12/05/21 – Preparation for Peace


December 5, 2021
2nd Sunday in Advent
Mal. 3: 1-4; Lk. 1: 68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; Lk. 3:1-6
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

It’s December, time for classic holiday movies to hit the small screen. One movie that has reached the level of a Christmas movie classic is “Elf,” starring Will Farrell. But there is another Will Ferrell Movie that has a Christmas theme, that might not be aired this month, although with all the TV channels available I wouldn’t bet on it. The movie is ‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” a spoof about a race car driving. Ricky Bobby has a great affinity for “Baby Jesus.” In a scene in which Ricky Bobby prays at the family dinner table, he begins his prayer: “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, donít even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent.” When questioned about his prayer to baby Jesus, specifically, Ricky says: “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

Well, to be honest, we might feel the same way. The baby lying in the manger is not nearly as challenging to our faith as the preacher Jesus or the Jesus hanging on the cross. And just when we are ready for the birth of the holy infant, “so tender and mild,” we read in our Advent scriptures about a wild man coming out of the wilderness demanding repentance for our sins. John was not the kind of “Advance Man” you would want to prepare an audience for a big sales pitch.

Luke doesn’t tell us what John the Baptizer looked like. Neither does John’s gospel, although, in John, people do ask him if he is Elijah, thus suggesting a similarity. The gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that John’s appearance was nearly word for word, the same physical description of the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings. His hair was wild and unkempt. He wore animal skins, didn’t bathe regularly, and ate locusts and wild honey. He and his cohorts didn’t mix much with society, preferring to segregate themselves from the town folk and their worldly ways. Many Biblical scholars believe John the Baptist was an Essene, a sect of Judaism that believed in order to live a more Godly life, they needed to separate themselves from society’s evils by removing themselves from society, much like the Amish today. To those of Roman culture, both gentiles and Jews, the Essenes were suspiciously non-conforming. People don’t tend to respond positively to people who they see as “not like us.” If an Essene walked into a nice traditional Jewish neighborhood there might be fear. “Those Essenes live in communes, suppose he wants us to share as they do? He doesn’t dress like us. He probably doesn’t have a job. What if he wants to move near us? What about our property values?”

So why did God pick such an unlikely, even fearsome, character to announce Christ’s coming? It appears that God had already established a pattern of calling unexpected people at unexpected times to be messengers of God’s truth. A truth that will set us free, but not before it throws us into a free fall from our worldly comfort zones.   John was a messenger from God who, as Malachi predicted, would refine and purify us with fire. These two prophets insist that the kind of refining needed to prepare us for God’s peaceable kingdom is justice.

Malachi was a prophet in the time after the exiled Jews of Israel returned to their former homeland. When the exiles first returned, they had high hopes. They were home. The temple had been rebuilt and their faith rejuvenated. Life was going to be great. But they were still occupied by a foreign power with all the political and economic restraints the situation placed on them which hindered their prosperity. So, once again, the children of God began to stray. The only authority left to them, as a Jewish people, were the priests and they too had strayed from God’s path. The book of Malachi saves its worst criticism for the priests. When given power and privilege, we humans tend to relativize justice and righteousness to accommodate our own desires.

This was also a period of societal division. Jews who had lived for generations in foreign lands returned to a land inhabited by Jews who had not been taken away because they were not wealthy or powerful enough to be deemed a threat to their conquerors. In each of these groups were Jews that had married Gentiles. The question of who were insiders and who were outsiders was answered differently depending on who you asked. Through Malachi, God proclaimed that the expectations for these Chosen people had not changed. To be righteous, one had to align one’s own will to God’s.

Who were the unrighteous? Malachi gives a hauntingly inclusive list: First, he named sorcerers – these are people who pretend they can do the impossible. Next on the list are adulterers. I suspect that is a large group in our society today. And, Jesus said we aren’t off completely off the hook if we don’t do it but want to if we had the opportunity. Considering reports of the magnitude of Internet porn, I’d say a lot of people are thinking about it.

Malachi adds to the list, people who swear falsely. Jesus says that anyone who says they believe one thing but contradict themselves by their actions is “swearing falsely” and is a hypocrite. Malachi closes out the list with two more categories of sinners to whom God stands in opposition: “those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien.” I don’t think that needs any clarification.

And, finally, Malachi ends the roll call of sinners with “those that do not fear me,” which means people who hold themselves and their abilities in such high esteem that they don’t think they need to thank God for the blessings they have received, or even don’t believe they need God; or those who pay more attention to worldly gods than the one true God. Did Malachi leave anyone out? “Who could stand,” indeed?

Malachi’s solution to a societal division was justice accompanied by humility. We too live in a time of deep social division. In a recent Twitter posting, Carlos A. Rodriguez, founder of the Happy Nonprofit wrote: “Without repentance, ‘reconciliation’ is manipulation. Without accountability, ‘forgiveness’ is marketing. Without justice, ‘unity’ is crowd control.” False prophets stand at their bully pulpits on the media stage spouting dire predictions of what will happen to us if we don’t protect ourselves from people or institutions who ‘seek to destroy us.’ “Identity politics” encourages us to fear and hate our neighbors and to place our trust in policies that keep the poor poor and make the rich richer. Powerful and privileged people direct our attention away from economic justice with racial dog whistles and arguing about what week an abortion should be illegal.

Somewhere around 200 -300 years after the book of Malachi was written, Luke put a stylus to papyrus to tell the world about Jesus. By this time the Jewish rebellion against the Romans had been quashed and the last temple in Jerusalem destroyed. The Roman Empire claimed their restrictions on the people created the Pax Romani, the peace of Rome. The Empire was great at crowd control. This is what led to Paul writing letters from prison, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt after Jesus was born and then, as an adult rabbi, to be crucified. The empire and its minions could not take a chance with a crowd looking to anyone else as a voice of authority. Christ’s followers were not plotting insurrection, they were promoting God’s peace for all.

Like Malachi, John the Baptizer was called a messenger of God. God’s chosen people were still living under the rule of a foreign empire and still not living up to God’s expectations of a just and compassionate community of the faithful. Like Malachi and other prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, John talked about sin and judgment. He was a biblical figure that could easily be misused as a model for those who divert attention from their own failure to follow Christ by judging others. But that’s the work of a false prophet, which John the Baptizer most certainly was not.

John the Baptizer didn’t go around pointing his finger at individuals who committed this sin or that sin, keeping score to determine who was in and who was outside God’s grace. John spoke to his own people about their failure to live into their calling to act as God’s chosen people. Chosen, not for the privilege, but to be a light to guide all peoples into God’s kingdom. John reminded his audience that God’s desire was to bring salvation to all, which didn’t sit well with the self-righteous, who thought they had a free pass when it came to judgment because they were descendants of Abraham. If we go on to read the verses after verse 6, John refers to these as a “brood of vipers.”

From the beginning of this passage, Luke sets up the dichotomy between worldly powers and God’s omnipotence by placing John in a particular context of place and time. Luke lists the political power figures of the day — emperor, governor, regional king, and the religious leaders, the high priests. God did not send the message to those the world deemed powerful, God sent a member of a small Jewish sect, who chose to forsake worldly wealth and pleasures to live a simple, faithful life in the wilderness.

John calls for repentance. This means far more than feeling sorry for your sins.  The Greek word for repentance, “metanoia” cannot be adequately translated into English. It is an awareness of one’s sin with a corresponding transformation of the inner being to turn back to God. Metanoia requires self-awareness which leads to self-correction. In the New Testament, the transformation is not just a transformation of perception, but a realigning of one’s whole being to live as a changed person.

Our two prophets, Malachi and John the Baptizer accepted God’s call to be messengers of peace. These messengers called for their people to prepare for peace with repentance, to trust in God’s promises, and to live according to God’s righteousness. And so, we are being called this Advent to prepare for the way of peace in our world, in our communities, in our families, and within ourselves. John the Baptizer received his call before he could even understand it, but his parents prepared him for his divine mission. The Song of Zachariah we heard in song this morning, is our “Little Baby John” Advent carol. As Zachariah holds his newborn son, the answer to his own prayers, he proclaims:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go Before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 1:79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”   – Luke 1:78-79

When we are faithful, as individuals, as a congregation, and as the Church Universal, God’s grace enables us to risk setting aside all other cultural and political ideologies to give ourselves over in obedience to Jesus’ words. Then the kingdom breaks into our present world. This is when we demonstrate that we have submitted to the baptism of repentance John the Baptizer proclaimed. Every demonstration of faithfulness, every act of kindness and justice, every moment of peace is a way to prepare the way of the Lord.

Coming to one table, where Christ promises all are welcome and all are fed, nourishes our faith in the Kingdom of God — the kingdom of God that began when Christ came into the world but is not yet fulfilled.  We are blessed to receive glimpses of God’s kingdom whenever and wherever we accept and treat one another as God’s beloved children. Having hope prepares us for joy, doing justice prepares us for peace. We start at the table, being fed without doing anything to earn a place at the Lord’s table. Then we go out into the world to feed others. Christ invites us to the table of peace. Let us feast with him here, as we look in hope to the time, we will joyfully feast with him at the heavenly banquet.

Amen. May it be so!


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
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