I have a little book called “The Bishop is Coming!” (Paul V. Marshall). It contains among other things check lists of all those things you need to know to have the bishop’s visit go smoothly, for everyone to look and feel like they know what they are doing, and to make the visit special and meaningful for everyone involved. We announce the visitation in advance to encourage people to attend and we make a special effort to have things looking their best.
Now imagine it is not a bishop that is coming to visit, but God. How would we behave if we expected God to show up in person for our church service?
The prophet Malachi is telling his audience that is exactly what is about to happen. They have anxiously been awaiting the Messiah and Malachi tells them that they will have plenty of time to prepare for God’s visit because God is going to send someone to publicly announce that he is coming so everyone in the temple (or in our case church) will know that he is about to show up. But Malachi questions whether they really want what they are asking for. He asks, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
Isaiah had prophesied that before God, “every knee will bow” (Isaiah 45:23) and later Paul will tell us that before Jesus “every knee will bow” (Rom 14:11 , Phil 2:10) and Matthew comments that the Roman soldiers, mockingly “bowed the knee” before him (Matt 27:29) just prior to his crucifixion. Our natural reaction to the presence of God, and for Christians to Christ, God incarnate, should be that of a knight before his Lord, on bended knee out of respect and in a symbol of loyalty and trust. Some people genuflect before the altar or the reserved sacrament which harkens back to this reminder.
Malachi continues by describing the Messiah as being like a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap. Back in the 1960’s AJAX laundry detergent had commercials with a knight in shining armor riding though an oil field and zapping the clothing of the workers, removing all the greasy stains that were so hard to remove. Fuller’s soap was the AJAX detergent of the ancient world. The refiners fire was the process of heating raw ore to extract the pure gold, silver or other precious metals. Malachi is telling the people that when the Messiah comes their spirits will get a good cleaning. Have you ever tried to interrupt a child’s play to give them a much-needed bath? When my granddaughter was about 4, she got a fake tattoo at a birthday party. For days she made me wash around her prize. Malachi is reminding the people that they will get a bath whether they want it or not. What favorite sins would we rather not have washed away?
The last paragraph of the prophesy of Malachi states, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the lord. ” (Mal 4:5)
Skipping to our New Testament we introduce John the Baptizer. Luke begins his gospel story with the angel visiting a priest named Zechariah. Much like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless and beyond the age of hoping for a child any longer. Zechariah is going about doing his normal priestly duties when an angel appears to him and announces that his wife Elizabeth will have a son. They are to name him John and he is to be a Nazirite from birth, that is a person consecrated to God’s service and part of this vow included abstaining from drinking alcohol and cutting their hair. He was to be filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth. (Keep in mind this is before Pentecost, so the Spirit is only rarely gifted at this time.) The angel then quotes the prophesy from Malachi, “With the power and spirit of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17).
Like Sarah before him Zechariah questions the truthfulness of the angel’s statement. But Gabriel is a little less patient with Zechariah than the three visitors were with Sarah. Zechariah is struck deaf and mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It is not until the child is named and Zechariah, much to the consternation of his family, is obedient and writes out the name of the child on a tablet, JOHN more exactly יוֹחָנָן. At that moment his tongue is released, and he burst forth in the song we read as our Canticle today. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…” and speaking to the child proclaims, “And you, 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.” (Luke 1:68, 76-77)
Fast forward thirty years. Luke begins by setting his story in the middle of history. This is no fairy tale. We are in the 15th year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius which put this in the year 29 AD. Tiberius reigned from 17 to 37 AD. Luke names Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea who ruled from about 26 to about 37 AD. He names Herod (Antipas) as the tetrarch of Galilee (and Perea), rulings from 4 – 39AD. He mentions Herod’s brother Philip. He names Annas, the first high priest of Judah under Rome beginning in 6 AD and the high priest Caiaphas, whom we know little of except that he oversaw the trial of Jesus and died in 36 AD in Crete.
Luke tells us that at this time John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now this is a significant area. The headwaters of the Jordan is on Mt Hebron at the border between Syria and Lebanon. It flows south, filling the Sea of Galilee which is beautiful and clear, it continues south past Samaria and Jericho just east of Jerusalem and then dumps into the Dead Sea which describes it perfectly. Salty, smelly and good only for mining minerals.
John is doing just what the prophet Malachi said. He is functioning as a prophet calling the people to repentance. Luke also draws from Isaiah when he identifies John as “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord!”
Our lesson ends there. It is one of those “to be continued” texts. But I want to draw your attention back the question that Malachi asks, and that John is announcing.
If you were told that God was going to show up in our church would you do anything different than you do now?
Jesus say, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”