Luke 3.1-6 & Malachi 3.1-4
“In the 32nd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when Robert Runcie was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and when Torvill & Dean won gold at the Olympics by dancing to Bolero, the word of God came to Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.”
That’s something like how Luke’s readers would have heard his opening words of chapter 3.
Dates are interesting things, aren’t they? The problem for Luke, when he wrote his Gospel, is that no-one had come up with the idea of dating years by numbers. In Luke’s day, events were tied to the reigns or activities of significant people. Which is why he begins his account of John the Baptiser’s ministry with the rather long list of posh people that I had to read out just now!
Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place. He is saying: “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 the Baptiser quotes Isaiah’s vision of the massive 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 lavender-scented handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours. Fulling is the art of cleansing wool – to strip out all the oils, dirt, manure and other impurities. Pure white wool has been “fulled” – with some pretty abrasive chemicals!
In Jesus, Luke sees a vision of the sheer purity that is the goal for all humans. That holiness is what God made us to share when we were made in God’s image. 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.
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 things 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, tyrannical dictators, greedy bankers, ultra-capitalists and extremist preachers.
But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the mighty people of society – even if the calendar depended on them! They would ask not just about bankers, but about how you and I use our wealth and power too.
The polemicist Libby Purves made a salient point this week. Writing in the Times on Monday (3/12/2018) she pointed out how sharply our society is divided - not just between Leavers and Remainers, but also between the rich and the poor. In a very arresting image, she pointed out that the people who queue in Waitrose and those who queue in food banks are not actually from different species. Her main point was that the rich need to beware of constantly pressing down on the poor. The rich will suffer just as much, in their own way, forced by their own greed to retreat behind their gated community fences, with bars at the window, and paid security guards. They will end up living in gilded cages, barely experiencing their country, or connecting with their neighbours at all.
Christmas is a time for giving. 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 who are among the wealthiest people in the world can choose to level the playing field, to fill up the valleys of poverty, and lower the mountains of greed. Shovelful by shovelful. Pound by pound. Penny by penny.
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.
Getting the balance right over these things is of course only a tiny part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent. What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually 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 – beginning with ourselves.
Both John the Baptiser and Jesus himself learned to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God on their lives. Are we also learning what it means to say ‘Yes’ – Yes to the chance to go deeper, to live more fully, to expand our spiritual horizons – engaging with all the opportunities that there are in this parish for worship of God, and service to the community?
Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative. “In the 66th year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when Theresa May is the Prime Minister (at least until Tuesday) and Justin Welby is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”