When you look in your Bible for the chapter break dividing the Old and New Testament, you’ll probably find just one page between Matthew and Malachi. In the Christian Bible, the Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets. And the book of Malachi ends with the promise, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” We know it matters who gets the last word (and not just between children and their parents). The Old Testament ends with the promise of the great prophet Elijah’s return to bring about reconciliation between generations, so that the great and terrible day of the Lord will be a day of blessing.
The Hebrew Bible our Jewish brothers and sisters read, the Tanakh, has the various books in a different order. First the torah, the five scrolls of Moses, then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Hebrew Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia gets the last word, saying to God’s people in exile in Babylon, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.”
One who reads the Hebrew Bible ends with a look back to the end of Israel’s exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. One who reads the Old Testament turns the final page waiting for a messenger. I’m not pointing this out as a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope, and ever since the order of the texts was finalized it has in turn shaped our deepest hope. We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger.
Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we have run into John the Baptizer in each of our four gospels where he is in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. We look at John and we recognize one whose coming had been announced.
In Malachi we read of the coming of a messenger who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, a messenger who burns and scrubs to purify and refine – and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? I don’t know a thing about refining silver, but I read in a commentary that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete when she can see her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. We are made in the image of God, meant to reflect the face and the glory of God, and the refiner’s fire speaks to me of God’s commitment to remove anything that would keep us from shining.
Many generations after Malachi, 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 Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas – something happened. We hear this roll call of all the big names of men of importance and considerable power, and we are prepared to hear something equally important and powerful. We are ready for the kind of report that interrupts the regular programming with breaking news. Something had happened, something big, we assume, something like “Kate and William are expecting,” which USA Today thought significant enough to send me a pop-up on my phone.
What had happened?
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Now you know very well that this kind of news won’t even make it to the ticker at the bottom of the screen. Something had happened, but the big news wouldn’t register on the scales of our news organizations. The word of God came – not to the emperor or one of the governors or rulers, not even to the high priests, not to any of the connected people who are used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah. The word of God came to a man on the periphery of the world as defined by rulers, power brokers, and news editors. The word of God came into the world in the wilderness, far away from the palaces and temples. World changing, life changing news, barely noticed.
It wasn’t a particularly promising time – it never is – but it became a time of promise because the word of God came to John as it once came to Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah. The word of God came to John and he began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and transformation.
When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stubborn resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise; in the great exodus they became God’s covenant people.
Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a procession of great joy on a highway through the wilderness. “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.” And the people followed God’s call to the land where they would be free to serve God without fear.
Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, the land of promise occupied by Rome’s legions, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. It wasn’t a call to get ready to leave or to take up arms against the foreign occupier – it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call, crossed through the water as their ancestors did when they first entered the land. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they were committed to changing how they lived. The world was still governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and they began to live in that nearness.
John the messenger calls us to repent, and that is more than a call to look back and feel sorry for what we have done and left undone. It is a call to turn and look in the direction of God’s coming reign and to lean into its advent and begin to live there. Prepare the way of the Lord. It’s what John did and what he calls us to do with his message of repentance and forgiveness. Prepare the way of the Lord. God doesn’t need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us. Nor does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others. We are the ones in need of preparing the way of the Lord. What I hear John saying to me is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re on the wrong road. If you’re not leaning into the coming reign of God, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”
When God’s people are enslaved, they no longer reflect the fullness of God’s glory as men and women made in the image of God. The messenger calls them to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into their redemption.
When God’s children are being belittled and abused, they begin to embrace as truth the lies they’ve been told; they believe that they are not worthy of love, that they don’t deserve to be happy. The messenger calls them and us to prepare the way of the Lord and lean into God’s healing shalom.
When in our exile we forget that we are God’s own and that we are indeed all made in the image of God and all meant to reflect the glorious beauty of God, the messenger of the covenant comes with words like fire. “You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, or chances are you’re either working in old pharao’s brick yard or you’re thinking that exile is as close to home as you’ll ever get. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re leaning in the wrong direction.”
On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. He comes to take us with him on the way into God’s future. He comes to be for us the way into that future and to be with us on the way. He comes to end humanity’s exile and bring us home. He comes to walk with us from the long shadow of sin and fear to the fullness where nothing and no one falls outside life’s communion with God. Thanks be to God.