“Advent Prayers: Peace”
Cassopolis/ White Pigeon, December 9, 2018, SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Text: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6; Philippians 1:3-11
The opening chapters of Luke’s account of Jesus’ life include three beautiful, psalm-like songs or canticles, sung or spoken by various characters in the story as statements of prophecy, messages from God to the world proclaiming what God is preparing to do among them in Jesus. The first of these is sung or proclaimed by Mary in chapter 1—the aptly named Magnificat from its first words—“My soul magnifies the Lord.” The last of the three is the Song of Simeon, sung by an old man in the Temple as the Holy Spirit guides him into an encounter with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus as the family arrives at the Temple for necessary religious rituals, an encounter which leads Simeon to sing his message of relief—“Master, now You are dismissing Your servant to go in peace, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen Your salvation.”
And between these two comes the song of Zechariah, the one read this morning from Luke 1. As you may recall from past readings of Luke 1, Zechariah is an old priest of Judah, he and his wife, Elizabeth childless due to her barren condition, a condition she shares with earlier women in the Bible—Hannah, Sarah, Rebecca, among others. Like them, however, God intervenes in her life and she is granted the desire of her heart to have a child. And in this case, as in most of the others, the child thus given will not just be any child—he will be special, in this case a prophet of some kind. Zechariah receives this news from an angel, but failing to believe it, is struck dumb during Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy, unable to speak at all until the day arrives when, the child born, is now to be named. Everyone expects the boy to be named after Zechariah, or at least with a family name. But the old man insists in writing that he should be named John—the name the angel had indicated to him. And by so doing, Zechariah shows that he has finally come to full belief, and his tongue breaks loose. And the very first words Zechariah then speaks is his song of prophecy.
And it is a beautiful song, a moving and uplifting praise to God that “He has raised up for us a mighty Savior in the house of His servant, David,” who will “save us from our enemies and the hand of all who hate us.” Now one might think that here he was singing about the son he and his wife had just received. But that is not the case. The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth himself, who will be called John the Baptist, is not this “Savior” Zechariah’s song lifts up. John, rather, will herald this Savior—will “be called the prophet of the Most High,” and will “go before the Lord to prepare His ways”—to ready the people of the world to expect and welcome the Savior’s arrival. And John will do this by letting people know that God has brought peace to them—by forgiving their sins, by defending them against their enemies, and by allowing God’s people to truly live “in holiness and righteousness before God all the days of their lives,” guided into the ways of peace.
Now in this passage of scripture the peace that God will make for Israel seems to be primarily one provided for by God in defeating outside foes of the people. Exterior forces which prevent the people from having the complete freedom to follow their God and be a holy people, whether political or social forces—think, perhaps of Pharaoh in their past, or the Roman rulers in their present—will be set aside by God’s great power and providence. And it is over this great victory of God’s that the song of Zechariah exults.
But the enemies of God’s people—those who get in their way of serving God—are not always human enemies. And in fact, they are not always enemies which are exterior For the sad fact is, it is not always outside forces which keep people from being God’s holy and dedicated followers. It is not always hands and actions of others which keep us from following God’s path. Often, in fact, perhaps more often than not, what really gest between us and God—what really becomes a barrier keeping us from a faithful life, comes from within ourselves—from within our own hearts. It is not an outer foe who plagues us but our own sin and failure—our despair and doubt. And these inner foes and enemies of our spirits can be just as devastating to the attempt to live into God as any outside opponent. And this is what seems the case in the book of Malachi the prophet, the prophet’s name, by the way, meaning simply “my messenger.” For that is what Malachi is—a messenger from God that the people—specifically the priests in the passage we heard today, to let them know that they need to deal with their sins and failures, for it is these foes of their lives which are preventing them from being true to God.
If you read through the book of Malachi, which is not hard to do since it’s only four chapters long, you will discover that the prophet accuses the religious leaders of the people of being unfaithful in various ways, thus leading those they minster among down false paths. The leaders have not insisted on right keeping of God’s will for covenant In marriage, for instance, failing to condemn easy divorce which have been tolerated for some, allowing a man to break faith with the “wife of his youth.” But the priest’s sins involve their religious rituals as well. Sacrificial animals, supposed to be unblemished example, the best of the flock, are being replaced by the lame and sick sheep and goats that no one wants anyway—a disrespectful offering to God obviously. And to cap it off, or perhaps at the root of all this, there seems to have grown up among the priests a feeling of boredom or despair or apathy about God. The priests have lost spirit—they are going through the motions of religion, but without much inner desire or devotion. And consequently, the whole nation is hurting spiritually.
So, God says, in the passage we heard, “I am sending my messenger—Malachi—to prepare the way before Me because guess what? The Lord of hosts you say you desire to see is about to show up—He will suddenly and without warning be there in front of you in the Temple! But rather than this being an event of celebration, as you may have thought, it will be a time of confrontation—of judgment. For the One you say you are seeking will show up to convict you for what you have allowed yourselves to become.”
Which all seems really bad and is really serious. But not without hope. For as the passage goes on, we discover that, in the long run, what this causes to happen will be all for the good. “For this One who will appear is like a refiner’s fire,” God continues through the prophet’s words. “And He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver and He will purify the descendants of Levi—the priests—until they are back to right—until, once more, enlivened and inspired, they will present offerings to the LORD in righteousness, not just the sacrifices of animals, but the gift to God of their lives and the lives of their people. And then, the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as before.” Then peace will have been made, all foes, even the interior ones dealt with.
The problem in Malachi is that the spiritual and social and ethical life of the nation—all of which grow out of the relationship of God with the people—have been allowed to become a discord—a fractured sound—a broken harmony. You know what a discord sounds like on a piano, right—two or more notes that fight against each other instead of working together? (Play a discord.) Judah has become discordant in heart so that it needs Malachi to come and announce the need for harmony—peace between notes—to be restored. Which is just what God intends to do. This may cause some discomfort. It may burn a little like refining by fire—it may feel like judgment and challenge and a pierced conscience. But when the work is done, the flow of life will have been smoothed out and made right—the sound of covenant restored—hearts will lose their fear and failure and become at peace with God, and being so, will also be led to live in peace with others.
This is the story of Malachi in the Old Testament. And it is no accident that the work and words of John the Baptist in the New Testament, even the words of the Spirit spoken through Zechariah in Luke, make John sound a little bit like Malachi. Because the work that John will eventually do out in the wilderness areas of the Jordan River near Jerusalem will be much like that done earlier in Judah by the Old Testament prophet. Once more in John’s day, peace in heart with God will have become damaged—discord sown in many spirits—fear, spiritual deadness, sin tolerated, covenant broken, the enemies of the soul playing havoc in lives, not enemies from outside people, but inside. And once more into this kind of atmosphere, a messenger of God is sent in order to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord—for a Savior who is soon to appear among them.
Now all of this is a matter of history, Luke wants to make sure we know, so he establishes the scene. It comes right in the middle of all the goings-on of the Roman world where Tiberius is Emperor, and Pilate is the governor of Judea, where Herod and Philip and Lysanias rule as Rome’s puppet kings in the provinces, and where the Temple is being led by Caiaphas and Annas, most of whom will have a role to play in Luke’s ongoing story of Jesus as it unfolds. But for now, they provide simply a historical backdrop—they are the context into which John arrives with his message, one that, as we will find out next week, is not always gentle, but burns like fire in the hearers’ consciences. And that is as it should be for John will come with one job and one only-to preach repentance—to preach making hearts ready and prepared to make peace with God, thus preparing them to meet One who will arrive later to make real peace, no one less than God in flesh whose work will begin to fill every valley and make low every mountain and hill and smooth out all the rough places for good—whose life and death and resurrection will enable all that has caused discord to be brought into harmony and peace to be restored. And again, while there may hurt for the moment, in the long run, any hurting will lead to healing, and all the healing will lead to life.
Now at first glance, there would seem to be very little similarity between these messages we have considered carried by Malachi and by John the Baptist to their respective audiences, and the letter that Paul writes to the church at Philippi. There is no hint of judgment or call for radical repentance in Paul’s words as there are in the other two. Rather Paul seems to be very happy with the Philippians, bursting with joy and thankfulness to God for them. And indeed, he has reason to do so. The people at Philippi had a unique relationship to Paul unlike any of the other churches he had founded or helped found. Paul refused typically to receive donations for his ministry from the other congregation, probably to maintain independence. But he was so linked in spirit with the Philippians that he accepted their help gladly and considered them, as we heard, to be “sharers in the gospel,” and “in God’s grace”—they shared with him in what he did, and he held them in his heart and they him in their corporate heart. Paul rejoices over the Philippian church. And yet, for all this thankfulness and rejoicing in spirit, Paul still prays for them, and always will, whenever he thinks of them. Because they too, like the people of Malachi and John the Baptist, are yet unfinished—there is still some measure of un-peace in the Philippian lives which needs healing.
This is not Paul’s major focus in his letter to Philippi—rather, joy and rejoicing is the keynote. But the call to repentance and new life is still there. Not all is quite right yet in them—not all is quite right around them. There is still some discord there between people, some brokenness, upon which Paul will later remark. But he isn’t overly worried by this, not because it isn’t important , but because he believes one thing with all his heart—that the One who has begun a good work among them—the God and Savior who has begun to make peace in them in both divine and earthly spheres—will continue in this project until it is complete on the day of Jesus Christ. God will not give up on the Philippians until their peace is whole. And thus Paul prays for them that this project of God’s continues—that their love may overflow more and more, along with their knowledge of God, and that they will not just get by in their life with Christ and each other, stumbling along on God’s path, but will excel, producing “a harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God”—the produce of God’s peace among them and around them, and in them.
Paul prays this Advent prayer for their growth in peace because he knows the truth of what our own Confession of 1967 puts quite well in the Book of Confessions. There it reads, “The new life in Jesus Christ does not release a person from conflict with unbelief, pride, lust , fear—from sin. We still have to struggle with disheartening difficulties and problems”, inside us and outside us. But “Nevertheless as we mature in love and faithfulness in our lives with Christ, we live in freedom and good cheer”—we live in peace—“bearing witness on good days and evil days, confident that the new life is pleasing to God and helpful to others,” and will, in Paul’s words, by God’s desire, will end up in a harvest of righteousness, finished by no one less than Christ Himself.
We as a people called to be holy to God and living in peace with God and each other still have great need of God’s work in Jesus to be worked out in us. We still struggle with sin and temptation to sin. We still fight and divide, judge, lash out, fail to pity the weak and hurting and offer our help—we are still too often self-absorbed and spiritually apathetic. Adding to this, all around us in the events of the world, we are still assaulted by events which threaten us with despair, oppressions and disasters—illness and death and tragedies like the house fire so near to us today which tore at families and consumes our hearts as the fire consumed life—we still need God’s help and healing and guiding in Christ to deal with world and its ill harmony. And that, as Paul prayed for, is what we have—God has given it in Jesus and will not take it back. And it is still the case that we can sing in truth, “Blessed be the God of Israel who has looked favorably on His people and redeemed them—who has raised up a mighty Savior for us in the house of David “and sent us the messengers we need to hear that Savior’s voice. Blessed be the God of Israel who has sown peace into our discord and will not stop until the work is finished that He has begun. Blessed be the God of Israel l and Jesus His Son our Savior who give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and will guide our feet, little by little as we pray, into the way of peace. +++