|The times we live in are sometimes referred to by Christians as the “in between times”. I think we are particularly aware of this in Advent, as WE prepare to celebrate the coming of God to earth in the form of the baby Jesus, a baby just like we all once were. I emphasise “we” because from where we are living in the timeline of events, we know of the birth of Jesus, but also of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and we know his story doesn’t end until an eternity after his second coming, His story, and history, is waiting to be completed!|
But the point I want to explore is the way that from our vantage point, we can see not only three great stages of history as Christians – Old Testament times, New Testament times, and the second coming, we can also see shades, shadows, glimpses if you like, from one time into another. It’s a bit like having three layers of coloured glass, acetate sheets, or any other kind of filters. If we look at anything through one, two or three of these layers we see what is written in a different way, each shows us something different. Think of the difference in a scene viewed with night goggles or heat detectors. Not only that, but each of these three layers almost certainly has something to teach us about living out our Christian lives today, on 4th December 2021, in Amington, or nearby. What a generous gift!
So let’s look at our Bible readings with this in mind.
Our first reading is from Malachi. The books of two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, just before the book of Malachi in the Bible, are also just a bit earlier in time, but all have warnings for Israel. The Old Testament setting for these books is in the time after most of the Israelites had come back to Israel after the exile time in Babylon. They had begun to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but disagreements and opposition crept in until the whole project began to grind to a halt. Haggai reminded the people that they were rebuilding God’s house, not simply an important building like a library, and that if they put their trust in him, he had great plans for them. Zechariah continues to encourage the people to overcome opposition and complete the temple. But he goes further by adding reminders of Israel’s deliverance, God’s ultimate triumph, and the work of the Messiah, the one the Jews were waiting for. So the Israelites heard these things, it gave them new energy, but they faltered again, and this is where Malachi’s word comes in. He warned them that they had again taken their eyes off the Lord, that their religious leaders had become corrupt, and that they were disobeying God’s commandments.
In spite of this, Malachi keeps talking to them, and we hear what he tells them God is saying in our reading today. God says there will be a messenger who will “prepare a way before me”. He goes on to say that the Lord himself will appear, but it will be a challenge because the people will need to confront their own weakness and wickedness. But the great promise! There WILL be people who do this and return to a right relationship with God, people who are able to make acceptable offerings (remember we are in Old Testament times, and the people were required to make offerings) and by that, their relationship with God will be restored.
So here we have a passage that is relevant for the time in which it was written. It is an encouragement from God for the people rebuilding the temple, a reminder that there is the challenge of accepting that they’ve taken their eyes off God, that they need the purification of the launderer’s soap or the refiner’s fire, but then it will be possible that they will once again be in a right relationship with God. When we look through the lens of knowing the New Testament times, we hear what Malachi had said, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come …”, and for us this can also be read as John the Baptist preparing the people for the coming of the Lord, in this case Jesus, God in earthly form. And as we read on in the passage, the refiner’s fire in particular, reminds us of judgement, the fire of hell even, that when the Lord comes again in glory, we will be judged, and if we’ve not sorted out our relationship with God, God our judge will find against us …
So the New Testament reading. It tells of John the Baptist in his time, and there is great detail given of the exact time he preached at the start of the reading. He preaching a baptism of repentance. In another another passage John the Baptist talks of one coming whose sandals he cannot untie, that is, Jesus. But even here, Luke himself goes back to the Old Testament and the prophet Isaiah, and quotes his saying that there will be one calling in the desert to prepare the way for the Lord by making straight paths and more. Here Luke is looking at the circumstances HE finds himself in, and then looks at it through the lens of the Old Testament as well. It’s a wonderful picture of physically difficult geographical features being flattened, or filled in so the Word of the Lord can easily be heard and hopefully easily understood as well. People on one side of a hill can’t hear you shouting, or probably not yodelling either! from the other side of a hill; after all, there’s a hill in the way! But if the hill has been removed, direct communication is possible. And the final phrase in the Isaiah prophecy is that it will enable all mankind see the salvation of the Lord. That phrase too has echoes of end times, because though salvation on earth is a mighty thing, it could certainly be argued that its greatest reward lies in the hereafter.
But you’ll remember that I said these words have something to say to us today, on a Sunday, in Amington, something for you to take out the Church door and into your homes and places of work and leisure. You may be able to think of others, but here are some to start with.
Firstly from Malachi, I think the message is simply to be encouraged to fight through any setbacks or opposition you may be facing. This can come from anywhere, sometimes completely outside ourselves, sometimes of our own making, sometimes even in our own minds. Malachi does talk about the launderer’s soap and the refiner’s fire so there may need to be a time of repentance, but God will accept our offerings of repentance and re-establish a right relationship with him, in other words, forgive us.
In the passage Luke wrote, we see the example of John the Baptist preaching baptism for the remission of sins,
so there’s an example of what we can do,
sharing the gospel message with others, in whatever way we can
whether our mission is to stand on a street corner,
or to serve others where we are, with Christ’s attitude,
or anything in between.
Your calling is between you and the Lord.
But another interesting thought is from the Isaiah quote.
We are called to make it easier for people to hear the message.
I’m not sure in my own mind what that would look like
but one idea is to be welcoming to new people coming into Church, chatting, offering them a cup of coffee.
Then they may feel relaxed, then open and accepting,
in a place to hear the Lord speaking into their own heart.
So be encouraged,
make sure your focus is on God, repent,
tell out the Good News in word or deed.
The sentiments may have come from hundreds of years ago,
but they are relevant for us today, and incidentally,
will mean that when the Lord comes again at the second coming,
we will be able to stand before him,
knowing we are one of his, repentant, accepted, forgiven, saved. Amen