Mostyn Road, 5 December 1999
Prepare the Way
From Malachi, chapter 3 and verse 1:
"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight - indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts."
"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me."
And Luke picks up on this, too, with the very similar quotation from Isaiah: 'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."'
Luke applies the verse to John the Baptist, and we'll come to him in a minute, but first of all, let's have a look at when it was originally written, and why.
The first quotation comes from the prophet Malachi, the very last book of the Old Testament. It's not the most famous quotation from that book, of course. That, I think, is the one that comes a few verses after the end of our reading for today, in verse 10 of chapter 3, in fact, and goes: "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." Yes, you know it too!
But who was Malachi, then, and why was he writing in such terms, and to whom?
Well, first of all, nobody knows what his real name was. "Malachi", as he calls himself, is almost definitely a pseudonym; it just means "God's messenger", or "God's Angel". Almost all the book, with the possible exception of the final epilogue, is definitely by one person, though, whoever he was. There is, apparently, a school of thought that identifies him with the scribe Esdras, who wrote a couple of books that are in our Apocrypha, but which are mainstream Old Testament in the Catholic Church. I don't really know anything about Esdras, so I can't comment, but apparently he takes up a lot of the same themes, and the book is written about the same time. This, they think, was in the 5th century BC, somewhere between 460 and 430, after the return from exile in Babylon. The Temple had been re-established as a centre of worship, but already people had started relaxing the rules, allowing deformed animals to be sacrificed, for instance, intermarrying, and getting divorced for all sorts of trivial reasons The Law, which had been so effusively welcomed when it was read to them by Nehemiah, was being widely ignored again.
And so we get this lovely chapter 3, where Malachi reminds us of God's promises - and, indeed, of God's coming in judgement. God will not allow this flouting of the Law to go on forever. But only turn back to God, start tithing again, start being God's people again, and God will pour out such a blessing that Israel will once again be "a land of delight".
For us, it's not about keeping the Law, of course, but about being Jesus' people. And Luke picks up the "Prepare the way" verse and runs with it, telling us that John the Baptist was God's messenger, and quoting from the prophet Isaiah.
John the Baptist, of course, was a prophet. In an earlier chapter, Luke tells us that his father was a priest in the Temple at Jerusalem, and his mother was a cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. And John was a very late child; his mother had practically given up all hope of having a baby by the time he arrived.
John was about the same age as Jesus - again, Luke tells us that Mary and Elisabeth were pregnant at the same time. So he would only have been a young man when he started preaching. He seems to have come from the desert, certainly according to our reading today, so we have to assume that he went off there as a very young man to think and to study and to listen to God. When he came back, he was a prophet. He wore skins, he ate locusts and wild honey, he gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"
Well, there hadn't been a proper prophet for many years, and it became very fashionable to go into the desert and hear John. Huge crowds went;
it was better than the cinema! John got incredibly frustrated by this.
All these people, but none of them wanted to really hear what he had to say. None of them were really willing to repent, to turn right round and go God's way. Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Not that they interfered with him, mind you - could have been nasty, if they had. But they didn't want to know! Very frustrating.
But there were the other kind of people, too. People who really did want to listen to John, to hear what he had to say and to act on it. People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan. And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.
And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way. And yet he wants to be baptized - surely not! Surely it should be he, Jesus, who baptizes John? John's always known that when the Messiah came, he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet, slaves' work, that. John mutters something to this effect, but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"
And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, "Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!"
Of course, as we know, John wasn't always quite so sure - you remember how when he was in prison, awaiting death for having criticised the royal marriage once too often, he suddenly got a fearful attack of doubt and sent to Jesus saying, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" and Jesus has to reassure him. And in the end, of course, John gets executed, and Jesus is devastated by his death, and tries to go off by himself, but the crowds follow him....
4. What Does It Mean?
Well, this is all very well, but it's all long ago in history stuff. What does it have to do with us this Sunday morning two thousand years later?
Well, we are in the season of Advent. And Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas. It's not just about writing cards, choosing presents, putting up decorations, preparing cakes and puddings, eating mince-pies, arranging family parties, and so on. That too, of course.
But it is, or should be, a time of preparing ourselves for Christmas. For the coming of the King of Glory as a child in the manger at Bethlehem. In years gone by, many people would fast throughout Advent, and I know people who still do. They don't literally abstain from food for the whole month, but they might well deny themselves some pleasure or other -
that of eating sweets, perhaps, or of watching certain television programmes. As a reminder that they are preparing themselves.
These days, we tend to moan that Christmas is too commercialised, but I rather think that is inevitable when we share the festival with non-Christians. And in a way, watching the shops decked out in their Christmas colours and full of stock they don't have at other times of year is rather fun. I've always loved walking through shops which sell Christmas decorations, and when my daughter was a baby, her first winter, she used to gurgle with pleasure on being taken for a walk through Woolworth's, for instance - we used to go most days, not to shop but so she could enjoy the colours and sparkles as only a small baby can! Even now, I still enjoy it, and some shops are very clever. But, of course, what they want you to do is to buy their products. And why shouldn't they - after all, they have a living to make.
But we don't have to let the commercialism of the secular celebrations make us feel Scrooge-like! We can use them as a springboard for our own preparations. Do you remember John Betjeman's great poem? The one which ends:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie, so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
That's the point, isn't it? In a week or so we will be singing "Oh holy Child of Bethlehem be born in us today". We need to be prepared for that to happen, to know that we can indeed come to Jesus as we are, and that he, in turn will come to us afresh.
So we must remember, in the hurry and bustle of the run-up to Christmas, that if we neglect to prepare ourselves, as well as everything else - well, there isn't really much point! But if we do prepare ourselves, then all the irritation and commercialisation and worry as to whether our kids - or our parents, for that matter - are going to like their presents, and what can we afford, and so on, all that won't matter any more. For what will matter is that Jesus Christ has become a human being. God with us.
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