Did any of you wonder, listening to our gospel passage this morning, what it’s doing here? You’ve probably heard it many times before, but maybe this time you suddenly wondered why the apostle John stops talking about Jesus for a while and starts talking about John the Baptizer instead. Or maybe you’ve wondered about that all the way along, and never really gotten an answer. Why does the gospel suddenly take our eyes off the Son of God, the Word, the source of all life and light, and start talking about his PR guy? One paragraph in, and we’ve already changed the subject.
The thing is, though, there are good reasons for this. For instance, there were folks floating around who thought that John the Baptizer was the Messiah, so the apostle John is taking a minute to draw the distinction. At a deeper level, though, is this truth: it matters, profoundly, that Jesus had someone going ahead of him to announce his coming. That’s a very, very important fact, in two ways. One, this is part of the evidence that he was in fact the promised Messiah, because God had promised that the Messiah would not show up unannounced; and two, God had made that promise for good reason. If people were unprepared for Jesus’ coming, or if they’re unprepared when he comes again—and there are plenty of warnings in Scripture about that—it isn’t because God likes to catch us by surprise. Whenever God is going to do anything big, he gives us plenty of advance warning; if we’re not ready, we have no one but ourselves to blame.
Consider this. Yes, Jesus’ arrival was missed by most of the powerful people of this world, because he didn’t come on their terms—he wasn’t born in a palace, or to a rich and influential family; he didn’t do it the way they would have done it. But they could have seen him, if they’d been watching, because God gave them the chance to pay attention. The angels announced Jesus’ birth, even if it was only to mere shepherds. The star alerted the powerful court astrologers of the great Persian Empire; they recognized the sign that someone important had been born, and sent a delegation to see who it was. Along the way, they tipped off the Jewish leaders (who didn’t react well, on the whole). And as the time drew near for Jesus to begin his public ministry, up popped John to let Israel know that the Messiah was close at hand. Jesus’ appearance was no sneak attack, designed to catch the people of God off guard; it was no pop quiz. His people had advance warning, time to prepare themselves, just as God had promised. John was important because he was the fulfillment of that promise.
If you look at the two Old Testament passages primarily associated with him and his ministry, you begin to see why that mattered so much. Both look forward to the day when the Lord would come to his people, but they see that day very differently. In Isaiah, when the voice calls out, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” it’s a joyous moment: the Lord is coming to reveal his glory to the whole world by delivering his people from exile, and all will be well again. Malachi, by contrast, asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” When God comes, he will cleanse and refine his people—and especially the priests—washing and burning away all their impurities. Those who have been faithful to him will come out of it shining like gold and silver; but those who haven’t, those who have done evil, will be harshly judged.
In both these passages, we see the firm conviction that the Lord has not changed and does not change. God’s people will be preserved and can trust him to do what he says he will do, because he’s faithful even if his people aren’t. He will purify his people so that their offerings are acceptable to him, and in the end, all things will be as they should be. This truly is reason for Isaiah’s rejoicing, but also for the somber tone we hear in Malachi, because it means that the coming of the Lord will be a time of judgment as well as of deliverance; thus the messenger going before him would bring words of warning as well as words of promise. We need to wrap our minds around this before we can truly understand what it meant for John to bear witness to the light; the coming of the light frees people from darkness, but it also exposes everything that has been done in the darkness, and for some, this is far from pleasant. For some, the coming of the light isn’t good news at all—it’s bad news.
That’s why John preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as Luke 3:3 tells us, because he understood what too many of his hearers didn’t: the coming of the Messiah wasn’t going to be an automatic blessing for the Jewish people. They, too, had to prepare their hearts to set aside their sins and obey him; they wouldn’t get a free pass. Thus John called his hearers to radical repentance, including giving away whatever they could to those in need, because the Lord was coming as he had promised, and his coming would bring judgment. Those who repented of their sins and sought to follow him would be blessed, while those who refused would be destroyed.
This might sound harsh to our ears, but it is the message the Baptizer was given; this is what it meant for him to bear witness to the light. At Christmas, we tend to see images of a nice, feel-good Jesus who wants everybody to be nice and happy, but that’s really not what Jesus was on about, and so that’s not what John was on about. Far from it. He disrupted the lives of everyone around him; he did whatever he could to unsettle people, to hook their attention and shake them up. This even—especially—included the religious leaders of his day; they were the chief moral authorities of his society, but he called them a nest of snakes. He shouted to the world at the top of his lungs that business as usual was no longer acceptable; he bluntly told people they needed to change their way of living, or else. He did everything in his power to capture his hearers’ imaginations so that when Jesus came, they would pay attention to him. He preached like there was no tomorrow because he knew that Jesus was coming to fulfill both Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, and that it was literally a matter of life or death whether people were ready.
Jesus was the Messiah, but not the Messiah Israel expected—rather than challenging their enemies, he challenged the Jews themselves. He upset people’s expectations of who he was supposed to be, and sometimes he upset their furniture. He didn’t play to the crowds; when they wanted to make him king over Israel, he took off, and sometimes his teaching seemed calculated to drive away followers rather than to attract more. But after all, he had come to deliver us, not from political misrule, but from a far greater evil than that; he had come to win final victory over the devil, and the greater the deliverance, the greater the disruption. (Just ask the ancient Israelites; they were scarcely out of Egypt before they started complaining about the terrible things this move to the desert had done to their menu planning.) It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus was such a disruptive figure; like his herald, he would do anything to show people their need for repentance—for forgiveness—for himself.
Put another way, Jesus came to bless us, but not to give us an easy blessing; as Malachi says, he came to refine us, to bless us with fire. We are full of impurities, and our beauty is marred, and so he comes to us to purify us with the flame of his Holy Spirit. It’s a telling thing that Malachi says, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,” because refining silver takes great care and attention; the art of the silversmith is exacting, requiring considerable patience for the metal’s true beauty to be revealed.
There’s a story told about a group of women doing a Bible study on Malachi who discovered this in a wonderful way; they were puzzled that the prophet specifies a refiner of silver when gold is more valuable, and so one of them decided to do some research on the matter. She called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him work. As she watched, he held a piece of silver over the fire to heat up, and he explained that in refining silver, it’s necessary to hold it in the middle of the fire, where it is hottest, in order to burn away the impurities.
The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot, and remembered that Malachi says that the Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. He said yes; in fact, not only did he have to sit there holding the silver in place, he had to keep his eyes on it the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver were left in the flames even a moment too long, it would be ruined.
The woman was silent for a moment, then asked, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” The silversmith smiled at her and said, “That’s easy. I know it’s done when I see my face reflected in it.”
That, you see, is what the Lord is doing with each of us: he’s refining us, burning away our impurities, until we reflect his face. That’s the message of Advent, that Christ came to earth to call us to himself and to begin that process in us, and that he’s coming again to complete that process and take us home with him. This is why in Advent we don’t just look backward to Christ’s first coming, but also forward to his second coming; this is why the call of Advent is to prepare our hearts for his coming by taking a good, hard look at ourselves, admitting our sin, and turning away from it, and toward him.