Sermon - 6th December 2015
Prepare the Way
Scripture - Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In today’s readings, you may have noticed a very similar theme, namely that of preparation: in the first reading, we heard: “I will send my messenger to prepare the way for me.” In the second reading, “Get the road ready for the Lord.” And, as was mentioned in the second reading, these words can originally be found in another, older book of the Bible called Isaiah.
The Book of Isaiah, where this notion of “preparing the way” first appears, was written about 700 years before Jesus, at a time when Israel and Judah were divided kingdoms, ruled over by kings who were for the most part not faithful to God, and the people had turned away from God and followed other religions. *About 100 years later, the kingdoms fell and the people were sent into exile. They had lost everything; however, this promise of God’s salvation remained, pointing to the future.
Around 250 years later, the Jewish people were freed from exile and returned, rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple. The book of Malachi, the source of our first reading was written around this time. We know that Biblical names have meanings, and Malachi means “my messenger”. The book of Malachi is a short one and can be found at the end of the Old Testament. It is only four chapters long and can be read in about 10 minutes. The Book of Malachi contains 22 questions: although they are rhetorical, as readers, we can ask ourselves these questions in respect of our personal and national religious lives.
The book makes it clear that despite the exile, the ways of the people had not changed: their political and religious leaders were still corrupt, and the people remained estranged from God. Nevertheless, the prophet Malachi echoes God’s promise to put things right.
The images used in our first reading are very striking: strong soap, and fire which is as hot as a blacksmith’s furnace. Whatever the images may be, they indicate the necessity for change – and that change will not be easy or comfortable – but it will put things right with God.
Around 350 years passed from the time of Malachi to the time of John the Baptist, during which time, the Jewish lands were invaded by Greeks (under Alexander the Great), the Egyptians and finally by the Romans, bringing us to today’s Gospel reading, which begins by placing the narrative in a historical context with reference to the Roman and Jewish leaders of the time.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is revealed to us as the very messenger foretold by both Isaiah and Malachi, and the message of John the Baptist to the people is the very same message: that if the people will acknowledge their shortcomings, God will put things right.
Let us now look more closely at the words used regarding the preparation. In both readings, it sounds like a lot of hard work is involved. In Malachi, there is cleaning with “strong soap” and the hot and sweaty work of a blacksmith.
It was true in ancient Israel, just as it is true today: the image of soap is one of cleaning, cleansing and purification: and the implication in the need for soap is that there is some dirt that requires washing away. But the text refers not only to soap, but to “strong soap” with the implication that there is a considerable amount of hard-to-shift dirt. Putting that into the context of the Gospel reading and John the Baptist’s call to repentance, the reference to strong soap in respect of personal sin makes sense. The call made by both Malachi and John the Baptist is an easy one: we all enjoy the feeling of cleanliness after a bath or a shower. We are being called to enjoy the same spiritually.
Moving on to the image of the refining fire, we are today more removed than our ancestors of a couple of centuries ago, where every village would have had its own blacksmith, and a daily sound that would have filled the air would have been the blacksmith’s hammer against the metal anvil on which he was working. Whether it is iron, or more precious metals like silver and gold mentioned in the reading from Malachi, the metal-worker’s use of fire will purify the metal and make it more precious and more valuable.
The Reformed theologian John Calvin had this to say in his commentary on this passage from Malachi:
“God however promises that such would be the purifying which Christ would effect, and so regulated, that it would consume the whole people, and yet purify the elect, and purify them like silver, that they may be saved.”
At this time of year, one of the most frequently performed pieces of choral music is Messiah by Handel, all the words of which are taken from the Bible: two of which come from today’s reading from Malachi 3.
<2x 10-second clips from Handel’s Messiah>
- “But who may abide the day of His coming?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYcJX-6cQbo)
- “And He shall purify…” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iM0Ejb1SX5A)
After the first public performance of The Messiah in 1741, Handel wrote this to a friend:
"I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better."
And so to today’s Gospel reading – the substantial part of which is a quote from the book of Isaiah – talking about getting the road ready for the Lord. It sounds like a huge civil engineering project – straightening roads, and levelling up hills and valleys.
With our modern technology of earth-movers, diggers, explosives, cranes, ready-set concrete and giant machines used in construction, these things may not seem unrealistic, but to the ears of the listeners in the ancient world, they would have easily understood the enormity of the task.
In coming to church today, we all made preparations. We dressed, put on coat and shoes and set off. A few of us have walked to church; some will have come by bus or tram and will have needed money for the fares; others will have come by car, hopefully remembering to check for necessary fuel. Making a journey in the ancient world was far more difficult. Almost everyone walked, and getting anywhere took a long time, requiring the need to take food and drink for maybe several days, the need for shelter at night, and even protection from thieves and wild animals. *And worst of all, there were no roads other than dirt-tracks. With the exception of a few Roman roads, making any journey has only become easier in the past 200 years, with the invention of the railways, metalled roads and powered flight.
Because journeys were so difficult in the ancient world, any important person such as a king would send ahead messengers, servants and soldiers to ensure that the journey would go well, free from obstacles and enemies. Similar things happen today: we see politicians in their limousines moving swiftly through cities flanked by police escorts which have cleared the way.
Two weeks ago, when I preached on Christ The King Sunday, I challenged us to consider how we might behave should our church receive a royal visitor. The days before the Queen’s visit would be filled with preparation.
But I would remind you of this: every year, in her Christmas message, the Queen speaks of her faith, pointing towards her God and our God. She maybe the most important person in our country, but she points beyond, just as John the Baptist pointed beyond himself to Jesus.
Finally, I would like to reflect on Advent. At Christmas, we remember what happened, events in the past, the birth of Jesus. But we live in the present and move towards the future. At the end of today’s Gospel reading, we heard: “The whole human race will see God’s salvation.”
Malachi lived in a time where devotion to God had fallen from the standard, the people’s ways influenced by their time in exile and by the ways of the surrounding nations. The state of ancient Israel in the 5th Century BCE is largely no different than our world today.
Many of us here today are of an age where our parents or grandparents were brought up and made to attend church and/or Sunday School. Our education at school contained daily religious assemblies, which although it is still a legal obligation in the UK’s schools, it is frequently ignored. So our understanding of some aspects of Christianity was literally bred into us in our upbringing.
That is no longer the case. A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with Lee who was telling how many schools, including the one which her children attend, no longer do the Nativity plays. The children of today are growing up surrounded by Christmas, but without understanding of why Christmas is!
Last week, I came across a television programme on Channel 5 about people for whom Christmas is a huge deal. A man featured on the programme happily told of how in his lifetime, he has spent over £1m on Christmas. It is sad that even for him, such a huge fan of Christmas, the reason why we celebrate Christmas – the Birth of Jesus – God born human among us – was totally lacking.
One reason why many people say that they do not believe in Jesus is that they are unwilling to accept the historical accuracy of the Bible. If someone say this to you, reply with this. Did you wonder what all the names were about at the start of today’s Gospel reading? It began with historical fact. The author of St Luke’s Gospel wanted the reader to be in no doubt whatsoever as to the accuracy of these things: he aligns his story with the secular Roman rulers – the Emperor Tiberius and the Governor Pontius Pilate, other local secular leaders – Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and the Jewish religious leaders of the time. All of these rulers are recorded by contemporary historians, such as Tacitus and Josephus.
In 2009, the University of Durham conducted a survey about Biblical knowledge. Younger interviewees told researchers that the Bible was "old-fashioned", "irrelevant" and "for Dot Cottons" (an elderly character in the BBC soap-opera EastEnders). A fellow at Durham, a Methodist minister, working on this survey said: "The Church and political leaders should take serious note of the findings and recognise that we cannot make the assumptions we used to make about the Bible and its place in contemporary people's lives and culture."
How can we expect people to come through our doors each week, if they do not even have the first idea what we are about? In both of our readings today, the promised outcome of all this hard work is restoration with God.
We began our service with a clip from “Godspell”. In this 1970s film, as we saw, it begins with people being called out of their everyday lives as taxi-driver, waitress, student, dancer etc., and they are caught up in the “Godspell”, an Old English word meaning “the story of God”, and their lives are forever changed. For us, coming to church each Sunday, and using the daily devotions on the other days, are ways we can be caught up in God’s story and be forever changed.
The outworking of our faith has a huge task before it. Our Gospel reading finished with “The whole human race will see God’s salvation”. That puts us as the ones who in this generation, in this time, who are charged to work towards this goal. Unlike many other things in our lives which have become easier, if anything, this task is harder now that it was 30-40 years ago. As we prepare for Christmas, are we prepared to tell others what Christmas is really all about?