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The Messenger at the Door

Dr, Bruce Lancaster

December 6, 2015
Luke 3:1-6; Malachi 3:1-4

 

A reading from the Gospel of Luke:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
   and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
   and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

A reading from Malachi:

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. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

 

All we know about Malachi is that his Hebrew name means “my messenger.”

The message that came to him was the word that the world was ending.  I don’t mean that the world was about to be destroyed; I only mean that the world as it was‒barren of hope and empty of God’s presence‒was ending and a new world was beginning. The day of the Lord was coming.

It was not possible to live in his world and not be affected by hatred and hostility and violence and war.

The land was more hell than holy, pockmarked by the ravages of war, devastated by drought and famine, and all the evidence pointed to the powerlessness of God, the absence of God.

Does it seem that the evidence is still stacked against God‒even we who once thought we were safe and secure are no less victims of a violence we can’t control‒guns and greed, race and religion…

And violence is not limited to war or physical abuse or criminal assault‒it is what hits us on the inside where hurts are hard to heal because it involves people we love.

It’s the violence that comes to a family when sister will come home for the holidays on Tuesday because brother has left on Monday; when a child’s holiday greetings are wrapped in angry words and rebellious behavior; or when we know this may be our last Christmas to unwrap a gift of love.

Even more than missiles pointed at us or terrorists planning deadly attacks, consider the locks on our doors, bars on windows, the apprehensive glances as we walk through a mall parking lot, or strained silences in a grocery store checkout line, even cold shoulders in a church sanctuary‒subtle ways, yet all point to the violence we fear we might suffer at the hands of strangers.

Yet, we seem to be so unaware that those strangers fear the violence they might suffer from us.

It’s this kind of feeling, I think, this inner conflict that turns a lot of us away from the Old Testament and its God to be feared as violent, fierce, grim, demanding, oppressive.

Just listen to the God who speaks through Malachi: “See, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…who can endure the day of his coming?…like refiner’s fire he will purify his people…”

Who can endure…refiner’s fire…?

Just look at the messenger John, son of Zechariah; it had been 300 years since Israel had heard from a prophet of God, and then John shows up.

He dressed in camel’s hair and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. Everything about John makes you think of that fierce and grim God of the Old Testament prophets.

And his message really got under your skin, especially if you were a loyal, law-abiding Jew.

John preached that whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, you were as sinful as the next guy, and you better repent or you would be cut down at the roots like a tree, and thrown into the eternal fire.

And when people asked John how they should live this repentance and forgiveness, he stopped being prophetic and started meddling‒he preached a message of justice and love.

He told people to share their clothing and food with the poor.  He insisted tax collectors should stop cheating people by overcharging them.  He demanded that soldiers stop bullying people and extorting money from those who were vulnerable.

People began to think John was the Messiah they’d been hearing about, but John quickly pointed out that he was just the messenger called by God to prepare the world for the day of the Lord.

His message, like the messenger Malachi, is that the great and terrible day of the Lord wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would be the coming of the Lord, and that’s different, isn’t it?

Instead of getting ready to meet the end of our earthly existence, we would be getting ready to meet God!

There’s a huge difference between thinking the world is going to be destroyed and thinking that the old world ‒to paraphrase John Dominic Crossan: “(A world where) justice without love ends in brutality (and where) love without justice ends in banality.”

This old world is replaced and a new world will be born, where all flesh shall see the salvation of God, in the flesh; again to paraphrase John Dominic Crossan: where “Justice is the body of love, and love is the soul of justice; where justice is the flesh of love, and love is the spirit of justice.”

This is a message, not of a violently avenging God, but a message of a miraculously liberating God, in the flesh for all to see. And the one who brings that message, that messenger is not asking for popularity, success, or fame, but simply bringing a message that may be the source of comfort, hope and faith for the one who answers the door.

This is a message for those people frustrated by illness and disability, out of sorts with themselves, angry with others, afraid of what tomorrow may bring.

This is a message for people without faith in anything, whose lives are empty of meaning, who have lost all hope, who can see no point in going on any further.

This is a message for people whose faith has been shaken by the unfairness, by the cruelties of this world, by corruption and dishonesty, by how fast things change and they simply couldn’t keep up.

This is a message for people whose hope has been worn out by endless despair, the horror of war, the bitterness of hatred, the failure of dreams on which they had their hearts set on.

The messenger at the door is filled to the brim with hope and overflowing with the glorious presence of God to live God’s power in the midst of the mess we find ourselves in.

TO GOD BE THE GLORY.