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The Message and the Messenger
a sermon based on Luke 3:1-6 Malachi 3:1-4
by Rev. J. Clemens

Tertullian, an early theologian of the Church, once described the book of Malachi as "the skirt and boundary of Christianity." Tertullian believed, as many Christians still do today, that Malachi functioned as a segue into the Christian story of John the Baptist and ultimately the bridge into the story of Jesus. This final book of the Hebrew Scriptures contains fifty-five verses all lined up marching single file from Jewish territory into good news territory.

The passage is simple enough: we hear the voices of a debate team all trying to defend their positions and attacking their opponents. God, the Messenger, the people, the Levites-they all make their appearance in order to debate the lack of God’s presence among the very people who lay claim to the name of God.

By this last chapter God seems to have acquiesced to Israel’s need for more personal presence. So God says, "Okay, listen up! I am going to send my Messenger to you; the Messenger will prepare my way to you-but beware! He’s going to clean house on lives."

Now the segue into Christian land. Luke tells us that "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was . . . and Herod was . . . and his brother Philip ruler of . . . and Lysanias ruler of . . . during the high priesthood of . . . the word of God came to John." When we finally weave through the ins and whens down to the what, eventually we get to what Luke wants us to know: that God, after all the years of silence, finally sent God’s response to the people described in Malachi. The message comes to a single individual named John the Baptist. That God-shaped word sent to a single individual will transform John into The Messenger. Message and Messenger meld into a single word.

But our lessons in Malachi 3 and Luke 3 should hold more importance to us than just a "this is that" connection that bridges continuity from the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures to the beginning of the gospel of Jesus. So before we write "fulfilled" across the passages, consider another way to think about our Advent lessons.

Let’s begin with Teresa of Avila:

God’s messengers come through the conversations of good people, or from sermons, or through the reading of good books; and there are many other ways . . . in which God calls. Or they come through sicknesses and trials, or by means of truths which God teaches us at times when we are engaged in prayer; however feeble such prayers may be, God values them highly.

Not satisfied with boxing up promise/fulfillment passages such as these and mothballing them on the shelf of irrelevant history, Teresa takes those same passages and moves forward into a new time and place. And that’s where the lessons of Advent can address us: what messages has God been sending to you lately? How have you been challenged to grow? Who has brought you hope?

Not long ago, a close friend recalled her mother’s life. "My mother worked her entire life in the same job. She knew what the job entailed and developed the skills and knowledge to accomplish her tasks. But she never changed." I thought that harsh and unloving, so I asked her to explain. "Well, my mother never developed any interests, hobbies, never took a class, never enjoyed a symphony concert or attended the theatre. She just put in her 9-5 over a life time and went home and watched TV."

We need messengers and messages to confront us and to push us to new places of growth. John the Baptist-was the messenger and message melded into a single word. Harsh word, for sure, but a word from God that could lead to repentance, forgiveness, straightened paths, leveled mountains, and filled in valleys.

The question still emerges after all of these Advents and all of these millennia; how does God get the message to us about our lives? How do we prepare to receive God’s Advent gift? What books are we reading that move us beyond entertainment or knowledge to an improved relationship with God and neighbor? When was the last time we listened-truly stopped and listened to our lives and to God-in our suffering? How has our prayers reflected our need to change and to move to a new place? What are friends saying to us that make them loving messengers from God to us?

We need to believe the God who said, "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way . . ." God continues to send us messengers for our good, for our best, for our future and present. Believe the good news that God still speaks a personal word to people, one that pieces through the cacophony of global concerns and prominent world leaders right to our inner heart’s ear.

That’s Advent. Hearing and receiving the Message and Messenger that God continues to send to prepare the way of the Lord into our world. Amen.