Advent 4 — Prophecy

Preached December 23, 2012

Philippians 4:4–7
St. John 1:19–28

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and we are nearly at the end of our season of preparation for Christmass. Throughout Advent, we have looked very much at the double preparation that we must make, on the one hand to receive our Lord in His Incarnation when He appears to us as the Infant Child in Bethlehem of Judea, and on through His earthly ministry to the Cross, Resurrection, and His glorious Ascension, coming as our Saviour. But we must also prepare to receive Him at His Second Coming, when He comes in Judgement at the end of time, to be both our Judge and our Advocate. Finally, we must prepare to meet Him when He comes to us in our own time, in our lives today, to fold our hearts into His and receive us into His eternal Kingdom, that we may be assured of our eternal home with Him.

Prophecy is not something that we concern ourselves with greatly today for the most part. Oh, sure, there are a few folks who are constantly reading about Nostradamus and his prophecies, and there are those who take to heart novels like the Celestine Prophesy, but most people with common sense do not concern themselves with such prophecy on a day to day basis. And yet — there are prophecies that we should take very seriously, every day, because they are an important part of the proof of our faith. I hasten to add that they are not the only proof, only a part.

The Jews of Jesus day knew Biblical prophecy very well, and they were very aware of it. They lived in expectation of seeing it fulfilled in their lives. They were perhaps more aware than we are today of the actions of God in their lives — I hesitate to make that a completely unqualified statement because they too turned away from God just as we do — but there was a conscious sense that God had to be reckoned with, God could not be ignored. That is what seems to be different today as compared to the time of Christ.

The Jewish people had a strong sense of their own history. It was their history under God that made them a people, that bound them together as a nation. They knew the scriptures, what we today refer to as the Old Testament. Even the tradesman in the street knew these scriptures and was prepared to listen diligently as the rabbis expounded upon them.

They knew, for example the words of Malachi, the last of the 12 minor prophets, who said:
Malachi 3:1 Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.
2 But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
3 And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness.

Today’s Gospel lesson begins with the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, having thoughts like the passage from Malachi in their heads after they have heard what John is doing, so they send a delegation to John the Baptist in the wilderness to inquire just who John is. Today we generally accept that John is indeed the messenger described by Malachi, but  John does not say, “Go back and read Malachi 3:1–3.”

Instead, John’s answer is almost a non-answer to their question. John says, in effect, two things. First he says that it does not matter who he is as a person. And secondly, he says that it is the message that is important; pay attention to that.

They have asked if John is the Messiah, and straightaway John says that he is not the Messiah. They asked if John is Elijah. Jewish tradition held that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah, so it was a reasonable supposition to inquire if John might be the reincarnation of Elijah. But John says that he is not Elijah.

Then they ask if John is that prophet. Other translations read “the prophet.”  Matthew 16:14 suggests that there might have been an expectation for the return of Jeremiah before the return of the Messiah. We read in Deuteronomy 18:15 The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken; It is not quite clear just which particular prophet is referred to here, but John denies that he is the expected prophet.

At this point, the delegation presses John to tell them who he is; they need something to report to the Sanhedrin. In his answer, John emphasizes his own unimportance, saying that he is only a voice in the wilderness when he quotes Isaiah 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. At the same time, he is implicitly saying that he is the spiritual Elijah, come to do Elijah’s work of preparing the people for the coming of the Lord.

The tenor of the discussion changes a bit at this point. They demand to know why John baptizes if he is not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet. To understand this, we need a little bit of background. Converts to Judaism were always baptized, before being circumcised. This is an act of ritual purification that long antedates Christianity. The difference is, however, that Jewish converts baptized themselves, whereas John is now baptizing others, a new wrinkle.

John quickly points to Christ — not by name, not by calling Him the Messiah, but describing him and telling the visitors that He stands among them. This can be seen as a warning. Here is this wild man, this most rigorous of prophets saying that there is one among them whom they do not even recognize that is more worthy, more holy, more righteous, than this prophet speaking at present. He is telling the visitors, as he is telling us, that Christ stands among us. Do we recognize Him?

Let us pray.

 O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, let us not fail to recognize thee when thou standest among us here in this mortal life and be thus led in our blindness to miss eternal life. Rather open our eyes to thee and to thy rich grace for the salvation of our souls. Who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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