Luke 3.1-6 and Malachi 3.1-4
We are entering the book of Luke in this liturgical year. Luke will be our companion for much for the next 12 months. It is through Luke that we will primarily focus on the story of Jesus. Today, we are near the beginning of the Gospel according to Luke – and it’s clear that Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.
Over Christmas, we will hear again those famous words “In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (or taxed). This took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria”. Luke then goes on to tell us all about the birth of Jesus, as he had received it – focusing on the arrival of the shepherds, those lowest of the low, at the manger. Interestingly, Luke says nothing at all about the arrival of the Wise Men from the East – that is left to Matthew to fill in.
But today, in chapter three, the action has gone fast-forward. Roughly 30 years have passed, and Luke puts another time stamp on his story. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachnonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness”.
The people of Luke’s time didn’t have the same easy system of dates that we had. Events were marked by who was in charge at the time. So, if we were to say something similar, we might say something like “In the 18th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Harold Wilson, when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary and Michael Ramsay was Archbishop of Canterbury, the world of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.
Those of us who are old enough to remember Billy Graham’s mission to England are given a sense of the sort of time lapse between the preaching of John the Baptiser and when Luke then wrote about it. The point is not so much the detailed date, but rather: “Pay attention! Listen up! I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory, A herald came with an urgent message from God”.
And what was that message? John quotes Isaiah’s vision of the earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful. Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.
The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means: God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire. In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.
Luke saw in Jesus a glimpse of the sheer purity that is the benchmark for all humans created in God’s image. That holiness is what God made us to share. God challenges us to be what we were created to be. And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.
Advent tells us that we can expect God to probe all aspects of our lives and to clean us up; that the way we live now, individually and as a church and nation, will come under God’s righteous judgement, when he answers our prayers for succour and deliverance.
God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin. Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean up. He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day. John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’. If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they? Corrupt politicians, radio stations who drive people to suicide, greedy bankers. The bankers are perhaps the most obvious target aren’t they? In the last three years, despite the ‘bankers bonus scandals’, incomes among the top bankers in our country have risen by around 25% - while the real incomes of ordinary people have been dropping through inflation.
But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the leaders of nations alone. They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our money too. Do we, for example, spend more on Christmas cards and gifts for our friends and families than we spend on the poor and needy? If so, perhaps we need to ask how that relates to banker’s bonuses. Are we just giving more bonuses to people who already have so much?
It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen. But we can give to others at the same time, not least through buying fairly traded, environmentally friendly, or hand-made presents.
Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and make an appropriate donation to charities on top? Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us. If, for example, you have not yet given to this year’s campaign by Churches Homeless Action, there’s a large bucket in the Narthex, ready to receive your gift!
Getting the balance right over these things is a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent. There are so many more ways that Advent should speak to us – and that the message of John and Malachi can speak to us. What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually, and in prayer, for the coming of the king? How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight? How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness…one shovelful at a time….one person at a time.
Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative. “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when David Cameron is prime minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and Rowan Williams is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: Hark! A herald voice is calling: “Christ is nigh” it seems to say. Cast away the dreams of darkness, O ye children of the day!”
I am indebted to Canon Rosalind Brown, whose thoughts on these passages (in the Church Times on 7 Dec 2012) form the substantial basis of this sermon