Malachi 3:1-7, Mark 1:1-8
December 4, 2005
Last week I talked about the three major themes of Advent. Now, if you’re a “Liturgy Buff” – one of those who loves to learn all about the different parts of the Church year – I’m sure you were thrilled about all that. The rest of you were wondering what time the Eagles’ game came on!
As I said, the three major themes of Advent are: the celebration of the coming of Christ, with all the messianic prophecies and the visits of the angels to Mary and Joseph and Elizabeth and all that; then there’s the theme of the second coming of Christ, which we talked about last week; and then this one for today, the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This one has to do with the stories surrounding this man named John the Baptist.
John is an interesting character. He was a contemporary of Jesus. In fact, he was a relative of Jesus, a cousin, depending on how you understand the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth – the Bible says “kinswoman.” John is also a “colorful” personality. He is understood to be a wild looking character, dressed in rustic garments, with a belt of leather, and living off of the land.
John also held a unique position in the story of the coming of Christ. He came to “prepare the way of the Lord.” He was a fiery preacher who called people to repentance and baptism. And he was so important that his was a story recorded by all four of the Gospel writers. And I know I’m not telling you anything new in all this. What I am trying to do is to paint a picture of John and to help us remember how important he was.
The people regarded John to be a prophet. And that was a very important thing. They hadn’t had a full-fledged, card-carrying prophet in their midst in many years. And so they came out to see him and to hear him! And they responded to his message. They thought so highly of John that when Jesus came on the scene, there was question for a while as to who was the most important. That’s why we find these little descriptions and comparisons in the Bible. John said, “One is coming whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” At one point he said, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” And in the prologue of John’s Gospel, we read these words about John the Baptist. “He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light.”
John was an important figure in the story of Jesus. And he is an important part of the Advent celebration. We also read today from the book of Malachi. As I said last week, “Malachi” literally translated means “my messenger.” And in our reading today from the third chapter we heard the words about this messenger who would “prepare the way.” John was that messenger.
There was more to it than that, though. (I feel like I’m on an info-mercial! “But there’s more!!!) That messenger who was to come was part of this whole scenario of the coming Messiah. And in that scenario, it was believed that it would be the prophet Elijah who would be that messenger and who would come again to prepare the way for the messiah. I’m not sure where that tradition started, but to this day, when Jews celebrate the Passover, they still set a place at their table for Elijah. And at one point in the Passover celebration, they ceremonially send some to open the door and look for Elijah.
John the Baptist has that role as well. We know that because Jesus told us. In Matthew 11, Jesu was talking about John and he said “If you are willing to believe it, he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matthew 11:14) And if you were to read the description of Elijah in II Kings, you would find a “colorful” description of the prophet that sounds a lot like the description of John. Among other things it says he was, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (II Kings 1:8)
So John fulfills the role of Elijah as he appears on the scene to prepare the way of the Lord. And when he comes on the scene he is described by the Gospel writers by referring to Isaiah 40, “Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Note how the Gospel writers change the punctuation and meaning ever so slightly!) But there’s more to it than just “paving the way.” Look at this description. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low…” This prophecy describes an event that is cataclysmic in scale!
I’m sure many of you have been to the Pocono Mountains. (I’m looking forward to going back there again soon!) But how many of you have seen the Rockies? (Or perhaps the Alps.) Can you imagine what kind of force it would take to level just one of them, let alone a whole range? That’s the imagery Isaiah chose to describe the importance of Christ coming to this earth! I hope that expands your understanding of the nature of this event!
So how did John “prepare the way of the Lord?” And I think this is where the story becomes important to us. He prepared the way of the Lord by passing on that responsibility to the people. He told them how they were to prepare the way. His message was that the kingdom of God was at hand, and they had better change their ways.
Many people responded to his call. And they asked what I think is the appropriate question. Actually, in Luke’s version this story is fleshed out the best. There they asked John, “What then shall we do?” That’s a good question! “What shall we do about the Lord’s coming?” And he answered them. “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none. And he who has food, let him do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
Again, Luke tells us more of the story. He tells us that tax collectors came, and to them he said, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” That was tough, because the Romans allowed them to collect as muh as they wanted – beyond what was appointed! That’s why they were hated!
Then he told us that even Roman soldiers came to be baptized! Wouldn’t that have been a surreal scene! Can you imagine that one? Do you think they asked someone to hold their spears while they went down to the water? And wasn’t it amazing that his message reached them in the first place?! But John even gave them instructions. “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” He called for a change in the Roman soldiers!
To each group of people he gave instructions. To each group he called for change. He told all the people that they were do something. They were to repent. They were to turn their lives around. They were to live differently. That was the way they were to prepare the way of the Lord.
Notice, though, that some of the people didn’t get so nice a message! The Pharisees and Sadducees came. But when he saw them, he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come.” You can just imagine how well that was received! But again, in Luke’s version, it was slightly different. There he actually said those things to the multitudes “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In fact, that’s actually the point at which they asked, “What then shall we do?”
John came to prepare the way for the Messiah. But he did so by calling the people to prepare the way. So we must ask ourselves, if we are God’s people, how then are we to prepare the way? I believe the answer is the same. We prepare the way by the changes that take place in our lives. We prepare the way by the way we treat one another. We prepare the way by the way we change our world. We prepare the way in that we are part of this movement of God, this grand experiment called the Church, which has changed the course of history on this planet! And we prepare the way by helping to usher in and point to God’s kingdom in our midst! That’s all part of Advent!
Sadly, though, many of God’s people do very little of that. Their lives are anything but changed. The only difference anyone might see in the way they live is that maybe they spend that one hour on Sunday morning in a different way than they used to. But other than that, there’s very little difference in the way they live.
Remember, there were a lot of people in John’s day who didn’t get it. In the greatest irony in history, they missed seeing the very Messiah for whom they had been waiting for hundreds of years! How many people today are living that irony? They sit in Churches worshipping a God who calls for change in their lives, but they have no intention of making such changes! They talk about the peace and joy that God gives, but they live lives are anything but peaceful and joyful! And at this time of year, they celebrate Christmas in a way that has very little to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. Other than some old songs that they happen to know the words to, their lives are not impacted at all by the amazing fact that God chose to come to this earth and be one of us so that we can know him personally, and so that our lives can be different.
We need to heed John’s words! We need to prepare the way of the Lord! And it is so important that it is as though the mountains were leveled and the valleys were filled! We need to rejoice in his coming. We need to celebrate it once again. And we need to look to his coming again. May the message of John change us! May we show with our lives that God’s kingdom is in our midst!
Eternal God, who once visited this earth and told of your the story of your kingdom in our midst, help us to see you near us, help us to know your presence. Help us to know you and to be more fully committed to your kingdom. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.