Sunday, December 7, 2003

Second Sunday in Advent
Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye desire, behold, he cometh, saith Jehovah of hosts.

I took some classes in art when I was in school. In one of those classes, we made different types of jewelry. I chose to make a pendant out of silver in the shape of a butterfly. I used a tiny saw to shape the piece, adding small cut outs on the wings as the design. The body was a bluish opal stone set in silver and soldered on to the main part of the piece. After the piece was complete, I had to buff the silver until it was shiny and beautiful. It was a fun project, but it seemed to take forever to get it finished. When I thought it was complete, my teacher encouraged me to go back to the buffer. Over and over again I went back, frustrated because to me the piece looked fine. Yet, as I buffed it again, I could see that it was making a difference.

The silver I used was not a very fine grade of silver; the cost of such materials would have been impossible for the school and for my parents. To prepare a piece of metal like the one I used, the silversmith heats the raw metal until it is a liquid. This process is called tempering. When the metal is hot, impurities are removed to make it a finer grade. Then the process is repeated until the silver is ready to be molded. The more impurities that are removed means a finer grade of silver. A silversmith might go through the process seven times, until the silver is like a mirror in the pot, with absolutely no impurities left.

Tempering and buffing are different processes, but in a way they do the same thing. They make the metal shine and look beautiful. Buffing is only an outward beauty, a beauty that is not lasting. Poor quality silver will easily tarnish, it will quickly look old and warn. Tempering transforms the metal from the inside out, removing anything that will make it impure.

In today's Old Testament lesson, Malachi, whose name means 'my messenger,' foretold of another messenger that would come in the day of the Lord. The messenger will prepare the way for the Messiah, ready the people for His coming. According to Malachi, it will be difficult to endure that day, for there are none who can stand in His presence. The people might have looked good on the outside, but they were much like the cheap silver that quickly tarnishes under wear. Their righteousness did not hide the fact that they were still far from God. It was like filthy rags.

Malachi warned that God would do something drastic. He would not settle for a buffed shine, He would temper the people and refine them like a silversmith refines the silver. It won't be easy, none can stand against the work He will do. Yet, when He is finished, there will be men who can make offerings in righteousness that will be acceptable to God. Malachi tells the people that this is what they want, the return of the Lord and His remembrance of the covenant He made with them. Yet, what they want will not be easy.

Then, one day, a man began shouting about repentance in the wilderness. This man was unusual. He was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth very late in life. When he was a grown man, he lived in the wilderness, wore camel's hair clothes and ate locusts with wild honey. He was far from the cultural norm, yet people went to hear what he had to say. His father knew that he was chosen for a special purpose. In today's psalmody, which comes from the book of Luke, he prophesied about the coming of the Lord and told of John's calling to be a prophet. "Yea and thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High: For thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways."

We once visited a castle in England that had a display that talked about what it was like when the monarch came to visit. In this case, it was a visit from Queen Victoria. Months before the expected arrival, a party of her messengers went ahead to prepare the castle for her comfort. They took many of her favorite things, remodeled the rooms in which she would stay, made them like home. The owners of the castle did no less than completely remodel the building to suit her needs. It was a costly event, but it was done to honor the coming queen. This may have been an extreme example, but there was always some sort of preparation before the arrival of the monarch.

For the coming of our King, the one for whom we wait this Advent, the preparation was not to redecorate a castle or palace, but to make the hearts of the people ready. John the Baptist came to call the people to repentance, he preached that they might turn their hearts back to the Lord their God. He fulfilled the promise that is found in the prophecies of Isaiah. He was the one calling in the wilderness.

In the quote from Luke, Isaiah says, "Every valley shall be filled, And every mountain and hill shall be brought low; And the crooked shall become straight, And the rough ways smooth; 6 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." This quote is also found in the alternate text from the book of Baruch, which is found in the deutero-canonical books that are not found in the Hebrew Bible. Baruch was Jeremiah's secretary, he wrote during the time of the Babylonian exile. Though they were far from Jerusalem, they had the promise of God that they would return and some communication went on between the exiles and Jerusalem. The passage from Baruch is a promise to the city that her children would return. "Arise, Jerusalem, stand on the heights and turn your eyes to the east: see your children reassembled from west and east at the Holy One's command, rejoicing because God has remembered." Baruch goes on to say that God will cause the mountains to flatten and the valleys to fill so that the path for the Israelites will be smooth and they can walk in safety in God's glory. "For God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with the mercy and saving justice which come from him."

God's promise is to save the people and restore them to His heart. The Jews did return to Jerusalem, but this prayer also looks forward to the coming of God's kingdom, to the coming of the King who would save His people from more than the earthly nations that seek to destroy and confine. The glory will come in the flesh of man, in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. "And all flesh shall see the salvation of God." This is the message John came to proclaim.

Our watching and waiting this Advent goes beyond the coming of the king in the manger. We are breathless with expectation for the coming of our King in glory. The preparation began with John, but continues today. Paul writes to the Philippians, "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that ye may approve the things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and void of offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God."

This is our prayer for Advent, that we will grow in knowledge of God, in faith and hope and love. Who can stand in the day of the Lord? None can stand against Him, but we can be humble in the hands of the One who tempers and purifies our hearts and souls for the coming of His Kingdom in glory. He will make the way straight so that we can walk safely in His glory. We will go home at His command, into His heart and live in joy for eternity. Thanks be to God.

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