Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
December 10, 2006
As I said, this is now the Second Sunday of Advent. And this is the Second Theme of Advent. (Which ever way you count them!) Last week we talked about the Advent theme where we remember Jesus’ promise to come again to this world. And in this theme today, we remember the events that mark the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – some thirty years after that first Advent. And one of the central figures in that story was this man we know as John the Baptist. He was, as Isaiah foretold, the voice crying, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”
Let me say at first that John was not exactly what the people might have expected! And that’s ironic, because they did expect him. His coming was foretold in this book of Malachi, which we read today. And as you know, Malachi is a book whose name means “My Messenger.”
John represented the figure of Elijah, who was part of the Jewish Messianic tradition. All the Jews understood that Elijah would someday return and herald the coming of the Messiah. Every year during the Passover Seder, each Jewish family would set a place at their table for Elijah. And they still do! And at one point during that meal, as part of the liturgy, they would send someone to open the door to see if Elijah had come.
So they knew that part of the tradition. And John was that Elijah figure. Jesus himself would confirm that. Later on he would say about John, “…and if you are willing to believe it, he was Elijah who was to come.” You can check that out in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, verse 14.
John even looked the part! As I think I said last year, if you read the description of Elijah in the Old Testament, it would sound a lot like the description we have of John. Both of them were said to have worn rustic clothing made of camel’s hair, and they lived on a simple diet of locusts and wild honey.
Still, when John arrived on the scene, he was not exactly what the people expected. For one thing, John ruffled people’s feathers – and often it was the wrong people’s feathers that he ruffled! John did not ingratiate himself with the religious leaders. In fact, he did the opposite! When they came to him, he called them a “Brood of vipers.” That’s not a very nice thing to say about a bunch of priests – especially in front of their congregation! (A good thing to remember when you’re thinking about your own religious leadership!)
John was very much the controversial figure described in our passage from Malachi. Listen again to what the prophet writes about him. “But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears. For he is like a refiner’s fire… and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings before the Lord.” What a wonderful description! He will be like a refiner’s fire. And of course, that’s how they refine and purify gold – through fire and flame. They melt it and keep heating it until the impurities rise to the surface. And John called for the purification of the people – especially those “sons of Levi.” That meant the “Levites” or the priestly class.
Actually, we didn’t read that part of the story today. I hope you’ll go back and read it later. We used a shorter version of this passage. We ended our reading from Luke right after the “good stuff.” We didn’t read on to the “tough stuff,” where we find those harsh words to the Pharisees and Sadducees. And actually, in Luke’s rendition of this story, he didn’t just say those things to the religions leaders. Luke tells us that he said those tough things, “to the multitude.” Of course, the crowd was there along with the Pharisees and Sadducees. But Luke tells us that he addressed all of them. And I like that. Because Luke wanted us to see that such “purification” was important to all the people. Because it was then the multitudes who asked him, “What then shall we do?”
You may remember that as a question in one of Luke’s other writings. That was the question the people asked Peter after his first sermon in the book of Acts. (Acts, of course, was a second book written by Luke!) In that story, it says the people were “cut to the heart” by his words, and they asked, “What then shall we do?
Folks, that is the first step in preparing the way that we’re talking about during Advent. If we too are going to prepare the way of the Lord, if we too are going to be “purified” as John said, then we too need to ask, “What then shall we do?” Because at the simplest level, preparing the way of the Lord involves doing something! And there are too many of God’s people who don’t want to hear that. They think this purification is for “other people.” They think a change of heart is for someone else. “Doing something” is beyond their desire or their capability. Too many of God’s people at this time of year refuse to look at themselves. They think “There’s nothing I have to do to prepare the way for the Lord.”
I want you to think today, about what you will do to prepare the way of the Lord. And I don’t mean putting up the tree, addressing the cards, buying the gifts, throwing the parties. Those things are great! Lord knows there are lots of things to do at this time of year. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about doing the kinds of things we never seem to think we have time to do. I’m talking about looking at our lives and preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus into the world. I’m talking about recommitting ourselves to his ministry, the beginning of which we celebrate today.
As you’re thinking about that, consider the picture of the cataclysmic events that are described in the part of Luke we did read. As Luke quotes from Isaiah 40, he talks about this one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. And he tells us of planet altering events. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low…” Can you imagine what forces would cause that kind of alteration of the earth’s surface?
Just think of the mighty mountain ranges, and the enormous canyons. Have you seen the Rocky Mountains? The Alps? Have you watched any of the Discovery Channel’s programming of climbing Mount Everest? Have you been to the Grand Canyon? I haven’t, but I’ve been to the second largest Canyon in the world, the Palo Dura Canyon in the panhandle of Texas. And let me tell you, if the Grand Canyon is bigger than that, it must be unbelievable!
Can you imagine all of that leveled? That’s the magnitude of change Isaiah told us this event would cause. That’s a descriptive way of saying how much the coming of Christ would change the world! And that’s what happened. Maybe not in this literal way, but Jesus coming into the world changed the course of history that much. The coming of Christ changed the course of history more than any other event – ever! And nothing else even comes close!
John the Baptist was the herald of that event. In his ministry he called for repentance. He called people to change their lives. He called people to do something! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
As you hear his words, as you prepare the way of the Lord, ask yourself, “What then shall I do?” It’s far too easy to get caught up in all the trappings of the season. It’s far too easy to get overwhelmed by all the busyness that we go through, and then miss the meaning of what we’re doing. We prepare our homes, but do we prepare our hearts?
The Second theme of Advent tells us that God himself came into the world, and that nothing would ever be the same again! Let’s be a part of that! Let’s let that change our lives as it changed the world. “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!”
Eternal God, your love for us was shown when you sent your son into our world. Help us to prepare our lives for his Kingdom, which is coming, and which is here in our midst. Help us to look at our lives and see where we need to be purified. Give us the strength and the courage to be the kind of people you call us to be. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.