God in the Middle
You may not have noticed this sitting there in the pews just now,
but after a very tender baptism the two readings from the lectionary
are nearly the opposite of comforting. The first reading from Malachi
is a thinly veiled condemnation of the actions of rabbis, pastors, and
priests, and the second one is a threat to the very character of the
known world. You might not have heard that challenge to church and
state, but it was intended by the authors, so I want to show you where
it is, and what it means, or at least what it meant.
But first I want to say welcome back to Advent! Welcome to the
second week of our journey when peace is the theme and the prayer and
the call, and welcome to the entire journey which starts out by putting
last things first, so that first things, God, can take their place on
I was struck this week by how much confluence there is between the
ways of the Biblical writers, the lectionary editors this Advent, and
the guides and practitioners of U.S. presidential practice. Because if
you were paying attention this past week, in preparation for a
President's speech, you noticed how day after day we got more and more
information about what was going to be said in this speech until
perhaps we knew it all, and then the speech was given, saying what we
had been prepared to hear, and then days were spent discussing what had
been said, which we'd heard by then. The Bible does something very
similar with Jesus' birth with one extra twist. Many verses, many
chapters are written dedicated to knowing what this Messiah will be
like, so much so that in Matthew most of the birth story is about Him
without involving Him, but then He is born and is like what was
promised, and now we're talking about His promises still. But they're
still unfolding, too: that's the twist. There is yet more light and
truth to come. At the heart of all this is the truth that Jesus'
message -- His life and prayer and hope -- isn't impossible to
understand. It's just hard to keep and continue, and it's still
growing, but more about that another time.
This week we have these challenges to the church and the creation,
and they both come through language that is either not so much familiar
or sometimes so familiar that we barely hear it anymore.
I don't know how many of you spend a lot of time reading the Book of
Malachi. I don't. He is particularly hard on rabbis and priests, and in
fact the passage about sending a messenger suddenly to prepare
for God's arrival, all the stuff about the refiner's fire and the
fuller's soap is to criticize the performance of the religious leaders.
Who can endure the day of God's coming? Well, maybe not the clergy. Welcome back
from sabbatical, though. Christmas is in nineteen days. Refine
Still, amidst his critique of the clergy he offers guidance to all
in chapter two, and in three verses he tells us twice that we are to be
people of "life and peace…walking in peace."
I wonder if they believed him when this was in their midst?
Over in Luke, who is still preparing for Jesus too, we hear a more
familiar explanation of when this messenger will arrive and the
preparation for the message. But its familiarity can mask some
important elements, too.
I hope that you've heard this before: in his Gospel, Luke is
literally describing a very particular date near the beginning of
September in the year 29. That adds color to my Advent journey. Around
what is for us Labor Day, in Israel, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius
Caesar, who started work in the year 14, thus near Labor Day, 29, John the
Baptist goes to work. Very specific. And Luke says that his work is the
same work that we had been told that he would do by Isaiah and Malachi
and others: he's going to fill the valleys and strip the mountains and
straighten and repair the crooked and the rough, and, and -- in the
most endearing, enduring, inclusive conjunction we could behold -- and,
all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Gentiles? Yes. Lepers? Yes.
Publicans, Republicans, sinners, slackers, and saints -- yes. John is
getting all earth, all people ready, wonderfully, with baptism.
I wonder if they believed him when this was in their midst?
The funny thing is that this warning about a fiery messenger, this
description of rebuilding our structure, is really good news. Because
at its heart, at their heart, these two scriptures say one thing and
they offer not only promise but their own proof. They say that
salvation history is present in world history. They say that the stuff
of God is the stuff of our surroundings. Matthew begins his Gospel with
seventeen verses of genealogy to affirm that Jesus was really part of
the story of our life. Luke offers eight citations of world history and
then fifteen verses of genealogy to assert that this is not a story of
a distant promise or a disengaged deity. This story, God's story, is
right in the midst of our story -- the story of rough things and
crooked things, of barriers and basins, and even of religion so
forgetful that it starts participating in the rough and the
crooked and the un-peaceful, rather than the grace and hope and mercy,
the divinity and the humanity with which God is eternally overflowing.
God's history is coming to our history, pure, vulnerable, direct.
Most of you know that my family spent the month of September in
Italy. Across Italy there are nearly countless cafés, and it is
typical to visit them daily for coffee, gelato, sandwiches, and more.
In Perugia, Italy there is a café that has a pool table at the exact
center of its room and at the center of the pool table is a marker that
claims to be the center of the world. You see, the café is in the
middle of Perugia, and Perugia is in the middle of Umbria, and Umbria
is in the middle of Italy, and according to ancient maps that was the
middle of the known world. So the pool table has this marker.
The reason that we put the baptismal font in the middle of our
sanctuary, the reason we walk to the middle of the congregation to ask
you a question, is to remind ourselves that at baptism salvation
history intersects with world history. What John did there in September
of 29 was to prepare us for what we do here in December of 2009. And he
offered the same message that had been stated before that we remember
still: you are the religious leaders, now -- all of you. This is a
rough and crooked world, far too complex for a one year old, or even a
fifty-three year old, to navigate alone. But you are not alone.
Salvation is coming to where you are. Salvation for all flesh, all
earth, like the hymn will say. Salvation on a specific day and time and
forevermore. Salvation that calls us to peace, that calls us to
mission, that calls us to communion. It calls us to each other, and it
calls us to people we might not choose but God does. It calls us to
vulnerability, to prayer, and to hope. It calls us to joy. It calls us
to new life.
I wonder if we believe this when it is in our midst?
I do. It's all the scriptures are saying. And it is a comfort.
Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.