Early last September, Rosemary wrapped up our summer sermon series on the women and Minor Prophets of the First Testament and she chose to preach on Malachi, the last minor prophet of our Hebrew scriptures and the one who bridges the two Testaments of the Bible. Daris Bultena, our Executive Presbyter described this week in his weekly blog, that Malachi does not belong in either part of the Bible but in-between them. The prophet speaks of the need to prepare for the imminent reality of the Messiah just as John the Baptist does in the passage also assigned for this second Sunday in our Advent Season. In conversation, I suggested to Daris that Malachi might be a Transitional Pastor who links one part to another, who brings the past into the future. And, I guess he liked that description enough to quote me on it this past week at our Presbytery’s Pastor’s Pause, a worship-filled retreat held quarterly for pastors and church administrators.
The Gospel lesson for today is from Luke 3:1-6, where John the Baptist places this need for preparedness that Malachi was talking about in the immediacy of the time and place he was in. The pregnant expectation for the future in Malachi, has now become a reality. It isn’t just prepare as much as hold your breath as the time we have been waiting for is arriving or has already arrived right now!
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] 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.’”The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Luke places John the Baptist in time and space. John is crying for us to Prepare the Way of the Lord, but Luke wants us to put it in a time frame, in real world and space. Luke details the rulers, the secular and religious leadership and places John squarely in the middle of world events and locations. Tiberius is emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was ruler, and Caiaphas was the high priest. This Jesus event happened in history, in a location, and had real people, not just made up figures in the action of the story. And this is important, because in this society with its complex hierarchy of rulers and religious leaders, this wild man was in the wilderness, baptizing people and telling them to make their selves ready for the coming of the messiah. They needed to prepare by recognizing their sins, what separated them from God, and repent. And in this repentance, was a belief that forgiveness for past actions was a gift from a loving God.
And this forgiveness, this emptying of the past which held them back, would prepare them for the future that was at hand. The word of God bypassed all those leaders, both civic and religious and came to a man who was crying out in the wilderness to be prepared.
John knew time was ripe… time was pregnant for the coming of the one sent by God who would usher in a new age. And God was calling for a baptism of repentance… but this repentance was not just for our sins, that we might change and the bad parts of our personalities and actions of the past be forgiven, but John is calling for the world to change – spiritually, economically, and socially – in anticipation of the coming of this age of God, of love, and of righteousness.
And we come to church on Sunday in Advent, in anticipation of a change as well. Some part of the story of Jesus’ birth, of God coming to be a part of our world and teach us that we are all beloved children of God and should treat each other with the same love and tenderness has beckoned us here again this year…. we want that magical loving feeling to somehow come, to bathe us in holiness, and to change our hearts, our minds, and our lives. We want to be prepared for what can and will happen if God’s will is done.
And so we prepare. We decorate our homes with the beautiful decorations we have collected over the years. We pull out ornaments that belonged to our parents, were made by our children, and some that remind us of special times and placed in our lives. My tree is up and Bo and I water it daily so it will look fresh when Nonie arrives at Christmas. We prepare… in fact we wear ourselves out with preparations… sending cards, buying presents in overcrowded stores or on line in the middle of the night. We exhaust ourselves with attending too many social gatherings and eating too many calories…. and through it all, we pray for that Christ child to enter our lives and change the world again.
So… In this the second year of the Presidency of Donald Trump, in the 7th year of the Syrian Civil War, weeks after the caravan from Central America reached the United States border, and a month after the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue, John the Baptist calls us again us to prepare, This proclamation of John’s, that the Prince of Peace, the one who brings us good news of God’s redemptive love, and who offers us hope and challenges us to discipleship, these words of John’s are balm to our souls and an imperative call to our discipleship. God is coming…. and God will level the playing field and will clean us and ready us for the work that to which we are called and for which we know we need to do. And Lord knows, we want it to happen.
So…..In this the 38th year of my ordination, in the 36th year of my marriage, in the 4th year of my being your pastor, John the Baptist continually calls me. God called me here to Miami and God calls us to be the progressive voice in the Presbyterian Church in South Florida. This Sunday we can all take home the task of making a third grade child’s Christmas a little brighter. We can buy presents that might match the child’s personality. I took three as shopping for these children gives me a touch of HoHoHo! Our Church is involved in many missions that touch people’s lives. Just this week we received the honor of being recognized by our national church in our ministries to alleviate hunger and its causes. We are now a Hunger Advocate Congregation. But receiving honors does not mean we have reached the level that God wants us to in our mission work. Even before I could announce our honor, I received a phone call from a member of the Quaker congregation down the street. The woman who called heads up their mission committee. They, as we did, became a sanctuary church two years ago when we realized that the status of undocumented immigrants was at best in peril with the new policies and practices in place . A few months ago, The Friends Church allowed a woman, Morena Mendoza, and her son Antonio Deras to live in the top floor of their next door building, once owned by us which at one time was used as our Youth Space. Morena escaped from an extremely violent situation in El Salvador and has been given temporary status by ICE until her hearing in March. She wears an ankle bracelet and has found some employment washing cars. Her 13 year old son Antonio attends Ponce De Leon Middle school. The church has been helping them navigate Miami and has asked if we might participate in helping them. And, I hope we can. You see…..John the Baptist is calling us to prepare for the way of the Lord, and this might just be one of the paths in that preparation before God’s realm is on earth.
This is the week of our Advent season when we are to contemplate our preparedness. We know that God enters our lives and pray that this season be an avenue in which it can happen again. We don’t just want that warm loving feeling but we want the excitement that we feel when God pushes us to new work and ministries in Christ’s name. Let us pray how we can welcome the Christ child into our lives. Let us contemplate how we are called to be Christ’s own. We are God’s hands and heart on earth. Together we can usher in an age of God’s love and peace. Amen.