Malachi 3:1-4, Matthew 3:1-6
December 4, 2011
So I’m looking in my Bible, and I find only a couple of pages between these two readings for today. And it seems as though there is a flow to this. “Behold, I send my messenger…” says the Lord through Malachi, and then in just a couple of pages, Matthew writes, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness…”
It seems like those two books, one at the end of the Old Testament and one at the beginning of the New, flow naturally into one another. Now I know there was a time gap. Scholars say it was around 400 years between the two. And there were plenty of world events during those years – like the rise of the Roman Empire, for instance. And there were plenty of events in around the nation of Israel – like the Maccabean revolution, for instance! But even so, there still seems to be a nice flow. And I think that adds to the meaning of the story.
Today we look at the second of the three major themes of Advent. Last week we looked at the theme that had to do with the prophecies and events leading up to the birth of Jesus. That’s an important theme. It’s probably the one we think of most. Next week we’ll deal with the last major theme, the promise that Jesus would come again into this world. That’s probably the one we think of the least!
This theme for today is the one that has to do with the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And to a great extent, it has to do with this man named John. He is the messenger of Malachi, the “Herald of the Messiah” who would “prepare the way of” the Lord. In fact, as I’ve said before, the word “Malachi” literally means “My Messenger.” It could be the name of the prophet who told of these events, or it could simply be that this is a book written about “the messenger,” the one who would come. Either way, it had to do with this man named John.
Now, there’s a lot we could say about John. He’s a very “interesting character,” to say the least! In the Jewish tradition, the prophet Elijah would return to herald the coming Messiah. To this day our Jewish brothers and sisters still set a place at their Passover Seder for Elijah. And during one part of that ceremony, someone is sent to open the door to see if Elijah has come.
Later in Matthew, Jesus gets very specific about this. He deals head-on with that tradition. Messengers come from John who is in prison, and they bring from him this question. “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And his answer to them is this. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:2-5) That’s his answer. And then he turns to crowds and talks plainly about John, ending with these words. “And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” I often wonder what his listeners thought at that moment, especially those who had gone out into the wilderness to see him.
John even looked the part. I’ve mentioned before that if you go back and find the description of Elijah in the Old Testament, it would be very similar to the description we have of John here in Matthew. You’d find it in II Kings, 1:8. Both wore cloaks of camel’s hair with leather belts about their waists. And John’s message is also similar to the fiery message of Elijah. Remember also that many regard Elijah as the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.
Well, when we think of John, we usually talk about that fiery part of his message. We talk about the part where he is a “refiner’s fire,” as Malachi described him. We talk about him crying out in the wilderness the message of Isaiah 40, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” as Matthew quotes here. We think of the power of that message and the mission of the one who is to come. It is so earth-shaking that “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be leveled…”
That’s what we usually think of. We hear him saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?!” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we kind of like those powerful words, don’t we? But today I want to call your attention to the very beginning of his message. It actually comes in the very first sentence of Matthew 3, and it goes by quickly. And before we know it, we’re into the prophecy and the earth-shaking part. But right at the start, we hear what is really the heart of John’s message. In verse one it says, “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!’”
That’s John’s message. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! John is the herald of that kingdom. And everything he then says in his more challenging, more scathing, words, is about that. “Change your ways!” “Bear fruit!” “Live differently!” And not just because I want you to be better people, but because the kingdom of heaven is at hand! It all relates to that! And what I want you to see, as we look at that message today is how it then relates to the message of Jesus – the one John came to announce.
Take a look at the fourth chapter of Matthew. There, Jesus is about to begin his ministry. He’s been out in the wilderness, going through his time of temptation. He’s left Nazareth and gone to Capernaum in Galilee which became his adopted home town during this time in his life. And from there he began his ministry. And listen to what it says in verse 17 of chapter 4. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying (guess what!) ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’” Same exact words! Both John and now Jesus were heralds of the kingdom of heaven!
We talked about that kingdom several times lately. We talked about it during our study on the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We talked about it two weeks ago on “Christ the King Sunday.” Now we see that it is at the heart of the message of Jesus. He came to tell the people that the kingdom of heaven was in their midst. It wasn’t just some “eschatological” kingdom – a word that speaks of the end times. It was now! And as we said about that line in the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying that his kingdom would come on earth just as it is in heaven. In other words, “Let your kingdom come in our midst.”
So, let me ask you this. Do we mean that? And how would life be different if we truly lived as though God’s kingdom were here and now, like Jesus said it was? Would we heed his words? Would we live differently? And what would that look like?
If we went to Luke’s account we would see this fleshed out a bit more. There, John told the people some specific things. He said, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” Tax collectors came, and he told them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also came and he said, “Rob no one by force, and be content with your wages.” (In both cases, those were tough things, by the way!) He told the people how to live in God’s kingdom. So what do we do? What would John tell us? How do we live our lives knowing that the kingdom of heaven is in our midst?
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a challenging quote I saw on the internet. It said this. “Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, war, and suffering and oppression when he has the power to do something about them. But I’ve always been afraid he would ask me the same question.” Being part of God’s kingdom means doing what he would do.
So think about this as you go through this season of Advent. Think about repentance. Because often this is about that. Remember that this “kingdom in our midst” thing is a big deal. It’s just like Isaiah tried to tell us about the Christmas event. It too is a big deal! Neither should be trivialized!
Remember that the heralds of that kingdom were originally John and Jesus. But now they are you and me! We are the heralds! O maybe we’re not standing on a street corner shouting “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Though maybe at times we are!) But we are heralds of the kingdom, in everything we do and say?
Let us know this Advent season that the kingdom of heaven is indeed in our midst. And let us live our lives so that other people may see and know it too!
Eternal God, you have come to be among us to bring your kingdom in our midst. Help us to remember that every day, to work for your kingdom, to rejoice in being your people, your hands, your feet, your voice. Give us strength to do so. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.