Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
It was the “A” list of the first century in the Year of Our Lord – AD 26 or possibly 27. Rome’s grand guy Tiberius, the emperor at the very top. Pontius Pilate governing the imposing region of Judea. Herod the minor king of the Galilee quarter, his brother Philip heading up a southern quarter of Syria with regions of fertile farms and rough terrain. Restless rebels and outlaws hid out in basalt caves there. Lysanias ruled still another quarter. Annas and Caiaphas had been awarded the temple’s highest spiritual honors. These were the movers and shakers of the day.
On no list at all, was a guy named John. At least, not on any list anyone knew of. He was supposed to be named Zechariah, after his father. An unexpected angel appeared in the sanctuary where Zechariah was praying to instruct the surprised and terrified father-to-be. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:11-13)
The boy’s father, a humble priest in a very minor order, should have done the naming. Except that he’d had an unfortunate incident with that angel who’d brought the happy birth announcement. Despite being known as entirely blameless and righteous along with his wife Elizabeth, Zechariah just couldn’t help blurting out his inner doubts.
Really? I mean, I’m old now and Elizabeth is pretty much, um, beyond it, if you know what I mean...so… And the angel, who was Gabriel, of all things, just said, Okay, THAT’S it then. For not believing what God says when it really matters, you’re going to be speechless until it all comes to be. And that’s exactly what happened.
So when John was born his mother named him, which completely offended the worship leaders in charge of official-ness at the infant’s circumcision ceremony. The proper thing was to name a firstborn son after his father. They looked at silent old Zechariah for a confirming nod.
Just then the faithful man’s tongue was freed and after saying firmly “His name is John” he broke into beautiful words that are remembered still today as Zechariah’s song. In the ancient ringing praise of David and of the psalms - Baruch atah Adonai, elohe Yisroel… Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel. Which Zechariah went on to improve with his own riff of joy: you have come to your people and set them free.
John’s social contrariness was therefore set at birth and continued for the rest of his life. His mother happily dedicated him to God’s service. He gained a reputation for having a strong spirit, and perhaps when he disappeared into the wilderness to find himself, people were not altogether surprised and perhaps just a bit relieved. John was the kind of man about whom people might say somewhat carefully, he’s a bit…different.
In fact, when John did appear again, he brought to mind the character foretold by the prophet Malachi. The prophet showed up in Judah, to people recently released and returned from Babylon. His message was God’s holy word to Jerusalem, with its newly restored city streets and re-activated Temple worship. God’s chosen and beloved community is back in spirit and in business!
But…is it a godly spirit, and godly business? Are we God’s covenant-keeping people? It the way of righteousness always clear? Do the offerings of our lives, our words and actions please God? Isn’t our success a sign of God’s approval?
Malachi, in fact, brought a word of correction. God was not entirely pleased with Israel’s offerings. There was impurity that needed to be rooted out. No one can buy God’s favor. It’s not the value of the offering that counts or the ceremony with which it’s given. God looks to inner motives and hearts; searches for what is truly pure and valuable in which God may rejoice.
John seemed to be the character promised by Malachi. A heaven-sent being, suddenly appearing and bearing God’s mysteriously announced name. Like the righteous person Malachi announced – the defender of God’s covenant bringer of God’s promise.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the apostle expresses great confidence in their faith and loving concern. But he also adds a prayer for them, “…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best…so that…you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.”
There’s that bit about love being accompanied by knowledge and insight. Is Paul suggesting that good intention is not all there is to following Jesus? In this old world there are lots of choices, many ways to be. There’s the good, of course. And a step beyond that is better. But Paul goes right to being your best in all things.
That’s what John came to say too. John was nothing in comparison with the high and mighty of his day. He came out of the wilderness dressed and eating at the most minimal level. His spiritual integrity was all he possessed. That and a word of God that formed in him, filled him up, and sent him to the front lines of humankind.
John not only brought a message like Malachi, he was God’s message. Where his father had been silenced because of doubt, John had much to say. And John’s word was a strong, confident, ringing word calling earth’s dwellers to repentance and to hope.
For those who struggled in the wilderness of fear, illness, poverty, injustice, or alienation, John’s word was a promise of leveled ground. For those who sat on high in the Temple, or on civil thrones in palaces of governance, John’s word was a promise of leveled ground. It was the same promise to both, with vastly different implications for everyone who desired to be at their best.
To all the outlaws of the basalt caves, to all most important influencers in society, John proclaimed a straight path going forward. And rough ways smoothed. It was the same promise to both, aiming toward vastly different ends for all who considered themselves at their best.
Most audaciously of all, John said“…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It seems that he knew the despair that crushed people’s spirits and scarred their souls in the dim light of that day. And John’s best promise was that the brightness of God’s love is always being born into hard times so that no living being is ever left without hope and all may rise to their best selves.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.