The Coming Messenger
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. 2 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; 3 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. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
1 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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
4 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.
5 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;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. ’”
At this time of year, there is always a debate among colleagues about allowing Christmas to overtake Advent.
Whether we should sing Advent hymns or Christmas Carols.
Whether our readings should focus on The Nativity or the Prophets.
For me, its always been important to take time to observe Advent so that we can be better ready to celebrate Christmas. To plough through all the strange readings of the Advent season as a way to prepare for the birth of Jesus- and to see in them again how awesome this child's birth really was - and is!
And so we focus on two prophets this morning.
Malachi and John the Baptist.
In Malachi, we have strange imagery of a refiners fire and fullers soap.
Both suggesting a complete change of character.
Changes that result in a marked difference.
We can all, I'm sure imagine the heat of a fire used for refining.
If we've not experienced it for ourselves I'm sure we've seen images of molten metal, impurities removed, being moulded into something else.
I had to google the fullers soap- and discovered that it was a heavy duty kind of bleaching agent used on sheepskin wool to render it suitable to be made into cloth.
Refining and washing - images of changes wrought to make things more useful.
The prophets, in Malachi's time AND in John the Baptist's were concerned with agitating for real change in their society.
Both lived in times when people were suffering under oppressive regimes.
But both are anxious to call the people to whom they preach to repentance.
Just because they are oppressed does not mean that they can be lax about observing the ways of God.
Just because they are exploited does not mean that they can exploit others.
Indeed it is even more important, the prophets seem to claim, that in tough times, the people are even more assiduous in following God and in doing all that that demands of them.
It is even more important that they are distinctive - distinguished by their practice of love and justice and by their walk with God.
Their lives should be lived in stark contrast from the lives around them.
So, when things get tough, it's not a case of relaxing our ways but of redoubling our efforts to ensure that those around can see the positive difference that following God makes.
Only by observing Advent can we properly consider these things and ask hard questions of our lives and begin to fully appreciate that The Nativity does not make everything alright but, in fact turns everything upside down.
Refining fire and Fullers soap - tough agents for a tough job - the kind of cleansing that still is needed today.
And so we come to Luke's gospel:
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, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
It seems a long introduction to a reading: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate... And so on.
Luke is very particular about placing things in their historical context.
When he recounts the birth of John the Baptist, he locates that in the days of King Herod of Judah.
When he begins to tell of the birth of Jesus, he locates that in the reign of the Emperor Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Because Luke sees the events he recounts as every bit as important as the political events of the day.
He sees both Jesus and John the Baptist as bearing as great an import as Emperors and Kings and Governors.
John the Baptist - a way out guy in an out of the way place.
Yet God chose him to herald a brave new world.
In many ways Gods tactics have changed little over the years.
Still God chooses the least likely people to share the good news.
People like you and I.
In our homes, our schools, our places of work, the places we hang out and have coffee, the places we work out or relax - in all of those places, God chooses us to continue to herald the reign of God.
In all of those places God calls us to be distinctive.
Whatever is happening around us.
However much pressure we are under.
God calls us to live with values that are often contrary to all that goes on around us.
God calls us to pit ourselves against the system, however futile that might seem, however insignificant we might feel.
God calls us and empowers us to make a real difference.
Whether that difference is as simple as doing Advent before Christmas or whether it is reaching out to our neighbour, God calls us to make the effort to contribute to growing Gods kingdom wherever we find ourselves.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth the second, in the wake of an anticipated Royal Baby, during the government of Prime Minister, David Cameron, we who gather here in Castlehill Church today, are called to be heralds of good news.
We are called to stand up, wherever we find ourselves this week, to believe that God equips us to make a difference in the world, beginning where we are.
In our place and time God calls us to be messengers - to point to that alternative kingdom, to be people of peace and justice and hope.
As folk all around us become caught up in the Christmas rush, we are called to be witnesses to the quiet advent of God, entering the world as a vulnerable baby, confounding kings and rulers, standing up to injustice, heralding change, not by violence but by the gentle practice of love.
Rooted firmly where we are this Advent, our mission is to stand up for all that the Christmas baby brought to the manger, stand up for those whose lives he came to change, stand up as messenger of God, fulfilling our advent tasks on our journey to Christmas.
God does not deem us as too insignificant or too out of the way.
God places a spotlight on us today and calls us into that light to be witnesses to and heralds of the Kingdom of God.
Thanks be to God.
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