Malachi 3:1-4, Mark 1:1-8
December 5, 2010
Here we are, now. This is the Second Sunday of Advent. Christmas is getting that much closer! And as I like to remind you, the season of Advent has three major themes. They are, 1) recalling the prophecies of the Old Testament about the coming Messiah, and the days leading up to his birth, 2) remembering the beginning of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, and 3)remembering his promise to come again into the world – the second Advent.
Those are the three themes of Advent. And today we’re considering the second of those themes. We are dealing with the time of the beginning of Jesus ministry, and more specifically, we’re remembering how that ministry was heralded, or announced, by this man – this cousin of Jesus – John the Baptist.
We could say so much about John! As I’ve pointed out before, he was the Elijah character who the Old Testament prophets said would come before the Messiah to “prepare the way.” His coming was foretold in many places, but none so plain as in the book of Malachi, which we read again today. In almost the very last verse of the Old Testament, the prophet says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” (Malachi 5:4) The word, “Malachi” literally translates from the Hebrew as “my messenger.” Many scholars think that may not have been a person’s name, but actually the title of his book or the theme of his message. Because the more we look at it, the more this book is about John.
So John was the Elijah character who would come to prepare the way. In past years I’ve compared the personalities of Elijah and John, and if you remember, their descriptions are very similar. Both were what we might call “wild characters.” They both had rough hewn clothing, and “unkempt” appearances. They both “lived off of the land,” eating locusts and wild honey. And they both had fiery messages! Each of them in their time called people to repentance, to changed lives, and to be faithful to their God. And finally, both were major personalities in their time.
John was certainly that! He drew large crowds. When we meet him in the Gospels, people have been coming from all the towns and cities in the region to hear him speak. That’s because the people of Israel believed he was a prophet. And the prophets were very important to them! They were the real “celebrities” of their faith history! Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elijah – they all were very highly regarded, and now many believed they had a real, live prophet living in their time! And that was a very exciting thing to them! And so they went down to the river to hear John.
“Yet, who can endure the day of his coming?” Malachi asked. “For he is like a refiner’s fire… He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver, until they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old…” That was John – a “refiner’s fire!”
We actually read his story from Mark today, where his message is not quite so fiery. That’s because Mark was focusing more on Jesus. And he was emphasizing more about how John pointed to him as Messiah. But John’s story is found in all four Gospels! And the other writers, especially Matthew and Luke give us a little more of the grit! They tell us more of John’s fiery message. The give us a little more of the image of him as the “refiner’s fire.”
In Matthew, for instance, John sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, and he says, “You brood of vipers!” “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” That wasn’t a very good way to ingratiate himself with the leaders of the religious community! But that didn’t seem to matter to John. He then said to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!” Then, in Luke’s Gospel his message is even more harsh. Because Luke tells us that he said those words “to the multitudes!” He called everybody snakes! Yet still they came to him!
All of the Gospel writers made it clear that John was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. They used Isaiah’s words to describe him. “He is a voice crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’” (Isaiah 40:1) Isaiah then described the tumultuous nature of his time. Look at your bulletins. In the call to worship we have Isaiah’s prophetic descriptions of the “earth-shaking” message of John and the events he was to announce. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.” Imagine what he’s saying! Every mountain will be leveled. Imagine the cataclysmic power that would take! (The skiing would be pretty much ruined!!)
Then, don’t miss the next line because it’s equally as powerful and earth-shaking. “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…” Maybe we should sing that one, too! Think about that scene! What would it look like for God to reveal his presence to the whole earth at the same time. It’s mind boggling! And when will that be? Is Isaiah talking about John’s time, or the end of time? I think at the very least he’s describing symbolically about that incredible time when God became one like us. But I think he’s also tying that imagery into that of the culmination of history – about the time of “Christ the King” which we talked about a few weeks ago.
So, John fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy in that he “prepared the way” for the messiah. But I’d like you to take a closer look at his message. Because his message to the people was “prepare ye the way.” The voice crying in the wilderness did not say, “I am preparing the way.” It was a statement in the imperative mood. It is, “You prepare the way.” Or “Prepare ye!” you see. So, though it was John’s role to “pave the way” for the messiah, according to him (And Isaiah), the job of preparing the way is ours!! And that means preparing ourselves. That means we are being refined like the sons of Levi. I hope you see it that way! But do we do that? Do we prepare the way?
Certainly, this Advent/Christmas season is all about preparations. We prepare for parties, for presents Christmas morning, for family dinners, for the New Year. We decorate our trees, our houses, our Churches, our businesses, and our animals. (I’ve seen the dog and cat costumes!) I think you’d agree that Advent is all about preparation. But do we prepare ourselves? And more specifically, do we prepare our hearts? That’s the hardest part, isn’t it? And when we do all that other preparing, if that’s all the preparing we do, if we forget our hearts, doesn’t it get to the point where it all feels kind of hollow?
Charlie Brown told us that years ago, didn’t he. Since the 1960’s, Charlie Brown has been as much a part of our culture as any of the Christmas traditions, hasn’t he? So I almost don’t have to remind you of his story – but I will! Charlie Brown starts out talking about Christmas, and how, even with all the presents, and the decorations, and the Christmas cards, and everything else, he’s just not excited. Something’s wrong. He’s depressed and he doesn’t know why. “It’s Christmas. And I know I should be happy. But I’m not.” So Lucy, at her Psychiatrist’s booth – if you remember that – tells him “You need involvement, Charlie Brown.” And she puts him in charge of the Christmas play.
You remember the story, don’t you? Before long, the play is going horribly wrong – as things often did for Charlie Brown! And finally he cries out, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is really all about?!” And Linus says, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” And Linus walks out on the stage – with his blanket, he calls for a spotlight, and 40 years later I can hardly hear the words of Luke 2 without hearing his voice speaking. “And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…” And I’ll bet many of you hear his voice, too!
John was the voice of one crying in the wilderness “prepare ye!” I would encourage us all to do so – myself included! It’s way to easy to forget! So yes, do all the preparation. Do all the decorating. Do all the celebrating! Enjoy it all! But most of all, please, prepare your hearts! That’s were the true meaning of Christmas lies. That’s what gives Christmas true meaning. “For behold I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people… and this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
“And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!”
Eternal God, we are amazed at the story of your son coming into our world. We are also amazed how easy it is for that story to get lost in the busyness of this season. Help us – each day of Advent – to prepare our hearts. Help us to remember and rejoice in the story. Let it fill everything we do with new meaning, that we might see the joy in this time of year and throughout our lives. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.