What Would Be Said of Us?
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.
Luke provides us with the A-list of whose-who at the time that Jesus was about to begin his ministry. All the way from Imperial Rome, to the rules of Roman Palestine, to the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem. This list is informative for a variety of reasons. Most obvious it places the ministry of Jesus firmly within our grasp and understanding of history. Luke allows us to date when Jesus was active and makes us aware of what was happening in that part of the world. But most illustrative about this list is that it is used to setup and introduce a character who might otherwise be dismissed: John the Baptist.
While all these individuals were in power the word of God came to a man named John. And he came to prepare the way.
Let’s go back to that list again and rephrase it a little differently. In the sixth year of Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, while Premier Doug Ford led the Province of Ontario, John Henderson served as Mayor of Cobourg, while the Rev. Dr. Dan Scott served as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Cobourg…
What would come next if Luke were to appear and recount the work of this congregation? On this second Sunday of Advent in the year 2021, what would Luke write about us?
As we prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ what would we say about ourselves?
In Luke’s gospel it is clear that though the powerful of the Roman Empire and the religious elite are mentioned, they are not the focus. They are not what is important. Instead, its an otherwise easily dismissed prophet roaming Galilee baptising people in the Jordan shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” John is quoting Isaiah, pointing to an event he is certain will happen. The coming Messiah, who happens to be his cousin Jesus Christ.
Have you ever come across a street corner preacher? Someone who may or may not have a sign board over their shoulders shouting “Repent! For the time of the Lord is at hand!” Ever run into someone like that? Growing up in Toronto I bumped into a few. My reaction dismissive, this guy is nuts! And yet there is John, proclaiming the same thing. Quoting from Isaiah, asking us to prepare ourselves for the Messiah.
And here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, reading about John the Baptist, preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Reflecting on what that means. John picks up on a rich tradition which we also see in our reading from Malachi. The words read today from Malachi may seem familiar if you are a fan of classical music, what you read are the words found in taken from Malachi: For he shall purify. However, if I were to ask you where the Book of Malachi is in the Old Testament most of you would shake your heads and say “I don’t know.” And that’s ok, you’re in good company.
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. It’s the last word we as Christians have until Matthew opens up the New Testament with his gospel. To give that a historical span, it’s about 400-500 years.
Scott Hoezee writes, “In the canonical order of biblical books, Malachi is about twenty-two books removed from Ezra and Nehemiah. In terms of actual history, however, Malachi was likely a contemporary of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is the one who re-built Jerusalem after the Israelites returned to Judah following their seventy years as prisoners in Babylon. In some ways, that was a rather happy time for the Israelites.” (Scott Hoezee)
But Malachi is not a happy book. “Most scholars agree that the book of Malachi reflects the period of restoration shortly after the temple was rededicated in 515 BCE … From the same period, the prophet Haggai speaks of famine and hardship, while Zechariah hints at the failure to re-establish the Davidic monarchy. Malachi reflect this situation.” (Margaret Odell)
Malachi’s message is aimed at the leaders of the temple. The words ‘purify the descendants of Levi’ are aimed at the priestly caste. A warning that one will come who will purify the law. If we were to continue reading Malachi we would find the following:
So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
Fast forward to John who shares the words of the prophet Isaiah:
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.
And then we reflect on what Jesus did and on what he said. Who were the recipients of Jesus’ harshest criticism? The high priests, pharisees and scribes. Those who should have known better. Those whom Malachi spoke directly to. Those who were ignoring this prophet roaming the countryside preaching of repentance and the coming Messiah. Reminding us that soon, all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
We have the words of Malachi and the words of John to point us towards the coming Christ. We know where we are situated in history, we know what is occurring around us. It might be easy to despair, to give up hope, to ask God why we have been abandoned. Except we know otherwise. This season of Advent points not to abandonment, but to embodiment. Of God with us. For us now, in this time, in this place we look back to the prophets who point us forward toward God.
On this second Sunday of Advent in the year 2021 what would be written of us? What words of encouragement would the prophets have for us? What in five years might we reach back and tell our younger selves?
What is evident from both Malachi and John the Baptism is a focus on justice, of setting the world aright. But before that work can begin, we must prepare ourselves, restore ourselves and our relationship with God and with one another. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security.
Donate to St. Andrew's
Thank you for visiting St. Andrew’s. It’s our prayer that this sermon was helpful to your walk of faith. We would ask you to prayerful consider donating to the mission of St. Andrew’s. You can make an online donation through our website.