal 1:2), careless in worship (Mal 1:7), indifferent to the truth (Mal 2:6, 7), disobedient to the covenant (Mal 2:10), faithless in their marriages (Mal 2:15; 3:5), and stingy in their offerings (Mal 3:8). 

Someone, a messenger, was going have to come and snap them out of it. In four-hundred-and-something BCE, Malachi puts forth the name Elijah. 

Come the first century AD, Luke has someone else in mind for the part. 

***

What is newsworthy, here, has to do with Luke’s introduction. The potential bombshell is in his choice of language: “the word of God came to John…”

This is the unmistakable sound of the call of a prophet. [4] 

400 years have passed. [Tradition remembers Malachi as the last of the prophets.] 

Four centuries have come and gone, when, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee…during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John…”

It is a big deal, this announcement. A grand re-entry on Yahweh’s part is significant in and of itself.  

But this is only part of what Luke is up to, in our text.  

“He [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah…”

***

If Malachi can help us to connect with Luke’s original audience, then Isaiah can help us piece together how we are to respond to the word of God as preached by John.   

Luke does more than repeat after Isaiah. He recasts Isaiah’s vision. He reinterprets it. 

When Isaiah talked about straight paths through the wilderness, he envisioned God making the path in order to bring people out of exile and back home. The path was something God made for the people. [5]

When Luke talks about straight paths, the path is the people; who, through repentance and a returning of themselves to the Lord, become way-makers. John (not God) is 

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

   make his paths straight. 

Every valley shall be filled,

   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

   and the rough ways made smooth; 

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

For Luke, Jesus is coming. Though nothing we do or fail to do can change God’s determination to come, we have a part to play.

Repent and prepare. On this second Sunday of Advent, courtesy of Wildman John, this is our role. 

If you are picking up on a note of judgment, well, it is there.  

90 Advents ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on this ingredient, reflecting: 

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God's coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God's coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.

We do not have to imagine the judgment as punitive. Malachi painted it as cleansing and refining.  

Also, we know that the gospel does not end with John. 

It begins with John.  

We have this moment, then, with him and with ourselves: What within and among us may need to be exposed as false and wrong so that what is true and right can re-root? 

For “all flesh to see the salvation of God,” what gives? what yields? 

***

That is one thing about Wildman John – perhaps the most important thing. According to Luke, he is in it for far more than the just the reorientation of 1st century Judea’s religious crowd. John goes into “all the region”. He points to a time when “all flesh shall see”. 

Call the ministry of John unpredictable, ill mannered, and threatening. It was. It is. 

Call it inclusive. Call it saving. It is these things, too. 

After all, the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

And regarding wilderness, the biblical witness is clear. God meets God’s people there to do one thing: To bring us through, to bring us out, to bring us along for a ride that’s every bit worth taking.

  

In the name of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains us all. Amen.





[1] Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague by shared this ritual with a generation of young readers.

[2] Nancy Rockwell is among those who have given him this moniker.

[3] His look is weathered. His diet is unrefined. His disregard for the conventions of the day is blatant.

[4] “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). “You must speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). “The word of the LORD that came to . . .” (Hos. 1:2; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; Jonah 1:1).  

[5] Karl Jacobson, workingpreacher.org. Kathryn M. Schifferdecker’s commentary on this site brings to light Bonhoeffer’s 1928 sermon.

Drew Willson