John the Baptist announces God’s plan for the world
“In Advent, I sense the Christ who welcomes all of me — with my small, incomplete faith, all the quiet desperation of my day to day, and the heaviness I feel for the state of our country and world. In this season, we invite Christ’s light into the places of hopelessness in our hearts.” (Jean Neely, writing in Sojourners’ Magazine, last December)
Theme: John the Baptist announces God’s plan for the world.
Malachi 3:1-4 (New Living Translation)
“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
2 “But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand (and face him) when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. 3 He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. 4 Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.
Luke 3:2-6 (New Living Translation)
“At this time, a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness. 3 Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.
4 Isaiah had spoken of John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him! 5 The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. 6 And then all people will see the salvation sent from God.’” (quote from Isaiah 40 verses 3-5)
If our readings sound vaguely familiar, it may well be that you know Handel’s Messiah quite well, and of course Malachi 3 forms a major part of the opening section, along with Isaiah 40 quoted by Luke:
Accompagnato (Tenor or Soprano)
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish'd, that her Iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
(Isaiah 40 : 1-3)
Air (Tenor or Soprano)
Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
(Isaiah 40 : 4)
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
(Isaiah 40 : 5)
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts; Yet once a little while and I will shake the heav'ns and the earth, the sea and the dry land: And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come.
(Haggai 2 : 6-7)
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.
(Malachi 3 : 1)
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
(Malachi 3 : 2)
And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
(Malachi 3 : 3)
The words were compiled from the Bible by Charles Jennens (1770-73), not a clergyman, but rather a well-educated layman, who worked with Handel on several of his compositions
2. John the Baptist
But back to our texts, where two Old Testament Prophets, Isaiah and Malachi, two independent descriptions of John the Baptist – Malachi 3, and Isaiah 40:3-5, (as quoted by Luke from the Greek, Septuagint, OT which he would have used)
Are these different conclusions?
(a) Luke, quoting Isaiah: “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”, poetically saying God’s plan to rescue humanity will be known across the world;
while (b) Malachi: “he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness (or “right offerings to the Lord”***). Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.”***Salvation (or the rescue, or reconciliation) of mankind was finally achieved by the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, but prior to this was made by means of sacrifices (“offerings”), so the “right offerings” of Judah in Jerusalem could be read as the Cross.
So the German/English composer Handel was right to use the Malachi texts for his momentous oratorio. Because they speak of the Lord, Jesus, the Messiah (“Christ” is simply the Greek word for Messiah).
3. The anger (“wrath”) of God
We shouldn’t play down the wrath of God, which we sung about in our opening song “In Christ alone”, and which in implied in our texts. God does become angry, whenever we sin, so one definition of sin is “anything that provokes God’s anger”. The good news is that God’s love for us completely overcomes hos anger at sin, so that when we confess our sins, He is faithful and fair, and forgives our sins. This is what we mean by “repenting”.
Key point here – our texts tell of John’s call to repent, Gk. “metanoia, to change one’s mind”, in the first century meant more than just a change of mind: a total change of heart and of life, often associated with conversion; a turning around, starting over, taking another direction, choosing another course. Not just a change in the mind!
But the problem is, however we may want to change, we find we can’t. Only God can change us. I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to lose weight? I have, and as I’m sure you know, it’s not easy. You need a huge reason to change, and often need some outside help.
But before we think about the “how”, let’s ask the question “what should we repent of?” (or “of what should we repent?”) – there are so many possible “global crimes” – global warming, overflowing prisons, poverty and food scarcity, racism, the list goes on. Repentance seems pointless? So, try to focus on issues closer to home:
First, try to imagine, daydream, what your world would be like if God was in control;
then choose one part of your life that you would like to repent – change, this Advent, a relationship that’s not right, a habit you regret, something missing in your life?
Think about our shared life here in church, think of one thing that we could change for the better, just one change which we could do?That is why John’s real task was to point to Jesus, the one coming after him, whose shoes he wasn’t worthy to undo. He said:
“Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him! 5 The valleys will be filled, and the mountains and hills made level. The curves will be straightened, and the rough places made smooth. 6 And then all people will see the salvation sent from God”.
Picture language for Jesus’ work – to level out the ups and downs, and to show everyone how they could get back onto a relationship with God.
Talking of picture language, listen to the Malachi text (verses 2-4):
“For he 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 (or right offerings to the Lord).”
This is Malachi’s vision of the impact of the coming of Jesus – to make pure the “sons of Levi” (i.e. at that time, the Jewish priests, but now, perhaps everybody?).
There is a fascinating resonance here with what I was saying 2 weeks ago – remember that promise from Revelation 1?
“He has made us a Kingdom of priests for God his Father.”
The son’s of Levi (i.e. the Jewish Priests) have been purified and now exist as the Church – whose “offerings” are the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross.
5. Salvation of our God
That phrase from Isaiah 40 verse 5 “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God”, or in our versions: “then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together” was one of the reasons behind the 18th Century Missionary Movement, (a missionary is “one who is to witness across cultures"), which gave rise to the missionary societies such as the Church Missionary Society, Baptist Missionary Society, and the London Missionary Society, although when I looked this up I found on a Southern Nazarene University website a “missionary time line” that ran continuously from Pentecost in AD30 to the present day! (It included Catholic missionaries such as the Franciscans and the Jesuites!).
But there was a big expansion of Protestant missions in the 18th and early 19th Century:
1719 - Isaac Watts writes missionary hymn "Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun";
1735 - John Wesley goes to Indians in Georgia as missionary with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts;
1792 William Carey starts to push for Missionary activity among Baptists;
1799 CMS (Church Missionary Society) formed;
1804 BFBS (British & Foreign Bible Society formed (now the Bible Society).
This is really what Advent is all about – the spread of the GOOD NEWS of God’s plan for humankind, by sending Jesus, to show us what God is really like, and then to die for us all on the cross. This is the Gospel (which as you know means Good News), and we are here to spread it, both here where we live, and everywhere (which is where the 17th/18th century missionary expansion came in).
We can do both, by talking to our neighbours (especially if they ask us “why do you go to church at Christmas?”) (why not invite them to Christmas Live tomorrow week 17th?) and by helping to fund God’s work overseas, whether through Tear Fund, or the Bible Society, of any of dozens of activities where the GOOD NEWS is shared.
6. Summary: “The Messiah” (1) tells of God’s plan to rescue humankind; though John the Baptist (2); who we remember in Advent (3), the special time for reflection on God’s gift; leading it to repent (4), to turn around; and to share the Good News (5). Think about it!
Amen, and may God grant us true repentance as we travel through Advent this year.