The lectionary just refuses to let us get too cozy as we continue the movement through Advent and toward Christmas. Last Sunday it was those apocalyptic words of Jesus, spoken near the end of his earthly life: “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations”; the coming of the Son of man; the challenge to be on guard and alert. This week we’ve backed up to the point where Jesus is just about to come into view as an adult, just about to meet John the Baptist in the wilderness, and to then begin his ministry. We’ll actually meet John again in next week’s Gospel reading, so for this week we get just a quick introduction to him: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That brief introduction is bracketed by things that Luke very much wants his audience to notice.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
Firstly, Luke wants us to know that John and Jesus emerge in a very political world. It is in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee… during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” All of these details wasn’t included so that modern biblical critics could do the calculations, examine Roman civil documents, and try to pin down precise dates to include in their scholarly articles and commentaries. No, Luke includes it in order to remind his audience about the shape of the world—the political world—in which this all was unfolding. The Emperor Tiberius, for instance, had styled himself a son of the divine Augustus. Herod ruled Galilee, though very much as a client state of the Roman Empire. The real force to be reckoned with was Pontius Pilate, the senior civil servant who filled the role of governor of Judea, and whose violence was so extreme that at one point he was summoned to Rome to give an accounting for the harshness of his rule.
Secondly, for all that Luke needs us to see the politics that swirled around, even more does he want us to know that the baptism which John proclaims is set against an even deeper context:
[A]s 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.
This is not coming out of nowhere, folks. This is what our greatest prophets sang of so long ago, in those poems we have been pondering and treasuring and wondering at for centuries:
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.
All of that rich picture language, of mountains and valleys being brought together, and crooked, rough paths being made straight and level; maybe for us prairie folk, who very much like the idea of driving through the mountains and being awed by their splendor, the image of mountains and hills being laid low isn’t all that appealing. But for a people who knew what it was like to trek through deserts and climb those hills and mountains—and to face the prospect of bandits every time you had to travel outside of the towns and cities—this all was pretty compelling imagery. And who but the Lord could take that mountain and that valley, and make them level ground? Certainly not Tiberius, Pilate, Herod…
We’ll bump into John the Baptist again next Sunday, so for tonight just notice that he comes to proclaim what? A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And why? Because as far as John is concerned, when the Lord comes it might just feel like bad news before it is good news, and particularly for those who have not set themselves in order.
That also sits at the heart of the prophet Malachi’s perspective. The brief little book of Malachi is the final one in the Old Testament, and in many ways its message really anticipates all that John the Baptist will say and do. When Malachi was writing, the exiles have returned from their captivity in Babylon and have rebuilt the temple. It would seem, though, that this new temple in this rebuilt city of Jerusalem just isn’t the same as the first temple, the temple of Solomon. The glory of God seems not to have returned to dwell in the temple, and there is some real sense that the old rituals are not quite so trustworthy or sure as they’d been. Malachi actually addresses his words to the priests, challenging their lack of confidence and reverence, as well as some clear signs of corrupt practices.
But Malachi doesn’t write off the temple or even the priests, instead calling them and the whole of the nation into righteousness. The Lord is coming, the glory will again fully inhabit the temple, and when that happens, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Certainly not those Malachi calls “the arrogant” and “evildoers,” who “will be stubble” to be “burnt up”, leaving them “neither root nor branch.” (Mal 4:1). He’s a rather tough edged one, is Malachi, though he is also convicted that “for you who revere [God’s] name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”
There’s a lot of either/or in Malachi, as there is in John Baptist. Either you repent and get things in order, or you’re done. Either you will leap like a calf, or you’ll burn like stubble. Which makes it all the more interesting that tucked in the middle of his writings is this other image of fire; in this case, refining fire.
For the Lord is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
The “descendants of Levi”; that’s a very specific reference to those priests he’d been critiquing early in his writings. Their corruption and their lack of faith and confidence will be burnt away by fire and scrubbed away with a powerful bleaching soap… which doesn’t sound like the most comfortable of processes to go through. Then again, how often is it that growth and movement and even healing come with some real pain? No friction, no movement.
In an Advent sermon preached in 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer took note of how this season really should wake us from any complacency. “It is very remarkable,” he wrote, “that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly…”
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 every one who has a conscience.
“[N]ot only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.” What a line, right? And then Bonhoeffer continues with an observation that actually pulls us beyond the either/or that Malachi and John both sounded, and into the both/and that Jesus actually incarnated:
Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love.
The incomparable kindness of God in the midst of us, even if that sometimes looks and feels like a cleansing and refining fire; even if sometimes it can hurt like hell. Incomparably kind and deeply merciful. Then. Now. Always. And in the culmination of all of time, all of creation, all of history, which is the final horizon of our Advent hope.