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Imagine a people living on the periphery. A people who are living with a promise that’s been made to them, but they find it hard to see the promised being fulfilled. A people living far from the centre of power – on the margins. A people who are living by and with a message that the world doesn’t seem to be paying attention to. A message of blessing and peace. A people who are wondering where all the peace that has been promised is.
A people wondering about the promise of being made into a kingdom. This is the situation that’s facing the people of Israel at the time of the Old Testament writing. They’ve returned to Judah and to Jerusalem. The temple has been rebuilt. It’s not what it was but it’s something. They’re still having the same old problems that they’ve always had. Drought. Locusts. Every day kind of things. This is the problem perhaps. Just getting through days. They’re not facing any great existential threat. They’re not facing the threat of invasion and deportation – they’ve already gone through that. They’re not facing the destruction of their capital. They’ve already gone through that too. They’re just….existing. The great sweep of human history is going on around them. As someone puts it – “…she (Israel) was not even noticed on the landscape of the earth. The wave of great sea changes in history had rolled to the west of her, with the Greeks battling at Marathon and then Thermopylae. Nothing faced Israel but the ‘dullness of life,’ obeying God’s commandments in daily relations with neighbours and friends; spending money to pay tithes for the support of the priests; giving up prized lambs and calves to be burned on the altar; learning religious traditions that seemed as distant as the God to whom they prayed; praying prayers that disappeared, unanswered, into the blue. God apparently was doing nothing at all in Judah’s life, and all his promises for the future seemed hollow mockeries of her service to him.”
They were going through the motions. Just existing.
Lord save us from going through the motions. From just existing
This is the really significant thing about a time of year like Advent and it’s the same thing with Lent. We’re not rushing toward the manger here. We’re taking our time in our journey toward the manger. It’s a time for us to examine ourselves. Someone said something once about the unexamined life. It’s a time for us to mourn, to reflect, to repent – to turn toward God in a meaningful way and to stop and sit with the promises that are ours in the middle of a lot of mayhem or at least the middle of a lot of activity.
If we stopped and stood in silence we would hear these words. I have loved you and I love you still. This is how the book starts. “I have loved you, says the Lord.” (Mal 1:2a) I love you still. This is how it ends – “I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:6) I love you still.
In the middle of these words, we hear of a people for whom worship has become perfunctory. Much of the book is set up like an OT trial. It’s God versus the people of Judah. The people are accusing God of not caring. Of forgetting. “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” (2:17) It’s a twist on why are bad things happening to good people. Why are good things happening to bad people? “Where is the God of justice?”
They’re carrying on in the classic tradition of the faithful bringing their questions to God. Nothing wrong with that. The issue is not, however, God’s faithfulness, but their own faithfulness. “What a weariness this is,” they say. They sniff at God. When they bring offerings they bring what’s been taken by violence or is lame or sick. Giving is not costing anything. Worship is not costing anything and if there’s something better to do then let’s do it.
Going through the motions. Meaningless ritual and meanwhile there’s turning to other gods, faithlessness, oppression of workers, oppression of the most vulnerable, thrusting aside the alien, the stranger. We must look at ourselves when we speak of these things. At the same time, we wait for a day when such things will come to an end. We wait for Jesus, who is the answer to that question “How shall we return?” We look forward to marking his birth. We look forward to his return. In the meantime, we wait.
For the people of God, waiting has always been an aspect of faith. To have faith involves trusting in God’s promises. One writer put it like this - “In many respects, faith…consists in waiting for God to act – waiting with the expectation that he will act; acting with the assurance that he will keep his word; trusting that the future will indeed bring about that which he has promised. Faith is going out, not knowing where one is going, because a new land has been promised. It is preparing oneself for flight from slavery because the promise of deliverance has been given. It is entering battle with a seemingly overwhelming foe because God has guaranteed victory. It is obeying a command because one has been told that obedience leads to fullness of life. It is accepting a cross with the assurance of a resurrection. It is discounting suffering for the certainty of a glory that is coming. Faith in the Bible strains out toward a future that it knows God is bringing, and it acts in trust and obedience and certain hope in accord with that future.”
Here’s the promise. “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (4:2) We talked about rising last week. Standing. “Stand up and raise your heads” were Jesus’ words. Raising our heads to greet the sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings. Look at this next image. “You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” Have you ever seen this? Calves leaping from their stalls?
These are the promises. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. For he is a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”(3:1-3)
Our righteousness. The one for whom we wait. The one who arrived, who arrives, who will arrive.
A few hundred years later the people of God were waiting. Like us taking our time to come to the manger, Luke takes his time before getting to Jesus’ ministry. One of the commentaries I read calls this whole section “Preparing For Jesus’ Ministry”. It’s another way of looking at Advent, isn’t it? A time of preparation. A time of preparing for what it is God calls us to do – who it is God calls us to be. Luke takes his time. Look at the details Luke includes as he introduces John the Baptist – “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas…”
Why does Luke go into such detail? He tells Theophilus at the beginning of the Gospel that he wanted to write an orderly account. Does this mean the other Gospels are disorderly? Not at all! It’s not just a matter of making sure that events are related in a linear fashion or that the timeline is right. To say that the events described in Luke’s Gospel are orderly can be to look on them as to how we make order out of the world. How we make sense of the world, in other words. The events through which we look at the events of our time. How God worked in history and how God is working in history and how God will work in history.
Because this is the other thing that’s going on here. God stepping into history in a new way. In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius. In the 4th year of Prime Minister Trudeau. When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. When Doug Ford was Premier of Ontario. When John Tory was mayor of Toronto. The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. The word of God came to the people of Blythwood Road Baptist Church in the wilderness.
The wilderness is a tough place. The howling wilderness waste, as it’s called. It’s a place of unfaithfulness. Of adultery. Of swearing falsely. Of saying one thing and doing another. We need to look at ourselves here. Know that I’m preaching to myself too. It’s a place of oppression of workers, of widows and orphans. It’s a thrusting aside of the alien and the stranger. It’s a place where fear of the Lord doesn’t hold much sway.
It’s the place where God appears. The people of Israel were waiting, just as we wait. The people of Israel had a prophet. The last of the prophets proclaiming that 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, by the one who called himself the Way, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
In the 4th year of Prime Minister Trudeau, the word of the Lord came to the people of Blythwood. The Word of the Lord came to the people of Blythwood. Wouldn’t that make this a good Christmas? We have a prophetic role to play you know. You may say “Well I’m not John the Baptist” but followers of Christ have a prophetic role to play in God’s kingdom - to foretell. To tell of what it is to come. To tell of how things are and how God wills them to be. To show of what it is to come. To show and to tell of how things are and how God wills them to be. To dream of what might be in this time and place that God calls and enables us to be signposts of God’s love and mercy and grace and justice in Toronto in this 5th year of John Tory.
John came proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins. How are we living that? What might God do among us and through us were we to live these things, or live them more fully? To turn toward God meaningfully and significantly. To reflect God’s love and mercy and grace and justice. To forgive as we have been forgiven. To love as we are loved.
We needn’t fear the wilderness, though it’s tough. That howling wilderness waste line I mentioned earlier goes like this – “He sustained him in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded him, cared for him, guarded him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him; no foreign god was with him.” (Deut 32:10-12) We’re on a journey too. We’re pilgrims too, sojourners too. We’re not wandering aimlessly. We’re moving toward a city on a holy mount of which glorious things are spoken. We could never do this on our own. We could never claim to be doing Christ’s work in the world based on our own talents and gifts and competencies and experience and good natures and general likeability. This is the other thing about the wilderness. It’s a place of refinement. It’s a place where we are called and enabled to be heralds of the place to which we go with our words, with our actions, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and through the Holy Spirit refining us, changing us, transforming us into the image of the one whose arrival we are preparing for. May it be our prayer that God does this refining work in each and every one of us. Amen.