Malachi 3:1-4, Mark 1:1-8
December 13, 2009
“Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa came to say, ‘Rudolph with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?’” Who doesn’t know that story? Ok, but have any of you “been around long enough” to remember when it was written?
According to Wikipedia, the story was created by Robert May in 1939 in conjunction with his job at Montgomery Ward. The story is actually owned by “The Rudolph Company,” and it’s managed by “Character Arts LLC.” And (believe it or not!) neither the story nor the song are public domain! How about that? So be careful! If you sing Rudolph too loud, you might just get a call from the legal department of Character Arts LLC!
We kids never knew anything about that. All we knew was that we were very glad Santa had Rudolph’s bright nose to light the way through the darkest night – to our houses! And by about now, You’re probably wondering where I’m going with this! Well, allow me to “light the way” for you – like the glow from a reindeer nose cutting through the worst blizzard! The connection is this. Just like Santa, Jesus had his own beacon to “light the way.” His beacon was a man named John the Baptist. And I’m not saying John had a shiny nose! I am saying he was a big part of the story of Jesus.
I want us to think about John today. When we first meet him, he was preaching in the desert, and the people came out to hear him by the hundreds, and maybe even thousands. They came because they believed that a true prophet had come among them for the first time in many hundreds of years. In fact, John the Baptist became so important in the people’s minds that it was difficult for them later to transfer their sense of importance to Jesus. And there are a lot of scripture passages that bear that out. One of them is found in the great prologue to John’s Gospel. There, John says of John that “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”
Well, even with those words, I am referring to John today as “the light,” in the sense that it was his unique job in history to prepare the way – to light the way – for the Messiah. And yes, his was an important story. It was a big part of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which is one of the three themes we celebrate during the Advent season. (The other two themes are: 1) remembering the first coming of Christ, and 2) considering his second coming.) So John is our focus today. Last week we remembered Mary who gave birth to Jesus, now today we have John as the one who introduces him to the world.
As we think of John’s story, we also read today from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. And unlike the other prophetic books, there probably was not an actual person named “Malachi.” In this case, the title of the book most likely comes from the message of the book. Because the word “Malachi” literally means “My Messenger.” And the book tells about “the messenger” who was to come to prepare the way for the Messiah. So Malachi really is the bridge between the Old and the New Testament. And in the messianic tradition, when the prophets spoke of a “messenger” was to come before the messiah and “prepare the way,” that messenger was to be the prophet Elijah.
That’s what the prophecies said. Before the Messiah would come, Elijah would return to “light the way.” And the Jewish people understood that. I think I’ve told you that, even to this day, they still set a place for Elijah at the Passover table. And at one point in the celebration of the Passover Seder, they ceremonially open the door and look to see if Elijah has come!
Now, of course in the New Testament, we meet that messenger, and he is John the Baptist. But what did that prophecy mean? Did it mean that Elijah would actually come back to earth in a new Body? That’s interesting, because if you read the descriptions of the Elijah and John, they are very similar! They were both kind of “wild characters,” and they both had “fiery messages!” Or was it more than that? Was it that, when he came, John would have “the spirit of Elijah.” I think there’s some truth in that, and maybe that’s the most important part of this. That meant John had the prophetic call of Elijah. It meant he had the message and the zeal of Elijah. And it certainly meant that he had the job of Elijah as foretold in Malachi.
So John was Elijah. And if you’re still not sure about that, go back and read what Jesus had to say about him. I know I’m jumping around a little here, but if you go to Matthew chapter 11 you’ll find Jesus asking the people what they thought about John, “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?” he asked. “…a man clothed in soft raiment? Those who dress like that live in kings houses.” “You went out to see a prophet!” he said. (Probably referring to John’s bold message and strange appearance!) Then he went further, saying John was “…more than a prophet.” “He is the one of whom the prophet wrote.” And then he quoted Malachi 3. And then he said “…and if you are willing to believe it, he is Elijah who is to come.”
That’s the story we celebrate today. We think of John the Baptist, who was “the messenger” of Malachi. We celebrate the story of the one who came to “light the way” for the Messiah. But, that’s just a lot of Biblical history – unless we bring it all home – to us! So the question for today is, how do we light the way for the Messiah? I think that’s a big part of what Advent is about. John prepared the way. But how do we prepare the way? My suspicion is we do so the same way we always have, by being too busy even to realize Christmas is approaching. And then, when we do realize it, we panic all the more because of all the “things we have to do!!”
I’ve heard this time of year described recently as being a “frenzy.” And I think you’ll agree it is! And I often find myself asking, “where’s the peace the angels talked about?” Where’s the “Peace on Earth and goodwill to men?” Do we have any of that? Do we even have the ability to stop every once in a while and think about what we’re doing? As we count the days to Christmas, do we ever stop and think, not in terms of shopping days, but in terms of the world’s awaiting the coming of the son of God? Sometimes I wonder. And don’t get me wrong! I’m caught up in that frenzy, too. Sometimes I find it frustrating that Christmas comes at this time in the Church year, a time when new budgets are being prepared, and we’re getting ready for our Annual Meeting – along with everything else.
Sometimes it reminds me of the time when I was in college. I pretty much had four years of my life without Advent! That’s because the last of the finals of the Fall Semester were usually not over until December 23rd. I think one year it was actually the 24th! And that meant I was studying, writing papers, and completing projects. And I remember I’d be driving home the next day, and boom! It was Christmas Eve! No Advent! And I wonder. Are we ever in danger of that happening in our busy world today?
I think we have to be intentional about preparing the way! The circumstances of life have the tendency to “run over us.” But that happens even more so at this time of year. So I’d like you to think about what you do – intentionally – to “prepare the way!” What are your “traditions of Advent.” We often have rich traditions around Christmas, but what about Advent? How do you prepare? Maybe you need to think about reading part of the story each day, or even every few days. Maybe you need simply to take time at the beginning of each day, and “check in” with God, and think about what we’re celebrating. (By the way, doing that at the beginning of the day is usually more effective than checking in at the end of the day and wishing you had thought about it!)
I encourage you to do that. I encourage you to take time this year and think about what it was like in the time of Mary and Joseph, and Elizabeth and Zachariah. Think about what it was like as this baby Jesus came on the scene as an adult and started telling people about “the kingdom of heaven.” Think about all those Advent stories because you are part of those stories! John was the voice crying in the wilderness, and he was telling us to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Be intentional about Advent, or it will surely pass you by and leave you feeling like you just came home from college and suddenly realized you missed it all – and tomorrow is Christmas Eve! And as you think about how the light first came into the world all those years ago, take time to think about how the light first came to you. Remember the wonder of that time, and what it was like to realize for the first time that God indeed loved you! Make that part of this time of Advent season.
Take time to hear again the words of John. “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world… He came to his own home, but his own people received him not. But all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of Grace and truth. And we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only son from that Father.”
Eternal God, we stand in awe of your amazing Grace, and the wonderful story of how you came into this world to share this life with us, so that we might share our lives with you. Help us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the celebration of that wonderful event. Fill us with all the joy, the wonder, and the anticipation of Advent. And even as we experience again all the various sights and sounds and events of this season, help us to focus on Jesus. For this we pray in his name, Amen.