6th December 2015 (Advent 2) Hugh Perry
Malachi 3: 1-4
The name Malachi means ‘my messenger’ and many scholars think the name of the book is taken from 3:1 ‘see I am sending my messenger’ rather than being the name of an individual prophet called Malachi. Regardless of how the name came about the book is a collection of anonymous texts.
In Christian context the messenger to prepare the way before me is understood to refer to John the Baptist but Maurice Andrew points out that in its original context this is a message for people who are behaving in a particular way that the prophet disapproves of and he is saying that the messenger will have something to say about that. Andrew also points out that the assumption that the prophet is referring to John the Baptist assumes the messenger is a human but the Hebrew word messenger also means ‘angel’.
What is significant in the way the Gospel writers have used this passage is that the end of the book in chapter four verses four and five refers to the return of Elijah as a prelude of Yahweh (written in Septuagint Greek and English LORD uppercase) arrival. This helps us understand the way Mark, with the others following, cast John by allusion as an Elijah figure who is the messenger preparing the way for the Lord
As he did at the beginning of the Gospel Luke gives a time placement to the beginning of John’s ministry by naming prominent figures. By the use of these historic figures the time of John’s ministry can be placed between the years 28-29CE. But the historical setting is not as important as the political setting of foreign domination these Roman officials indicate. Luke also omits Mark’s insertion of Malachi 3:1 (‘see I am sending my messenger’) into the Isaiah quotation but uses it in 7:27 where Jesus affirms John’s role as messenger preparing the way. Luke also extends the quotation used in Mark to testify to the universality of the Gospel showing that the Hebrew Scripture also talks of God embracing all nations demonstrating that the concept is not new
John’s baptism was specifically a baptism for the repentance of sins and was part of John’s preparing the way. However it would seem John’s baptism might also allude to Jewish baptism which brings people into ‘the people of God’ and John could be seen as preparing a new people of God.
When we talk of someone ‘crying in the wilderness’ we mean their voce is not listened to but for the Hebrew prophets their message was one of hope and the promise that those in exile will be lead back through the wilderness.
On Television a group of cute kids rush around The Warehouse grabbing various items. Finally a small boy announces that now they have bought all their presents they are ready for Christmas. His smaller companion announces with melting moment amazement, ‘Yeah!’
Meanwhile in Australia comedians Clarke and Dawe ask if the nativity play sends the wrong message. Taking the role of leader of the house in the Australian Parliament John Clark explains that in the last two years they haven’t been able to have a nativity play at their end of year function because they couldn’t find three wise men. However this year they have decided to continue the tradition with three wise women. Of course they had plenty of talent to choose from in casting the donkey. However Clark is concerned the theme of the play may give the wrong message.
The main characters come from a long way away and don’t know where they have arrived at. However the woman is pregnant so the innkeeper has to take them in. Or is Clark alluding to the Australian Government?. Anyway they put them in the shed and make up a bed from what they find there. But the woman has the baby which poses a very delicate question. Does the baby belong where he was born, where the couple came from or where the mother came from?
Clarke leaves all delicate questions open for his viewers in the best of tradition of a skilled political satirists. However they are questions for both the Australian parliament and indeed the Australian voters.
Meanwhile in the world of Luke’s Gospel John called for a baptism of repentance for all people in preparation for God’s chosen messiah. In our part of the world populated by migration by the convicted, the dispossessed and the disenchanted, repentance would seem to involve recognising the plight of those who still flee war and oppression. Repentance also might involve reflecting, as Clark’s satire did, on the reality that Joseph and Mary were the most unlikely parents of the saviour of the world.
Luke’s Gospel even has the angels call disreputable and homeless shepherds to witness Jesus’ birth. So what does the idea that the savour was born of refugees and his birth was witnessed by the homeless of his time say about our preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ?
Will a quick dash round the Warehouse make us all ready for Christmas or is there more to preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth?
To answer those questions we need to look at the context of our gospel reading and seek out meaning beyond the call to repentance and the quotations from Hebrew scripture. We then discover that John was not preparing the way for the birth of Jesus he was preparing people for the ministry of Jesus. Repentance involved, and still involves, clearing our heads of all the stinking thinking that holds people back from joining the mission of Christ.
Repentance is a check up from the neck up that clears our head of the way things have been, the mistakes we have made, the unachieved goals and the redundant rules that bind us to a past that is finished and gone.
The voice that cries in the wilderness asks that we ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, Make his path 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.’ (Luke 3:4-8)
In its original context that was referring to making it easy for the people to return to Jerusalem from exile. Isaiah was not ordering a bulldozer or letting a contract for a road between Babylon and Jerusalem. Isaiah was calling for a smooth return home, to encourage people to leave whatever comfortable position they had gained in Babylon and face the challenge of a journey into an unknown future.
John the Baptist used what had become a text associated with messianic expectation to claim his place as the one who prepares the way for God’s Messiah. John called people to let go of how things had been and prepare for a new leader and a new way of being the people of God.
John’s vision was that people who gave lip service to the Law of Moses needed to take a cold hard look at themselves, because John’s vision of a Messiah would bring salivation through judgement. Furthermore they couldn’t expect their DNA to save them from judgement. ‘Do not begin to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’ (Luke 3:8)
It appears that John, like so many people saw the messiah as a superhuman person who would put the world right by getting rid of the bad people and reconstituting the people of God from the repentant. That is why he sent messengers from prison to ask Jesus if he is truly the messiah. The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Luke 7:18,19)
It would appear that Jesus was not behaving as John would expect a messiah to behave and those in our time who look to the second coming for their salvation probably have the same issues. Many people want a superhero messiah that sorts things out. A messiah who doesn’t waist time with democracy and courts that have due process—just get rid of the bad guys and save the faithful. That’s what gods are supposed to do. That’s what ISIS thinks and they have no trouble recruiting solders who expect their vision of the divine to carry them into an imagined paradise beyond martyrdom.
However writing from a post resurrection perspective Luke saw the mission of Jesus differently and put the sayings and stories of Jesus together as a guide for those who would follow the Jesus way into the future. Luke certainly sees John as preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry. John makes the path straight by collecting people together who are ready to be Jesus’ disciples. In John’s Gospel two of John’s disciples become Jesus’ disciples on John’s recommendation. One of them, Andrew goes and recruits his brother Simon Peter. (John 1:35-42) Preparing the way for the Messiah or Christ was about creating a smooth path for people to become followers, or disciples of Jesus, because it was the followers of Jesus who lived and continue to live, the mission of Christ into the future.
In using these readings on this second Sunday in Advent the lectionary does more than prepare us to recognise the baby whose birth we celebrate on Christmas day. We are challenged to not only prepare the way to celebrate the birth of Christ with traditional carols and sentimental stories but to also prepare the way for the Risen Christ to live in us.
That challenge is particularly relevant as we look past Christmas to the opening of our new complex. This Advent we must take our minds past the ringing of sleigh bells, the clang of cash registers, red shed and red suited Santas to the way we use the new complex. Preparing the way for a new building involves far more than thinking about the comfort it offers for worship and how we serve morning tea. When we dedicate this building to the service of the Christ, whose birth we are now preparing to celebrate, we will be challenging ourselves and all who follow to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. We also need to be ‘in mission’ and support mission that will bring hope to a community where the gap between rich and poor is growing to a point where many will never be able to buy their own home and as pensioners won’t be able to afford to rent a place to stay. Our rock star economy is not just putting Joseph and Mary in the shed but condemning the futures pensioners to forage for a place to stay.
Christian World Service helps us prepare for mission by reminding us that we both live in a less than perfect world and their mission, that we support, takes a healing Christ on our behalf to transform lives and communities under the stress of poverty and dysfunctional governments.
But we must also ask the hard questions and walk the hard journey with the Christ within and around each of us. Do we stand back in judgement from the stateless strangers because we don’t have a shed where the unwed mother can deliver her child? Do we debate the citizenship of the child born in a skyline garage while we shop at the Big Red Shed?
Or do we recognise the Christ Child in every stateless and unwanted child. ‘Marys Boy Child Jesus Christ’, a stateless refugee but also a saviour and a citizen of all humanity.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.606-609.
 Justo L. González, Luke: Belief, a theological commentary on the Bible (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p.48.
 Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009),pp.4648.
 González, op.cit.,p.49.