Malachi 3:1-4, Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2008
“A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’” That’s our focus for today. This is the second of the three themes of Advent. It is the theme in which we look at the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry here on earth. And as that ministry began, this man John had a big part to play!
The Gospel writers saw it that way. Luke, as we read last week, uses most of his first chapter to tell the story of John’s birth. Then, as we read today, Mark, who was probably the earliest of the four, begins his Gospel with the story of John the Baptist. And John figures very prominently in the other to Gospels as well.
In concert parlance, we might call John the “warm-up act.” Have you ever gone to a concert where there was a “warm-up act?” Have you ever had the experience of buying tickets, going to a concert, and arriving on time, only to find out that there was another group or performer “opening” for the featured act? I’ll never forget my first big concert like that. I remember sitting there thinking, “Hey, I didn’t pay to see this guy!” Well apparently I did!
When I was in New York last month, I got to go to the David Letterman show. And it was a totally fun experience!! One of the things they did before they started the show was to “prepare the audience.” While we were waiting in the lobby, a guy came out and talked to us about laughing. He said to us, “You’re going to be on television. You’re part of the show. So you can’t laugh like Presbyterians.” No, he didn’t really say that. But you know how Presbyterians laugh. They kind of look around to see if there’s anyone else laughing – almost like they need permission! The guy at the show told us, “Just remember, everything you hear today is incredibly funny!”
Then right before the show actually started there was a “warm-up comedian.” He comes out on stage every night before the show starts and tells some jokes. He was there to “loosen up our funny bones!” So by the time Dave came out, we were ready to laugh at anything! (Maybe we need a “warm-up preacher! Or is that what the lay leader does?)
Well, John was the warm-up act for Jesus. I’d even like to think that concert promoters and TV executives got their idea for that – from the Bible! Probably not, though. (But I can live in my little fantasy world if I want to, you know!) Well, John was a great warm-up act! First of all, he had a great advantage, because the “main act” had been given great “advanced billing.” Jesus had been “promoted” by the Old Testament prophets for at least eight hundred years! (I know I said four hundred years before, but it was really twice that. Because the prophets had been writing four hundred years before the end of the Old Testament, but then there was a four hundred year gap between that time and the time of the New Testament.) So, after all that, John was saying things the people really wanted to hear! “The Messiah is coming!!” That was great news to people who were living under the thumb of the Roman Empire!
Well, not only that, but John really knew how to get the crowds going! He was the voice crying in the wilderness, and people went out to the wilderness in great numbers to hear him speak. They came from far and wide because they believed that he was a modern day prophet! (Modern day for them, that is.) He spoke with that fiery, prophetic voice that hadn’t been heard in Israel in centuries. And I think they would have been familiar with these words we read from the book of Malachi. And that would have gotten them going even more! (And since Malachi was written at the end of the Old Testament period, John had his own “advanced billing” of over four hundred years.)
Perhaps you remember me saying before what “Malachi” means. It is a word that literally means “my messenger.” And the book probably derives it’s name from the passage we read today, that says “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me…” So, instead of it being the name of the person who wrote the book – like Isaiah, or Jeremiah – “Malachi” more likely means “The book about ‘my messenger.’”
Take a look at the things it says about this messenger. “Who can endure the day of his coming? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap, and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. And he will purify the sons of Levi, and he will refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings before the Lord.” (Malachi 3:2-3) And as the passage points out, how are gold and silver purified? With fire! And sure enough, John had a fiery message! He spoke boldly to the people. But who did his “fire” fall on most intensely? Just like the prophecy said, it was the “sons of Levi” – the priests! “You brood of vipers!” he called them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?!” Tough words! And did some of the priests heed them? The Bible tells us that they did! Just like some of the priests followed Jesus. But the peer pressure from their colleagues made that very difficult! (There’s a message in there, too. But that’s for another day.)
John’s was a powerful message. He “pulled no punches!” And it was a prophetic message that appealed to many people. John also had some big shoes to fill if the book of Malachi was really about him – which it was! Because at the end of the book it says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:5-6) And again, the people knew about that. They knew Elijah was to return before the Messiah would come. Remember, they still set a place for the prophet Elijah at their Passover meal. And that’s an important connection. Because, in that meal which is all about their deliverance from Egypt, they also looked forward to their future deliverance! And Elijah would herald that time!
In those early days of the New Testament, John was a very important person. One time later, when Jesus was with his disciples, he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27-29) And if you remember, their answer began, “Some say [you are] John the Baptist…” That meant one of two things. Either some people thought John had come back to life, or that Jesus had inherited the spirit and fire of the ministry of John the Baptist – like Elisha was given the spirit of Elijah. Or it meant that some people had heard of this great prophet John, and had come to see him. But by the time they arrived, the one they found preaching was Jesus. Theirs was not an instantaneous media society like ours, and perhaps they hadn’t gotten the full story. You can understand some of the confusion, because John was such an important person. In fact, in the early days, there were many who felt that it was Jesus had joined John’s following! And he had to tell them, “One is coming who is greater than me!”
Well, the next part of the answer the disciples gave him that day was, “…some say [you are] Elijah…” Again, the people knew that Elijah was to come. And many were wondering if he finally had come, first in John, now in Jesus! I’ll never forget, in one of my earliest readings of the New Testament, when I discovered that Jesus had stated very plainly that John was Elijah! That’s in Matthew chapter 11. We don’t have time to read all these passages today, but go and read that chapter some time. He says in verse 14, “…if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
What does that mean? Does it mean John actually was Elijah who had come back to life somehow? Or was it that he spoke with his voice and the fire of his message? Did he “inherit a double portion of his spirit” like Elisha? (II Kings 2) That’s hard to say. But even the descriptions of the two men are very similar. Mark described John as being “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt,” and he ate “locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6) And if you go back to the first chapter of II Kings, you will find a similar description of the Prophet Elijah!
John was he who was to come and prepare the way for the Lord. He was the ultimate warm-up act! And I hope we can see that even more today. He was the one crying in the wilderness. And I often wonder, and maybe you do too, would we have heeded that voice?
Besides his fiery message to the priests, John called the people to repentance. He told them to be ready for the kingdom that was to come, and indeed was already in their midst. He called them to change who they were and how they lived. In Luke’s account there’s even more of the dialogue between John and the people. They asked him “What then shall we do?” And he gave them some specifics for living their lives. “He who has two coats, let him share one.” He said to the tax collectors, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” He said to the soldiers, “Rob no one, and be content with your wages.” And I ask you, do we do such tangible, specific things to promote God’s kingdom by the way we live?
As we prepare again for the Lord’s coming ourselves, we need to ask ourselves not only are we preparing our hearts, but are we living differently than we would be otherwise? Are we different people than if Jesus had not come? And I don’t just mean “do we go to church?!” But rather, as God’s people, are we living as God would have us live?
Those are the questions I want to leave with you today. Those are the questions I want you to ask yourselves as you think of this messenger who came to prepare the way of the Lord. For he was the voice crying in the wilderness. And he calls to us, just as he did all those years ago. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” May we heed that voice!
Eternal God, we know your kingdom is among us as John and later Jesus said. Help us to promote that kingdom in everything we say and everything we do. Teach us to live as your people, loving others, living joyfully, and working for the reconciliation of the world. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.