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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas preparations take a variety of forms. For children, it may be writing their letters of their Christmas wishes. It was coming up to Christmas and Tommy asked his mother if he could have a new bike. She told him that the best idea would be to write to Santa Claus. But Tommy, having just played the important role of Joseph in the Sunday School Christmas program, said he would prefer to write to the baby Jesus. Tommy went to his room and wrote, “Dear Jesus, I have been a very good boy and would like to have a bike for Christmas.” But he wasn’t very happy when he read it over. So he decided to try again and this time he wrote “Dear Jesus, I’m a good boy most of the time and would like a bike for Christmas.” He read it back and wasn’t happy with that draft either. He tried a third version. “Dear Jesus, I could be a good boy if I tried hard and especially if I had a new bike.” He read that one too, but he still wasn’t satisfied. So, he decided to go out for a walk while he thought about a better angle. After a short time he passed a house with a small statue of the Virgin Mary in the front garden. He crept in, stuffed the statue under his coat, hurried home and hid it under the bed. Then he wrote this letter. “Dear Jesus, If you want to see your mother again, you’d better send me a new bike for Christmas.”
Christmas preparations take a variety of forms. For adults, it may be sending their annual Christmas letters. A woman went into a post office to buy some stamps for her Christmas cards. “What denomination do you want?” asked the man at the counter. “Good Lord!” the woman replied, “Has it come to this? I suppose you’d better give me twenty Catholic and twenty Presbyterian.”
For others, Christmas preparations are simply limited to shopping. Or as one sorry father was oft to say, “Christmas is in my heart twelve months a year and thanks to credit cards, it’s on my Visa card statement twelve months a year as well.”
This morning’s gospel, however, reminds us that there is more to preparation for the joy and wonder of Christmas than the purchase of gifts, scurrying about the malls, and sending cards in the mail. In the message of John the Baptist, you and I are promised something more wonderful than Christmas itself is coming- we are promised to see the salvation of God. It is John’s invitation to those in the wilderness who are seeking meaning and peace and contentment. Unfortunately, he does not speak of the usual Christmas preparations. Instead, John proclaims the most un-Christmassy message you can imagine. Instead, you and I are encouraged to confess our sins and “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Last Sunday, I spoke of the prophecy spoken by the Prophet Zechariah, “O Daughter of Zion, behold your king is coming to you humble, riding on a donkey.” Today, I would like to turn to the word of another prophecy. It is the word that ties together the Old Testament prophet Malachi to the New Testament’s prophet John the Baptist. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”
Every once in a while when you run across a well-known line of scripture, or a familiar piece of music, and you discover where it comes from, you say to yourself, “aha.” And then you ask, but what was it really meant to say. This is certainly true for today’s first prophecy from the Book of Malachi. It is the portion of scripture which George Fredrick Handel incorporated in fiery, running violin passages in his “Messiah.” Yes, “But who may abide the Day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” The passage speaks of Christ’s second coming and of purification and judgment.
Unfortunately, these themes are terribly out of style in 21st century. Even 90 years ago, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw the change and dared to say, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” Yes, today the entire passage of Malachi seems to be an odd, outdated, cumbersome piece of scripture as we ready ourselves for the wonder of Christmas. After all, who could fear, the arrival of the “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” Now you may be wondering: So does the Prophet Malachi have anything to say to us today? I believe so- especially in Advent and its time of
In the ordering of the books of the Bible, you will not that Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament before we begin the New Testament. This was the last recorded word of anyone in the Bible until, some 400 years later, when the new prophet named John the Baptist shouted out, “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” No doubt, this is why Malachi’s 3rd chapter is paired with Luke’s 3rd chapter for today’s readings. In terms of actual history, however, Malachi was likely a contemporary of the great renewers of the temple such as Ezra and Nehemiah, 20 books earlier in the Old Testament, who had returned from Babylon after 70 years in exile. There was work to be sure. And true, the Israelites were not politically independent yet, and they had to live under the rule of the local Persian governor, but still life was better now than it had been in a long time. Their old enemy Babylon, had been destroyed by the conquering Persians, and so they could rebuild a society in their own image- which they did. But is wasn’t necessarily a good thing as the Book of Malachi warns..
One Advent, my wife Janna and I decided to read Malachi for our Sunday evening Advent devotions. I checked it out. Four chapters. Perfect. One chapter for each Sunday in Advent. The book’s overarching message was encouraging- God loves his people and will still send the Messiah one day. But in the meantime, the people were told by the prophet that they had better shape up spiritually, because if they didn’t, well, then as Biblical commentator Scott Hoezee wrote, “Remember how bad it was when the Babylonians came? If you don’t shape up, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
You can relax a bit. The primary target of the Prophet’s warning was the clergy in Jerusalem. They seemed to turn a blind eye to the offerings made in the Temple. People were required to offer their very best at the Altar of the Lord. Instead, they were offering what they could not give away and the priests didn’t mind. The people were just as guilty. According to Malachi, farmers were showing up at the temple with three-legged lambs and blind calves and cows suffering from a variety of diseases. Their story reminds of the caller on the Butterball Turkey hotline. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in her freezer for 23 years. The operator told her it might be safe if the freezer had been kept below 0 degrees the entire time. But the operator warned the woman that, even if it were safe, the flavor had probably deteriorated, and she wouldn’t recommend eating it. The caller replied, “That’s what we thought. We’ll just give it to the church.”
In the Book of Malachi, the prophet warned the people that they would never treat anyone else in their lives the way they were treating the Almighty God. The burning concern was simple: “So why do you treat other people more respectfully than God? Why would you act so thoughtlessly about the source and giver of life?” It is a question worthy of our meditation in the season of Advent. Why do we spend so much time rushing and scurrying about for others in our Christmas preparations- and so little time preparing ourselves to receive the King of Kings? Should not God come with a vengeance? That is the meaning behind the prophet’s words, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
In St. Luke’s gospel, we read that four centuries passed before the word of a prophet would be heard again in the land, during which time world history marched on. And as we heard last week, during those four centuries, kings and conquering warriors entered the gates of Jerusalem. Alexander the Great and his empire came brushing aside the Persians. Then the Roman Empire came along. Julius Caesar arose and was killed, and General Pompey entered the city. And every last man, woman, and child who had ever heard the prophet Malachi’s message had passed away. And then, after four centuries, a voice sounded in the wilderness. The voice of John cried out, “Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord.” Prophecies, you see, take time to be fulfilled. And that is always on God’s time.
So my friends, what does the prophet Malachi have to say to us this day? It is a word worth embracing this Advent season. Like Elijah, Isaiah and John, and all of the prophets of old, the prophet Malachi says that whoever would welcome the Savior in their life must “prepare the way” through repentance. Our ways are crooked and rough, and our hearts are often a lonely wilderness of empty gestures and activities. It is only when you admit that you have sinned and fallen away from God holy purposes, that you are ready to receive your Savior and his renewing forgiveness. Then the Christ will truly come to you with all his gifts of love and hope and peace.
Christmas preparations take a variety of forms. So what are you doing to prepare yourself for Christmas this year? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts in minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.