sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.
Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.
Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)
Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.
So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.
Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”
Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.
That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.
For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.
But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.
The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!
That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.
But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.
The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?
Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.
The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.
This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.
Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.
We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.
This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.
You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.
Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.