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.
These are the closing lines of the book of Malachi. After reading them, you turn the page and you realize you’re at the end of the Old Testament. One more page, and you’re looking at the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets, with the promise of Elijah’s return as a messenger of reconciliation.
Our Jewish friends and neighbors read the ancient scriptures in a different order. First the Torah, the five scrolls of Moses, just like in our Bible, but then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Jewish Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia, after his defeat of the Babylonian empire, says to God’s people in exile, “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.”
The reader of the Jewish Bible closes the book with a look to the end of exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. The reader of the Christian Old Testament turns the final page looking for a messenger. That’s not just a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope.
We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger. Malachi announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we 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 melted 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, anything that would keep us from being who we are meant to be.
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. Luke situates his story in time by listing imperial, regional, and religious authorities of the day, which was a common thing to do for writers of his time. But he does more than just follow literary convention. We hear this roll call of big names of men of power, and we are prepared to hear an important announcement, the kind of world news for which broadcast stations will interrupt their regular programming. What was the big announcement?
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
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, far away from the cities and markets, the media centers, the palaces, and the temples. The word of God came to John in the wilderness as once it came to Moses and Elijah and the prophets of old, 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 deep change.
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.
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 long procession of 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.”
Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, with Rome’s legions occupying the land, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. And it wasn’t a call to 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, entered the water of the Jordan, just as their ancestors had done when they crossed the river into the promised land. It was a new start. 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 governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and those who came to hear John in the wilderness began to live in that nearness.
John is the messenger who 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 begin to live in its advent, our faces turned toward the rising sun. John’s father had sung at his birth,
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John announces the dawn and calls us to live in its light: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us? No, God makes a way out of no way. Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others? No. We are the ones in need when it comes to preparing the way of the Lord.
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. God in Jesus comes to us calling us to follow Jesus on the way. It’s the way from oppression to freedom, from the reign of sin to the flourishing of righteousness, from terror and violence to peace, from the long shadow of death to the new light of life. Jesus comes to us to be for us the way into God’s future, and to be with us on the way.
And so preparing the way of the Lord is not a seasonal exercise, but a daily discipline. It’s a discipline of letting myself be reminded daily who is coming and where I’m going. It’s a discipline of letting God show me daily the valleys that need lifting up and the mountains and hills that need lowering — whether that’s in my attitudes and habits or in the disparities around me. It’s a discipline of letting God show us daily how we can be part of the Jesus road crew that makes a way by beginning again and again to follow him on the way.
What I hear John saying is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re preparing a way you don’t want to be on. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord— for hope’s sake, for love’s sake, for life’s sake.” The word of God has come to us in our wilderness, calling us to repentance, calling us to live and walk in the light of the coming One. In this light, penetrating the darkness around us, we see where we are and we know where we’re going. In this light we are given orientation in the wayless wilderness, and we become messengers ourselves: road builders, kingdom servants, truth tellers, justice seekers, breach repairers, peace makers. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.