December 9, 2012

See I am sending my messenger

Passage: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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, I sent you a text message and an email and left you a voice message!”  This is the voice of exasperation at yet another breakdown in communication.  “According to network firm Cisco’s latest analysis of global mobile traffic,” says BBC news, “mobile devices will outnumber humans this year. By 2016, it predicts that there will be 10 billion mobile connected devices around the world.”  What we know about humans is that being connected by one or two or even three such mobile devices is no guarantee that someone got the message.

Do you ever have conversations with a loved one like this?  “But I told you that they were coming on Thursday for dinner.”  No you didn’t—it would be in my calendar if you had!”  “Yes, I did because we even talked about what we would have for dinner!!”  “You must be thinking about a conversation you had with someone else; I would have remembered if you had actually told me!!!”  We do have to admit that at times we may have been given the message—even in person—we just maybe weren’t paying attention.

We sometimes complain, “But no one told me!”  Some insist on being addressed personally before we will listen.  An announcement is given at church that we need help in the Sunday school, or to participate in a particular project, or to sing in a choir.  We often hear those as applying to others; we prefer someone to call me by name and tell me that my skills are needed and ask would I consider getting involved.  (One thing the gospel makes clear is that to serve the church is to serve Christ’s mission in the world; much joy is missed when opportunities to serve are passed by.)

I want to ask you a question; have you received God’s message that he loves you?  This is what Christmas announces to the world; this is why God sent a messenger ahead of his own arrival; his appearance for the very purpose of disclosing his great love for us.   This is why God, through his prophets, assured his people again and again that he loved them; and they were to tell the world of God’s love; it was because God wants us to get his message that he loves us.

How many Christmases have you celebrated?  This is, for many, a function of how old you are.  There are many people in our world for whom this is not true; but for those who have been raised in a country permeated by Christianity it is our experience.  Every year, as we again come to Christmas—sometimes dragged kicking and screaming—God’s gives his message to us afresh—I love you.  I know that our world has done its best to expunge the name of Christ from December 25th celebrations; yet over all the denials, commercialism, busyness, disappointments, lights, decorations, and over indulgence in food and drink millions of Christians around the world take the name of Christ on their lips.  For any who would care to listen they will hear the message of God’s pledge of his eternal love for us.  It may be that like many electronic messages that are ignored the name of Christ is ignored at Christmas; yet God is still sending his message.

It may be that for many people they have heard, through the annual celebration of Christmas, the reminder that God has a message for them but somehow it did not register.  People engage in the common practises of Christmas—buy the gifts, get together with family and friends, play the songs, watch the Christmas specials, make a donation, do their best to be cheerful—but the idea that God has something to say to me in all of this is missed.

Some ignore the message because of hurts great and small.  When some complain, “But, no one told me!” this often reveals the wounds of a hurting heart.  Events of life like a key relationship broken or lost can make us feel pushed aside.  We don’t want to be hurt again so we set up impossible standards so others won’t readily penetrate into our lives; I will only hear your message under certain conditions.

Last Sunday I asked the question, do we Christians make a big enough deal of Christmas?  I have taken as a theme for the sermons of this Advent season the magnitude of Christmas; that if we understood the magnitude of what God is doing in Jesus we couldn’t design a celebration grand enough to do it justice.  Each year we come again to the celebration of the inauguration of the event that is the very hinge of human history.  We come again and hear the story of John the Baptist, the messenger sent ahead announcing the arrival of the king; of the events of Bethlehem; of those places God got his hands dirty for our sakes; to trace the itinerary of sacrifice which he undertook for our salvation; to read the lines of love God has written with his own flesh and blood.  Have you received God’s timeless message; God loves you and me.

1. Of the thirty-nine books that comprise the older testament, seventeen are grouped under the heading of the prophets.  There are five that we consider major prophetic works and twelve known as the minor prophets.  Major and minor are distinctions generally assigned because of the volume of the work considered; the major prophets are larger works.  It is not a measure of the importance of what they had to say; God speaks through all of them.  The prophetic book Malachi is a small work that is placed last in the ordering of the minor prophets.

We have very little to go on with regard to the identity of the prophet Malachi.  We don’t know who he was.  The word Malachi means “my messenger”.  Some scholars think it was a mistake to think that this was the name of a person; these scholars consider the book a compilation of prophetic sermons.  The book does give us enough clues to indicate when it was written.  Many Jewish people had returned to Israel following captivity in Babylon.  They are rebuilding their lives, rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, and the temple but life is difficult and complicated and a great struggle.

Malachi gets connected to Advent and Christmas because in it is God’s promise, “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,” that is linked to John the Baptist as fulfilment of this promise.  Malachi announcement is an echo of the earlier announcement in Israel’s history made by the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries out: in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” (Isaiah 40:3)  In the ancient world a king would send a messenger ahead to announce his coming so preparations could be made for his arrival.  Not unlike when the Queen makes a visit to Canada or Canada’s Prime Minister is paying a visit to a Canadian town or city; people are sent ahead to make preparations for the visit.  What God announces through these prophets was the he would send his messenger ahead of his own arrival.

The theme of the book Malachi is captured in a four word sentence; it is found in the opening line of the prophet’s message.  “I have loved you”, says the Lord.”  The people of Israel were complaining that God did not love them because evil people seemed to have a much easier time of things.  “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights them;” this was their complaint. (Micah 2:17) We sometimes say this when we note that it is the cheaters who seem to us to get ahead, it is those who treat others as nobodies who get all the popularity and seem to be having the best time, those who trade in the satisfaction of human vices appear to make money with little effort.  Why is obedience to God so, well, unprofitable, such a struggle?  God must love them better.

When God promised to send his messenger ahead of his own coming to be among them and set things to right it is a promise that arises from his assertion that he loves his people.  He is coming among us in the midst of our struggles to walk with us here.  The good news of Jesus is that God is consumed with reaffirming His own love in the wake of sinners having denied it, and re-establishing our love for him and one another in the wake of sinners having turned away from it.

Have we heeded God’s messenger?  Some may wonder how John the Baptist’s message could be for them today; he lived a long time ago in such a backward time.  No mobile communication devices; people had to go out and find him.  When God sent this messenger ahead was it just for the people of Jesus’ day?  Was it not also for every day so people could own Jesus by faith?  God’s messenger is sent to signal God’s own arrival for you and me just as much as it was for those who heard John live in the wilderness.

On March 29, 1867 Queen Victoria of England made the following royal proclamation: "We do ordain, declare, and command that on and after the First day of July, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty-seven, the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, shall form and be One Dominion, under the name of Canada."  Every time you show your passport you are living the present reality of a 145 year-old declaration.  Each time you fill out a form or in some other manner declare yourself to be a Canadian you are living now the actuality of an announcement given and heard by people long dead.

The fact the John the Baptist announced God’s coming among us over 2000 years ago, or that Malachi spoke of this 400 years earlier, or that Malachi was echoing a word uttered by Isaiah 100 years before that; the fact of when these messages were uttered is no barrier to their ongoing relevance.  God is entering history to remedy all these wrongs so evident to us.  John’s message is for you and me now.  God has come among us; love is here because Jesus is here.

2.  “The Lord whom you seek will come”; thus God makes his solemn promise known to us through Malachi.

Why is there unrelenting tension between men and women? Women feel set upon by men, victimized, violated even. In the wake of the feminist protest men feel misunderstood, maligned, even conspired against.

Why is the struggle for survival just that, a struggle? Whether we are farmers or physicians, office-workers or educators, something is always going wrong; we are never clear of frustration; we are forever having to scramble and scrabble.

Why is it that mere difference between groups of people becomes the occasion of lethal hostility?

Why are we so profoundly discontented ourselves? We think that this year’s Christmas gifts will make us happy—and they do, sometime all the way to Boxing Day.

Why is it that humankind never advances? To be sure, we make progress in the realm of science; that is, we progress insofar as we harness nature. But humankind itself makes no progress at all. Our foreparents sinned and suffered and slew; we sin and suffer and slay. History, we have learned, is the history of warfare. Having learned this, however, we still are powerless to do anything about it.

What are we longing for? Biblically speaking we long for Eden. Not everyone uses this vocabulary. Most people long for they know not what. In truth, nonetheless, they long for Eden. What are they waiting for? They are waiting for someone who can undo Eden's curse. Why the expectancy? Because deep down they want to be delivered from the dis-ease which keeps gnawing at them. They are mature enough to realize that the grab-bag of grown-up trinkets and toys does nothing to the halt the dis-ease which haunts them. But since there is no return to Eden the entire world must be doomed to unending frustration.

In Mary’s child what we have lost and cannot recover ourselves God has given us just because in his love he will suffer anything himself to save us from our self-inflicted misery.  The apostles discerned that in Jesus Christ we were given not only that saviour whom we need individually. With him we are introduced to a new world. In other words, our Lord brings a renewed creation with him. All who cling to him in faith find their renewed life unfolding in a new world, a new environment. In reality he is the one we long for. “The Lord whom you seek will come”

3. For nearly a hundred years a beautiful mural of Jesus had held pride of place in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain. The "Ecce Homo" (Behold the Man) style-painting, was completed by Elias Garcia Martinez in the 1930s.

But in August of 2012, an 80-year-old church member named Cecilia Gimenez took it upon herself to touch up the painting. She was right about one thing: the painting needed some work. After decades of moisture buildup, the painting had started to deteriorate, and the colors had started to fade. So Cecilia initiated her do-it-yourself restoration project.

Despite her good intentions, it didn't turn out well. The New York Times said that it was "probably the worst art restoration project of all time." A Spanish blog called it "the restoration that turned into destruction." And a BBC article said, "The delicate brushstrokes by Elias Garcia Martinez have been buried under a haphazard splattering of paint. The once-dignified portrait [of Jesus] now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic."

There is a parable here.  Before we are too hard on Cecelia Gimenez and her attempt at restoration, humanity needs to take a hard look at itself and admit that all our restoration attempts have been a colossal failure.  Even though we seem to know what we long for, generation after generation comes and goes still longing. God’s Christmas gift is Jesus; the gift is he himself who is both humanity renewed and lord of the renewed humanity.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.  Indeed, the Lord loves us.  Have you received God’s message?