Sermon - 9th December 2012
Prepare the Way
Scripture - Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video]
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 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 – 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. In the Gospel reading – originally from the book of Isaiah – it sounds like a huge civil engineering project – straightening roads, and levelling up hills and valleys. However, in both readings, the promised outcome of all this hard work is restoration with God.
With our modern technology of wonderful cleaning chemicals, gas-fuelled furnaces and giant machines, 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.
Let’s imagine for a moment that tomorrow, Andy and Ruth receive telephone calls announcing that next Sunday, the Queen is coming to visit MCC Manchester and Wilbraham St Ninian’s to look at the community work our churches are doing. What preparations would be made? I am sure there would be a meeting to discuss what would happen and what would need to be done and who would do what. The Police Special Branch would check out the building and the royal liaison would ensure that all who speak to the Queen are briefed on etiquette in how to speak to Her Majesty. Who among us would go out and buy a new outfit for the occasion? What time would we arrive at Church next Sunday? I am sure we would not want to be late! Would we scrub and polish every part of the building? It is said that wherever the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint!
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.
You may be wondering why I have spoken at such length about preparation and going into the realm of imagination of a royal visit. My point is this: if we would push the boat out for the visit of a fellow human, albeit an important one, then surely our enthusiasm for worship and time with God should be even greater, whether that is for a Sunday service, making time each day to pray, or sharing our faith with others!
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.”
Recently, I was out on a mammoth shopping expedition with a younger friend of mine. As we were driving out of Preston towards the M6, we were travelling down a road along which were many churches. My friend said to me: “I’ve never been to church. I’d like to go sometime, but I don’t know if I’d like it or understand it. You go to church. What’s it all about?”
As we drove to a better place to shop, I told her about what goes on at a church service and what my faith means to me. Afterwards, I reflected on what I had said and what she had asked me, and I realised a few things which startled me.
Many of us here today are of an age where our parents or grandparents were brought up and made to go attend church and/or Sunday School. Our education at school contained religious assemblies. So our understanding of some aspects of Christianity was literally bred into us.
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."
My conversation with my friend has been a powerful wake-up call to me. 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?
A few days after, I was watching the film “Godspell”, a clip from which we saw at the start of the service. We will have another at the end of the service. In this 1970s film, it begins with people being called out of their everyday lives as taxi-driver, waitress, dancer etc., and they are caught up in the “Godspell”, the story of God, and their lives are changed. The clip we shall see at the end of the service shows them returning to their every-day lives. 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 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?