Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 3:1–3:6
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 5-6, 2009
The Persian Wars, which pitted ancient Greece against Persia, lasted from 492-449 B.C., a period of over forty years. In 490 B.C., a force of 25,000 Persians, under King Darius' generals, landed on the Greek Plain of Marathon. The Greeks were about one-third the size of the Persian forces, but despite overwhelming odds, they defeated them. This was a momentous event since it was the first Greek victory in the Persian Wars. According to legend, a soldier messenger named Pheidippides ran a distance of nearly 25 miles, from Marathon to Athens, to announce the defeat of the Persians. When he had reached Athens, he said one word, “Niki!” (victory), and then collapsed from exhaustion and died. This is the origin of today’s marathons, in which runners like Pheidippides of old, run the distance named in honor of this ancient battle site. Pheidippides was said to have been a professional runner and messenger. In a time when the only method of sending urgent messages was by runner, the role of messenger was absolutely pivotal (taken from www.about.com/ancienthistory and www.athensmarathon.com).
On this Second Sunday of Advent, the role of messenger figures prominently in the Scripture lessons. In the first Scripture lesson from the final book of the Old Testament (Malachi 3:1-4), the Lord God says: “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 this coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2). The very name of this final book from the Old Testament, Malachi, means “my messenger.” In today’s Gospel lesson, the identity of that messenger is made known when “… 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…” (Luke 3:2b-4). John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, the one called and sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of the Savior.
It’s understood that the role of messenger is not always welcomed by those who are on the receiving end of the message that he brings. What would have happened if Pheidippides’ message was not victory, but defeat? If it had been defeat and not victory, it’s probably a good thing that Pheidippides did drop over dead because we all know the old phrase: “Don’t kill the messenger!” Nobody wants to receive bad news, and nobody wants to have to be the one to bring that bad news. Some would say that the message which both Malachi and John the Baptist brought was bad news because they called upon the people to turn away from evil and turn to the Lord. Malachi speaks of how this messenger will be “like refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2) – pretty powerful stuff here. The refiner’s fire had to be extremely hot in order to burn away impurities in precious metals like gold and silver. The fullers’ soap had powerful ingredients like alkali which was used to clean and bleach wool before it was made into clothing. Both of these images speak of God’s power to cleanse and purge his people from sin, refining them for his own purpose in the world. That cleansing goes much deeper than just surface clean; it goes down to the core. The words of Isaiah the prophet, applied to John the Baptist in the Gospel lesson, tell us how deep and transformational this really is: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places made smooth” (Isaiah 40:3-5, quoted in Luke 3:4-6). In ancient times, when a king would travel out to visit parts of his kingdom, the “king’s highway” would be built to ensure, as much as possible, a smooth and level road surface – filling in valleys, scaling back high places, straightening out the pathway for the royal procession. That’s the image that Isaiah speaks of in referring to John the Baptist, but the valleys, hills, and mountains, the crooked and rough places are not “out there” somewhere. They are “in here” within us. The cleansing and preparation is needed within our own heart so that the mountains of self-importance and the hills of pride would be brought low. That cleansing and preparation is needed within us so that the valleys of despair and discouragement in our lives would be filled in, and those parts of our lives that are crooked and rough are straightened out and made smooth. This is why the message of the messenger it not always welcomed. People usually don’t want to be told that there is something in their lives that needs to be changed; something that they need to repent of. My friends, we are those people.
To get to Christmas, we first have to pass through Advent. To get to Jesus, we first have to get through John the Baptist. Before we arrive at the celebration and joy, there is first need for repentance and reckoning with the reality and enormity of sin in our own lives, each one of us. Before there is the sweet comfort of the Gospel, there is first the stinging accusation of the Law which confronts us our sin – the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do. This is the first task of God’s messenger – to convict us of falling short of God’s design and purpose for life. But this first task must then give way to the second task of God’s messenger, which is to tell us that in spite of our failings and errors, God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And the messenger who brings this good news is that One to whom Malachi, John the Baptist, and all the prophets point – Jesus, whose very name means “Savior” (Matthew 1:21). That full and thorough cleansing we all need is something that we can’t do on our own; it has to be done for us. The refiner’s fire and the fullers’ soap won’t get the job done. Something much stronger and more potent is needed – blood; blood which does not stain but makes clean. “And the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sin” (1 John 1:7). Here is the Messenger who is not just a messenger but the message itself, Jesus our Advent Lord. And in receiving the Messenger who is the message of good news, we then become messengers of that good news, carrying this out to the world around us.
“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” (Philippians 1:9-11). Amen.