A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2015
The prophet Malachi writes to a waiting people. They wait not for traffic lights or in shopping cues, for birthdays or movie releases. Their waiting is much, much bigger.They are waiting for God.
And Malachi has a message for these waiting ones: ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into his temple’. This promise is immediately followed by ‘indeed, he is coming’.
For a people eagerly waiting this repeated ‘coming’ is good news.
There is, however, a ‘but’: ‘but who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears?’ It may not be a question the Israelites are overly keen to answer.
But our prophet certainly is. In his graphic, image-laden language, Malachi reveals the nature of the day of this coming God. It will be ‘like a refiner’s fire’, ‘like fuller’s soap’.
God will come as a ‘refiner’ and ‘purifier’. This coming of God will cleanse. The lives of Malachi’s hearers will, once again become ‘pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old’.
I hope you are able to hear the hope inherently contained in this passage. This is not a judgment where wrongs done cause a cutting off of relationship. It is not an end. On the contrary, this coming of God will heal and restore. God is coming to help the people re-learn God’s ancient ways. It is a beginning.
And they want this to happen. Malachi’s hearers ask two questions: ‘How shall we return?’ and ‘How have we spoken against you?’ Sin has blinded. These people, however, are asking to see. They want to return to God.
And God wants this too: ‘Return to me and I will return to you’. We are left to wonder: Will this new beginning extend to their hip-pockets? Will this coming cleansing inspire them to return to the only one who can’t be served in ‘vain’?
Initially, our gospel passage reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the political and religious world: Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pilate, Herod, his brother Philip, High Priests Annas and Caiaphas. Each is powerful and influential. People of the centre.
Luke, however, has no intention of telling their story. From here he redirects our dazed eyes from all this power-centred hype: ‘…the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
God is on the move and all too many are looking the wrong way.
Outside the centres of power and influence, in the company of snakes and dust, God comes. John’s God-given project: ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
And this fringe-dwelling freak with his unpalatable message finds a listening audience. In fact, the people leave their towns and cities to seek him out. They rightly recognise in John’s message the hope that they are not stuck in their ways.The opportunity of repentance is good news!
John has a compelling and hopeful message: get ready…for soon ‘all flesh will see the salvation of God’. God is coming, not to condemn, but to save!
Tiberius and all his governors, rulers, generals, and armies could never see so far. Neither could the religious authorities. Comparatively their grand plans look embarrassingly short-sighted next to to this wilderness-born plan of God.
These epic figures play relatively insignificant roles in the gospels. They do not shine. They fade. Even the magnificence of John the Baptist will look somewhat dull next to our soon-to-be-introduced central character. Jesus, engulfed in heaven’s radiance, will outshine the power of Rome and the religion of Jerusalem.
God, however, will do this in a way consistent with the humility demonstrated in the fringe prophet, John, and the Jesus he introduced. God will shine through small communities scattered across the globe and gathered around this humble, God-led life, death, and resurrection.
Of course these God-inspired gatherings are all too easily overlooked. The community in Philippi is an example. They just don’t seem powerful or influential.
But Paul sees them differently. They are ‘saints’ of heaven on earth. Through their trust in Jesus they have discovered – not a God who condemns – but one who heals. The relationship between God and them is not one of finger-pointing anger, but one characterised by ‘grace’ – God’s unmerited love – and ‘peace’. In Jesus their sins are forgiven. The relationship with God is restored.
We symbolise our faith in this reality each week. After we repent before God and accept God’s costly forgiveness, we greet each other with a declaration of peace, share together the gifts God has given, and humbly take the body and blood of Christ into ours. In Jesus we have peace with God and each other.
In our hearts, in this community, in this city, and across the entire world that God loves, something new has begun: God has come and God is doing a ‘good work’. It is not yet complete, but we are promised that it will be completed in the coming ‘day of Jesus Christ’.
And everyone, no matter who you are, or what you have done, is invited to embrace this Jesus-initiated fresh start for themselves. After all, Paul declares the peace with God that is his – in the hope that it may also be yours:
…this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
All this and all this trustworthy God asks of you is your trust.
Dear friends, may you come to trust, this Advent, the reality of the ‘grace and peace’ that Jesus first coming created – and is creating – between us and God. May this knowledge build in you an overflowing love, give you wisdom to choose what is best in the light of eternity, and fill you with a hope-filled longing for the coming, saving, God-glorifying, ‘day of Christ’.
That’s two very long sentences in a row. A shorter benediction would be a whole lot better. So let me try again. May you know peace with God this Christmas.