3:1 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,
3:2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3:3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
3:4 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.
3:5 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;
3:6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
When I was a kid growing up there were different ways that my Mom would call us kids. The first was Mike. When she called me by this name, I knew it was nothing serious and I could take my time, but I better not delay too much. Usually it was something pretty benign and things were OK. If she used my full name Michael Leslie Gross, then it was serious. It was time to give the appearance of serious hustle but also give myself enough time to run through the events of the past few hours to see what mayhem I may have caused and to have some pretty good excuses. This was never a good omen when she used my full name. Finally, there was the call of the three.
Whenever we heard Michael, Melinda and Michelle we knew this was very different. Someone was coming to the house and we had work to do. This generated the slowest response time of all. We knew it was going to be a day that was starting off wonderful and now had been ruined because we had to work. There would be no playing outside until all chores were completed. Friends would not be allowed within a three-house radius so that they would not distract our feeble attention to detail.
The call of the three meant we had toys to pick up, clothes to put away, beds to be made, and then we were going to have to help Mom clean the house. We were dispensed with dust cloths and mops, brooms, vacuum cleaners and the dreaded dishes. I was in 7th grade before we got a dishwasher because as we later joked, she had no need of one because she had us. Just when you thought you were going to get the all-clear siren, she would find something else for us to do. The call of three were the longest days of the year. Pretty soon we would start getting hungry and it would be time for snack or lunch—and then we would have to get the look. You know the one that all parents possess. The one that says seriously did you just ask me for that in the middle of all that I’m doing? And then we would slink away like slimy little snakes who had just done the unthinkable. We would complain bitterly and yell at each other. That toy isn’t mine you pick it up! No you pick it up! Then Mom would yell if its no ones we can throw it away. And then we would run and grab it and stare down the other siblings. Often times punches were thrown on this day, and we would be given mandatory timeouts from our cleaning. Then she would remind us the more we fought, the longer we would be, the less time we would have to be kids that day.
But there was that one moment in the day, when Mom would declare that the war on germs and filth had been successfully won and we could go, as long as we did not make a mess. In the ensuing moments there was the greatest sense of peace in the Gross household that the world had ever known. We had successfully prepared the way for the guests to arrive. It was a peace that surpassed all understanding as the scriptures say. We would slowly walk away a few steps and then break into an all-out sprint before she found something else that we had to do.
Today our prophets remind us to prepare the way… for the Lord. Now it may not mean armed literally with Pledge and Lysol, but we do have some cleaning and some picking up to do, in order to receive the peace of God. Chronologically speaking we begin with the prophet Malachi. The name Malachi in Hebrew means “My Messenger.” There are six oracles in the book of Malachi and today’s passage begins the fourth oracle. The time is about 150 years after the walls of Jerusalem had fell. (450 BCE) The people had been returned to the city and the immediate needs had been met. Food, water, clothing, and for the most part housing. Now the task of re-building the temple was upon them. Everyone had an opinion and the fighting was incredible. Who was going to do what and how was it going to be paid for.
The text reads, “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” (Mal. 3:1a) But the time of the one you seek may be scary if you are not prepared for him, the author claims, so we need to be refined, like that of a hot fire that refines precious metals or a fuller’s soap. The job of a fuller was to clean and whiten clothes. It usually took place in what was known as the fuller’s field because the smell was awful. Once it had been cleaned by a fuller it would be clean enough to dye a certain color or to be pure for other white linen clothes. Soap contained alkaline substances such as sodium carbonate or potassium carbonate. These chemicals remove oil (and the dirt that clings to it) by combining with the oil molecules to make them water soluble. For many centuries, the process for making soap was a closely guarded secret among select Jewish families. Sounds like a lot worse than Tide pods.
Zechariah also reminds us that we have some work to do if we are going to prepare for the way of the Lord. To refresh your memory Zechariah was a priest and his job was to go to the temple once a year and dedicate the offerings to God. He would go into the holiest of Holies part of the temple in which only the priests were allowed and while there, he would pray offering to God all that had been sacrificed that day. When he went into the holiest of Holies portion and when he was ready to pray an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told Zechariah that he was going to have a son. Now Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were no spring chickens and he questioned how all of this was going to come about. The angel told him that he was a messenger of God and since you questioned all of this you would not speak until after the baby was born. The baby was going be John the Baptist. When the baby finally came and the family to took John to be dedicated the priest asked what his name was going to be. John opened his mouth and he was finally able to talk. After giving the name he praised God in the passage we have for today.
Zechariah praises God because he has looked favorably upon God’s people Israel. He then speaks about the enemies that we face and how God is present among us. The enemies do not have to be people carrying weapons. They can be the sin in our lives, the times when we forget to be loving and kind. The days that we would rather talk smack about other people than lift them up. Vs. 76-77 “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.” We are saved because our sins are forgiven. That is pretty radical concept when you think about it. We are not saved because we are good people, because we have done the right thing, we are saved because our sins are forgiven.
The second passage from Luke is the placement and prophecy of the little baby that was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke gives us a historical perspective of who is in charge of both the secular and religious world of Jerusalem. Tiberius Caesar was in charge or Rome, Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, Herod was over the region known as Galilee, and Phillip was in charge of the greater provinces. We also had Annas and Caiaphas serving as the great high priest in charge of the church. John proclaims that we are to prepare the way of the Lord. We are to make the path straight by filling every valley and lowering the mountains. This one will bring salvation to all flesh. In order to be saved we need to eliminate the valleys and hills in our lives. To seek peace. The peace that comes when we move the obstacles out of our lives and give Christ the freedom to move in our lives.
John is in the wilderness calling for repentance and preparation. We all have wilderness experiences when we wonder if we are doing the right thing, if we are meant to make that purchase, pursue that job, settle down and get married or start a family. We all wander not knowing for sure what we are doing. Yet each time one of those situations is resolved we find the peaceful feeling when it is right. John’s exclamations were making the world ready for the Prince of Peace.
As we are preparing our hearts this Advent season, we are preparing to see God. That’s not just the in-laws coming to town for a visit. This is the Word made Flesh. I hope you are planning on seeing God and not just talking about it or going through the motions. Look around this sanctuary—do you see the people sitting here. We are all made in the image of God. God comes through us. Our lives, our actions, our motives, it is all reflective of the coming of God or running away. While we prepare for the coming of the Christ child, and the holiday of Christmas—look for the peaceful moments. Sense the presence of God. God came to Israel not just to be seen but to change the world. Are you ready to be changed by the presence of God? If not, then get ready. Because God is going to bring hope, peace joy and love. Amen.