It is with some substantial baggage that I come to our Gospel reading this morning.
When I was at secondary school, I struggled to conform and was far from a compliant student. (Obviously, I am very conformist now?!).
One of the punishments I received was having to spend a Sunday memorising this very passage, with all its gruesome names, and then write it out, without reference to the original, in a timed test, again and again, and again, until it was word perfect. It is a wonder I have any passion left for this particular gospel! But here it is…
The prophet Malachi was speaking to a generation who wondered when, if ever, God was going to come to their rescue.
The people of Israel had looked and longed for their Messiah – the one who would lead them into a golden future – for many years. They knew that a ‘messenger’ would precede him and now they are told that the messenger is on his way.
The messenger would be a long while coming, in terms of human time – several hundred years. For all that time, the people of God were waiting, building their expectations and imagining what this messenger would be like. One might say, creating him in their own image.
As we thought about last week, there was a great deal of darkness in the society of first century Israel/Palestine.
The emperor Tiberius and his governor Pilate, assisted by his henchmen Herod, Philip and Lysanias, were the secular rulers. Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish high priests. The people of God’s covenant were suffering under the absolute rule of the occupying power and the religious rule of a corrupt temple.
In this situation, to whom did God’s word come? Surely not quite who they were expecting. The messenger was John, the son of Zechariah, who was living in the desert, feeding on grasshoppers and wild honey and dressed in a camel hair coat. Could this really be the promised messenger of God, the one they had longed for?
Yet his message fitted the prophecy. Malachi had spoken of the need for the people to be purified, made clean and ready for the coming of the Lord. John called the people to get themselves ready to turn back to God and be baptised. Then their sins would be forgiven. They would be ready for the Lord when he came.
The Lord, the Messiah, who the people of God had been waiting for even longer than this messenger. They had been waiting, building their expectations and imagining what this Messiah would be like. One might say, creating him in their own image.
Yet, when he came, he was so contrary to expectation that many didn’t recognize him. Many reacted against him and rejected him. Yet, if they heeded the prophecies, they would recognize that he was indeed the one they had been waiting for. When the Lord himself came, the cleansing process started by the messenger, by John, would be like the fire in the refiner’s furnace, where silver is purified. This is no superficial gloss, but deep transforming healing.
And what about us?
This Advent time we are a waiting, expectant people. In our waiting, and in our expectation, are we open to being completely amazed by the reality of God, or have we built in our own minds such a picture of what God coming amongst us would look like that we might miss it when we encounter the living Christ?
We would do well to heed the warning of those waiting and expecting a messenger, of those waiting and expecting a Messiah, that we don’t decide what God coming and acting amongst us will look like, but be ready to encounter Jesus afresh.
I pray that this Advent you would find time to stop, to think about the one who came, the one who is coming and the one who will come again.
Search our hearts, gracious God, and show us if there is anything impure or harmful there, so that we may turn back to you, know your forgiveness and be ready to welcome you when you come. Amen.