We read in Malachi these familiar words:
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me ….”
It’s interesting, the lectionary and the tradition of Christian worship
use this text on two different occasions:
on this Sunday of Advent,
and also on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
celebrated on the second of February, forty days after Christmas,
also called Candlemas, or Candle Mass.
So in one case, Advent, the messenger sent is John the Baptist,
in the other case, Jesus.
And there are some ambiguities inherent to the text.
Think people with me: I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come….
the messenger of the covenant is coming,
says the Lord of hosts.
So how many figures are we talking here?
It’s an interesting thing to have provided for us
so much apparently specific information
and still not to know exactly who we’re talking about.
Malachi’s prophetic words indicates
an initial act of purification
cleansing the descendants of Levi
(the Levites, you remember, are responsible
for the Temple and include the priests).
So the cleansing begins with those responsible
for liturgical worship and practice.
Beginning there, Malachi describes an outward rippling purification
that extends from Temple worship
through Judah and Jerusalem—
who can now offer sacrifice
pleasing to God
as in the days of old and the former years.
And if we were to read on, verse six mentions the sons of Jacob,
which would continue that rippling out movement
from Judah through all of Israel.
Malachi is traditionally associated with Ezra and Nehemiah
and so, prophesying, at a time after the reconstruction
and dedication of the second temple.
Now, when we come to our gospel text,
it’s an interesting thing to have provided for us
so much specific information—
the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius
when all these different folks were the authority figures
in all these different regions—
interesting to have so much chronology offered,
and still not to know exactly when we’re talking about.
Because we’re not sure which of four calendars was used—
each reckoning the years differently—
the Julian, the Jewish, the Syrian-Macedonian and the Egyptian.
There’s some question as to when the reign of Tiberius began
because it began with a co-regency—
so when do you consider his reign to have begun?
The time frames of the procurators are more general than specific—
So as concrete and specific as the writer tried to be,
we can’t pinpoint anytime.
Now it may be we don’t know when it was
because it always is.
It may be that sometimes we just need a general framework
to invite us into a story too many details of which might exclude us.
But it’s also true, amidst all the chronology of power
thought to be so specific,
this story existed outside.
This is a story from the fringe.
This story was outside the ken of those writing the histories—
writing about what they deemed important.
And so it was that the word of God came amidst all that was—
amidst the way things were,
out of the way—
into the wilderness
to this John—
bypassing the power structures of the day
both political and religious.
And here’s the question for you this morning—
the one I’ve been thinking through this week:
why would anyone want to hear his message—
John the Baptist’s message—
to be told in no uncertain terms you need to repent?
He proclaimed, we read,
a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
By the way, how would you imagine John the Baptist’s voice?
Raspy from yelling? Hoarse and loud? Course?
Probably not as a beautiful tenor voice
accompanied by a harpsichord, orchestra and choir!
And let me ask you this as well,
have you ever associated that lovely song from Handel’s Messiah—
those wonderful images from Isaiah—
I do tell you this,
if you’ve ever tried to fill a valley and level a mountain,
and make the crooked straight and the rough smooth,
you know it’s a whole lot more fun to sit in a pew and hear it sung about
than to actually try and get it done!
So, is repentance that much hard, back-breaking work?
And so my question stands.
Why would you go hear someone
telling you you’re going to have to work that hard at repentance?
I mean, where John was, you had to want to go to him.
He wasn’t just down the street.
He wasn’t at the temple in town.
To get to him, you had to choose to go.
You had to make plans—make an effort.
Why would you?
Interesting side note here.
Remember Malachi’s word?
Purification started at the temple in Jerusalem
with the Levites and acceptable sacrifice.
Now the word of God draws people away from the temple
out of Jerusalem and into the wilderness.
What God does is not always defined by what God did.
But back to why would go out into that wilderness.
Was John the Baptist’s appeal
like unto the appeal of reality TV?
Some kind of an I-can’t-believe-there-are-actually-people-like-this response—
the surprised, sometimes disgusted, fascination with the lunatic fringe?
Long before Survivor, there was Surviving—
with camel skin clothing and a local diet.
Long before there was The Bachelor—
a show about women choosing to let a man choose one of them,
there was The Prophet—
the reality of people choosing to show up to let a man chastise them.
Welcome to The John the Baptist Factor.
Come spend the day listening to someone yell at you—
and tell you how wrong you are.
If we were to keep reading in Luke,
John would get a little more direct:
“You brood of vipers,” he’ll address the crowds (Luke 3:7)—
which I’ve always found to be such inviting words of welcome!
They just line up at the doors for that!
Though I do remember in Chicago one time,
there was this one restaurant that people said to be sure to go to
because the waiters were rude to you.
Ed Debevics. Ed Debevics. Wasn’t that it, Susie? Ed Debevics.
So was John the Baptist just the fad of the day?
“Oh, you’re going to be in Jerusalem?
Be sure you go out to the wilderness to hear John.
It’s a little out of the way, but wonderful—so much fun.
He’ll insult you and be quite rude.
Now if you have kids, you might not want to expose them to that.”
In our text, John is described as the quintessential prophet—
tied in words and images to Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elijah.
It’s actually from Matthew, we get the image of the camel hair coat—
not the smooth brushed camel hair we buy,
but, imagine, the skin of a camel
and a diet of honey and locusts.
But when we imagine the quintessential prophet—
when we think of prophecy and the call for repentance,
don’t we think judgment? Don’t we expect details?
“Alright, let’s hear some folks put on the spot—
people who deserve to be put on the spot.
I want to see them squirm—want to see them embarrassed.
Let’s hear about the Pharisee who …”—
the almost salacious human fascination with hypocrisy and confrontation.
But instead, after a promising start (that whole brood of vipers welcome),
we get a generic call to repentance,
a couple of images of impending judgment:
the ax laid to the tree (Luke 3:9), the burning chaff (Luke 3:17).
He gets more direct, but no more specific.
In fact, he never gets specific.
You ever noticed that?
Now John the Baptist will say,
note this well—the one time he gets as specific as he gets—
he addresses those who consider themselves privileged
by virtue of their faith tradition!
“You’re proud of being a son of Abraham?”
But no list of prototypical sins to relish—
as we tend to think of prophetic condemnation.
“So of what do we need to repent?” we might ask.
“Surely we’re not all guilty of preening in the privilege of our faith.”
But it doesn’t say.
Maybe we are!
John doesn’t say.
He clearly condemns.
You brood of vipers, he says.
But he doesn’t get anymore specific than the question about pride in faith.
And again, reading on a little further in Luke,
the people ask, “Okay, so what are we supposed to do?”
Three times actually, they ask him what they should do,
and he talks to them (John the Baptist, mind you)
about taking care of each other,
about living justly and about living humbly (Luke 3:10-14).
And what they had done—whatever they had done
is clearly less important than what they will do.
As what we’ve done is less important than what we will do.
He names them, you see, not their sins.
He names them as those needing to repent,
but he doesn’t so much get into the particular whys.
He’s not there on the banks of the Jordan to judge—
the images of judgment are of a judgment to come,
but, rather, to invite people to see themselves as they are—
as they know they are—
and to offer an opportunity.
People came not to hear what he said about others,
but to hear for themselves—
for they knew he spoke truth.
They knew they were heavy with sin. They knew this.
We know this.
They came to hear for themselves that there was yet hope.
Back when I was working with college students in Waco,
I went to a college service of worship Baylor sponsored.
I didn’t want to go, but, well, I was working with college students.
Part of the service was an invitation
to go to a microphone set up in the middle of the crowd
and to confess,
and to be publicly specific.
It was horrible.
I don’t question the intent of the speaker at all—
or that of those responsible for the service.
I’m sure they wanted to extend the good news.
But their method, marked by its focus on sin in public specificity
stands, now that I think about it,
in marked contrast to John the Baptist—
the quintessential prophet.
People flocked out of Jerusalem
made their way into the wilderness
not to have their sins laid out for them—
they weren’t going out there to be insulted—
heading out to John Tobevics—to be vics—victims, you know?
Not at all.
No, they were leaving the temple.
They were leaving Jerusalem.
They were headed into the wilderness
to hear John ask compassionately—to hear John ask understandingly,
and to hear John ask with utter honesty:
“Do you want integrity?
Do you know what it is?
Are you aware of your compromises?
Are you aware of your sin?
Are you ready to stop being a victim?”
Because we all live with a heaviness we’ve earned—
whether we acknowledge it or not.
Do we know enough to know we need what we might not want?
Let me repeat that:
Do we know enough to know we need what we might not want?
Not much evidence of such a maturity such a discipline in our culture.
But is there some part of us that keeps looking though—
listening for just such a word—
longing for such an invitation—such an opportunity?
To reject the I’m okay, you’re okay lie we know deep down isn’t true.
I’m blessed, you’re blessed. Okay.
I’m loved, you’re loved. Okay.
But there’s way too much that’s not okay.
We live with too much weight—too much heaviness for that to be true.
We’re heavy with things said and done—
things unsaid and left undone—
heavy with regret and guilt and shame,
and at some deep level, we know—
know it’s time to stop ignoring—
stop denying—stop hiding—and go to that river in the wilderness.
In the car the other day, Sydney was telling me they finished a video
in their social studies unit.
She said she felt like “a not very good person.”
I said, “What do you mean?” She said the Native Americans treated the English so well.
But the English did not treat the Native Americans well.
She said she had learned that George Washington had approved
certain actions against the Native Americans,
and that she didn’t like him as much as she had.
And she’s not going to use 20 dollar bills either—
because Andrew Jackson’s face is on them
and he stamped something that was bad—
had something to do, she thought, with the Trail of Tears.
When do we lose that?
That willingness to weigh our greatest heros
against our sense of what’s fair?
Our own national story against our sense of justice?
Our culture and our culture’s priorities against what’s right?
When do we lose that?
Or do we? Can we?
Or do we just live heavy thinking we did?
And on the banks of that river in the wilderness,
that wild, yet somehow gentle presence:
“Step right up!
Let me guess your weight,
but you can leave lighter than you came!
I’m not here to out you—
to bust you in public.
I’m John the Baptist, not Jerry the Springer.
I’m not going to spring anything on you.
I’m going to name the truth you know
and give you the opportunity to lighten your load.”
And the focus actually shifts from John—
shifts from sin, if it ever really was on sin—
A marked transition from the time and tradition of Malachi
when the prophet not only initiated purification
but was also the active agent
working to purify.
And the images were not pleasant.
The “refiner’s fire” was a “metallurgical term
referring to the smelting process
whereby impurities are removed from from metal ore as it is heated.”
And fuller’s soap “implies cleansing
by pounding cloth to get out dirt”
(James D. Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah-Malachi
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2011] 1050-1051).
So being purified was something done unto you. But with John the Baptist,
we’re invited into confession not into judgment.
The invitation is John’s.
The response is up to us.
Now some of you have read this story enough to wonder,
but he does confront Herod, right?
That sordid business of Herodias, his brother’s wife (Luke 3:19).
Except what we know is, rather, that Herod will feel confronted—
often two very different things!
And it’s certainly not a bad thing to consider the prophet
as one who speaks truth to power.
But consider this, as well,
John the Baptist may very well have invited Herod
to see himself just as he did others—nonspecifically—
and when Herod didn’t like what he saw
he expressed that in dislike of John the Baptist.
Interesting how that works sometimes!
Repentance is ultimately a hopeful exhortation, isn’t it?
So with many other exhortations, John the Baptist
proclaimed the good news to the people (Luke 3:18).
But it does take ears to hear.
In our meditation in the bulletin,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “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…”—
the appropriate fear that always prompts God’s response, “Fear not!”
Bonhoeffer goes on, “The coming of God is not only a joyous message,
but is, first, frightful news for anyone who has a conscience.
And only when we have felt the frightfulness of the matter
can we know the incomparable favor”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010] 8).
I’m not so sure Dietrich’s right.
I think we know to be afraid,
we’re just waiting for the right invitation to name it—
not by focusing on it—not by focusing on sin,
but on possibility.
“Mary, don’t be afraid!
You can’t begin to imagine the possibility to be birthed.”
“Shepherds, don’t be afraid!
You can’t begin to imagine the joy coming to the world.”
“You there on the riverbank—in the wilderness—in your pew,
don’t be afraid—
even with the load you bear.
You can’t begin to imagine what lies ahead.
See God is sending a messenger to join the long line of messengers—
harbingers of good news.
And you can be one too.
Heralds of joy and good tidings from whom hope ripples out.
Just leave that weight here. You don’t need it anymore.
Step into the water and leave that behind.
Let the waters wash it away.”
Maybe John did have a beautiful tenor voice.
Maybe his message was heard
full of all the grace and beauty of great music.
You shouldn’t, after all, judge a prophet by his cover … or his diet.
It’s the second Sunday of Advent,
and John the Baptist proclaimed good news—
good news indeed.