Malachi 3:1-4 : See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Philippians 1:3-11: I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Luke 1:78-79: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 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 3:1-6: 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 Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Week after week in worship we plead, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us”, and during Advent, that ancient plea comes accompanied with the hauntingly beautiful and almost impatient plea of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. Come into our time, our lives, our churches, our hearts…come and rescue us. Make haste to help us. Advent – this time of waiting – is also a restless time. We are waiting – but waiting is for many of us not an easy thing. I think most of us have at least some trouble with patience and waiting for some things – the promised pay raise, the response to a bid we put on a house, the call from a friend who said they would call us back, the news about tests results from a doctor, waiting at a hospital while a loved one is in surgery, etc…
And Advent is one of those times where we know what it is ahead and really don’t want to wait but where we want Emmanuel, God with us, to come here, be here now and without further delay. We want to see our savior face to face. We want to know all will be well. We want peace on earth and good will to all –now. Aren’t 2000 years of waiting enough?
But things move slow. In our reading from Philippians, Paul reminds us that things take time and that has God begun the good work, there will be progress, measured by an increase in love that is overflowing, and finally God’s work will be brought to completion. [i]
According to one pastor, Paul imagines the growth of the Philippian community as similar to the growth of plant. God has begun a good work, the seeds of faith have been planted, and if we nurture these seeds, they will flourish and bring an abundant harvest for our community and the world; a spiritual harvest of righteousness.[ii]
A spiritual harvest, however, as our reading from Malachi reminds us – takes refining and purification. Without it, “Who can endure the day” of the coming of the reign of God? Read here, during this second Sunday of Advent and with the candles of hope and peace lit, Malachi tells us that Advent is just that time – a time of refining and of purification to get ready and to prepare, as the Gospel text tells us, the way of the Lord. Jesus is coming- get ready. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 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 (Luke 3:4-5)”, John the Baptizer Joins Malachi in the prophecy.
Just how are we supposed to do this? How are we refined? How do we walk the walk of love and peace? How do we nurture the seed that has been planted? How do we make straight the crooked paths?
According to John, repentance is the way to go. John calls all people to repentance and to acceptance of the tender mercies of God. Repentance is how “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” and it is through repentance and acceptance of the forgiveness we receive, that God then “Guide[s] our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).
For many of us, repentance means to feel ashamed of the bad things we have done and to say that we are sorry. That, however, is not what John means or is doing. Repentance is something much deeper and much more life giving. It is a way of peace-making, a way of rethinking everything, a way of turning around. It is an active participation and it is an act of love.
- John is asking us to rethink the way we relate to and are in relationship with other people – people we love, people we don’t really like, people we know and those we don’t know – people at work, people different from ourselves, people with needs, people that ask us for things, people we are estranged from, people in the pews next to us and people not in any pews. Are we at peace with others?
- John is asking us to rethink what we think about the world and us as people living in the world. Is the world something to live hat cannot be changed? Is the world a wilderness where everybody must look out for number one, the self, or are we codependent and does our flourishing depend on the flourishing of others? How does the way we think the world functions relate to our views and responses and experiences of greed and poverty? Is it worth paying a few dollars more in taxes so others can read or eat or live? Do immigrants at our borders threaten our lifestyle, or do the they add to our lives by what they can offer us? Can we envision a world of peace? Of Just Peace?
- John is asking us to rethink our lives. Why are we here? What are we doing? Why do we do it? How hard are we working at it – and are we really doing what we want to do? Are we living how we want to live? Do we honor the Sabbath? Are we at peace with ourselves? Or do we run ourselves ragged trying to be all things to all people or even perfect, or thinking that nothing can go on without us, thus never giving others a chance to show what they can do? Do we speak up about our needs or silently resent others for theirs?
- And John is asking us to rethink what it means to be created in God’s image and to be stewards of God’s creation. Are we loving like God? Are we caring like God? Are we giving freely like God? Do we withhold help when we can help? Are we treating creation with the tender love and care with which God created it? Is God’s dream of Shalom also our dream?
Repentance is how we prepare the way of the Lord. Repentance is to turn back to God when we didn’t even know how far we strayed. It is a gift – a gift of love – and a spiritual practice. It is a practice by which we discover behaviors and habits, ways of seeing, thinking, and responding, of speaking and acting and living that we engage in as if there was no God. Things that blind us to God and that keep us from walking the path of love and peace that God has put before us. And they are sin, because they all stand opposite of love –anger, fear, greed, hate, the need for approval or control or to be right or to be perfect, being judgmental, individualism, self-depreciation, etc.
But, insight itself is not enough. Instead, these ways of death need to be filled with love – God’s love; love for God, love for ourselves, and love for each other, so that “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ, you may be pure and blameless”
And so, repentance is not only the road to Christmas, but it is a way of life. – and the Good News is that we can turn around take a new path in live. We can change our ways and we can be givers of life and of peace. Peace – In the Hebrew Scriptures the word SHALOM is somewhat loosely translated as peace, but the Hebrew word is much deeper and broader than our understanding of the Word peace. It is not only an absence of conflict, but it is wholeness. In the book of Proverbs, to reconcile and heal a broken relationship is to bring shalom. And when rival kingdoms make shalom in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they stop fighting; it also means they start working together for each other’s benefit. The state of Shalom is what the ancient prophets and John the Baptizer and Jesus where looking forward to. Shalom is what we long for.
We can make Shalom happen. Malachi tells us that it won’t be easy and that it is as painful as a refiner’s fire – but the new creation, the new persons, the new life that will be born in us, will bring wholeness and light and a harvest of righteousness.
This is the message of Advent: prepare for the coming of Christ by rethinking and changing your ways and by giving birth to Christ, the Prince of Peace, within and among us.
May it be so.
[i] Life With God Bible, footnote to Philippians 1:3-4