Sermon: A Tale of Three Prophets

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison

At Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,

December 5th 2021

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6, 15-18

Last week, as is traditional on Advent Sunday, the emphasis was upon future hope; how God brings all things together for good in the end; as represented in the return of Christ. Today we glance back, with a tale of three prophets, helping us to focus upon what God is doing through Jesus Christ.

The first of these is Malachi, who gets the very last book in the Old Testament all to himself. And Malachi had an eye to the future, which is part of what being a prophet is about, but only a part. Still, Malachi’s in future mode here: ‘see I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me and the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.’ (3:1)  When Christians hear Malachi’s words it’s impossible not to think of John the Baptist, just like those of a certain age can’t hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.

And Luke makes an explicit link between John the Baptist and another Old Testament Prophet: Isaiah. Luke tells us that John (son of Zechariah) ‘went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ (3:3) Then Luke connects this with the prophet Isaiah: ‘as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah.’ (3:4)

Like John, and like Malachi’s messenger, Isaiah talks of someone crying out in the wilderness, someone preparing the way for the Lord. This action of God, says Isaiah (as prepared by John, according to Luke) will be radical: ‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.’ (3:5) But the outcomes from God’s radical actions shall be positive: ‘the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth,’ (3:5)

And not only shall the outcomes be positive, but they are available to everyone: ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (3:6)  Maybe by ‘all flesh’ Isaiah only had humankind in mind, but given how that prophet spoke of valleys and mountains, and how God’s the God of all creation, we might wonder if God’s action didn’t have all creation in mind; human beings like you and me, but also the other creatures and the whole of the world itself.

By now, you may have figured out the identity of today’s third prophet– it’s John the Baptist. He was so charismatic that people began to wonder if he was something more than a preacher or prophet: ‘’all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.’ (3:15) ‘The Messiah’ is the Hebrew term. The Greek equivalent is, ‘the Christ’.

As the prophet who was the heir to a whole tradition of Israelite prophets,  including both Malachi and Isaiah, John’s pointed to the deep need for a messiah, for a christ, for a saviour, as was implied by offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  His answer to those who wondered if he might be the messiah, though, was to point elsewhere: ‘one who is more powerful the I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ (3:16)

As a prophet among prophets, as successor to Malachi and Isaiah, John prophesies about the Messiah, about the Christ, about our Saviour. The Messiah is going to be powerful. The Christ has the highest, monarch-like status in comparison to his messenger, John. The Saviour is going to sort things out, by removing all that is bad, so that everything that is left is good: ‘his winnowing fork is in his hand,’ says John, ‘… to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (3:17)

Luke then says, ‘with many exhortations, he [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.’ (3:18) Good news? Not if you’re the chaff, I would have thought. It’s certainly not the cosy image you associate with the baby Jesus. I’m not aware of singing many Christmas carols that have featured ‘unquenchable fire’.

So maybe, in part at least, John’s prophecy about the coming Messiah should be a warning to us not to get too sentimental about Christmas. There’s still a need for divine forgiveness for all that we’ve done and do wrong; there’s still an aspect of Jesus’s birth and life which  is about God’s judgement upon the present situation; one which required God, God’s self, to become incarnate here on earth in the person of Jesus. If there wasn’t a problem, why the need for Christmas?

No one likes the bit about the chaff going to unquenchable fire, especially if you are worried that, for whatever reason, God might ‘mistake’ you, or some of those dear to you, for chaff rather than grain. That’s when we can do with a dash of the prophet Isaiah. Remember what Luke wrote, quoting Isaiah, and associating it with John: ‘and all flesh shall see the glory of God.’ (3:6)

I wonder if God is less individualistic than we are. We worry about ourselves, as human beings, as individuals, asking, ‘what’s going to happen to me.’ God works across the stage of the whole of creation; it’s the ‘theatre of God’s glory’, as the Reformer, John Calvin once put it. Maybe, for God, sorting wheat from the chaff is less about deciding the fate of individuals, more about removing what is wrong from the world. That might be the removal of despotic political systems, like empires, such as Rome, which Luke referenced in the very first words of today’s reading. Maybe God’s winnowing out injustice from the world, to consign it to unquenchable fire. That fits with God’s prophets, who were forever railing against injustice. It would make sense then that John, when asked ‘what should we do?’ replied with advice to clothe and feed those who go without, to do your job well, and not extort money from others.’ (3:10-14)

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, what are the prophets telling us about Jesus, whose birth we’ll be celebrating in less than three weeks’ time? They’re saying, don’t be fooled by a baby-like appearance – this one is powerful. Don’t get too comfortable – God’s bringing big changes through the birth of this child. Don’t get too sentimental – this child has come to confront what’s wrong in the world … and destroy it. But this Messiah, this Christ, this child, this baby is good news, because now God is making everything good, and such salvation is ours – all people, all flesh – for the taking.

And that’s today’s tale of the three prophets – God’s salvation, made known to us in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour, born in Bethlehem.

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