Malachi 3: 1-4, Phil 1: 3- 11, Luke 3:1-6
How many of you are going to have a Christmas tree this year? How many of you have got it decorated yet?
Because of course, without the lights on the tree, there is no glory in the tree. It is all dolled up, but nothing glitters or glows – there is no energy in it – no light!
For me, the most nerve-wracking part of getting ready for Christmas comes just after I have managed to get the tree to stand upright without falling over, and I have unravelled the tangle of Christmas lights and wrapped them round and round and round the tree. Then just before I plug the lights in, there is that awful moment when I wonder if the lights will actually work or not. Suppose nothing happens? Why didn’t I check them before I put them on the tree? And if they don’t work, which bulb is not working? How will I ever find it?
Anyway, I reckon that the people of Israel were feeling a bit like that in this morning’s reading from Malachi. The time was about 445 BC, and Israel was in the doldrums. They had, if you like, a very big tree with lights on it – but it would not light up. In other words, they had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem, but it felt flat, somehow, and there was no power in it.
To really appreciate their problem, we need to remind ourselves of the back story. Israel had returned from exile in Babylon nearly 100 years before, in 538 BC. But they returned to disaster, because Jerusalem was in ruins. Solomon’s beautiful temple where centuries before the glory of God had been so evident that it had literally lit up with glory, had been destroyed by the Babylonians.
But still, the prophets who had returned from exile with the people had assured them that God had not forsaken them, and that one day He would come in power and restore the glory of Israel.
And so the people, working for decades, had slowly managed to restore the city, and the temple. But then – nothing happened. The temple, although it was ready for God, did not ‘light up’, and the nation certainly did not return to the prosperity, international prominence and wealth that their prophets had promised to them.
Malachi is, as you know, the very last book in the Old Testament. And so the OT ends on a rather dismal note – the people of Israel in Jerusalem, hoping for the glory of God to return to them, but instead facing a rather terrible time of it.
Because in thecenturies between 445 BC and the birth of Christ, Israel was invaded over and over again. For example, in 350 BC Jerusalem was invaded by Artaxerxes 111 of Persia. About 20 years later, in 332 BC Alexander the Great arrived. After him Israel came under the rule of Egypt and then Asia Minor, until in 63 BC General Pompey of Rome invaded it, and the Roman Empire swallowed it up.
So no wonder the Israelites felt discouraged. Where was Jehovah? Why had he not blessed the second temple? Why didn’t the Christmas tree lights come on, as it were?
No wonder that by the time of Christ the Pharisees kept so strictly to the Law of Moses – they hoped that in doing so, they would encourage God’s blessing on their nation.
After all, Malachi had warned the people that when the Lord finally did come, who could endure his coming? God would demand purity and holiness, he would be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. And so the Pharisees preached strict observance to the Law – or at least the outward signs of it.
But still –nothing happened. Still no lights on the tree.
The Jews could only wait and hope that one day the second temple would be filled with a glory that would make Israel the light of the world. But – where was it?
Of course, this morning, with the benefit of 2000 years history, we know that the reason the second temple did not ‘light up’ was that the first covenant God had made with mankind was coming to an end. God was going to keep his promise of dwelling among his people in a way they could hardly have imagined – He himself was going to come to his people. He was going to be their glory, to dwell in their hearts, not in a mere building of stones.
Which brings to our Gospel reading, from Luke, where John the Baptist begins his ministry. John was unique, for he was the very last ofthe Old Testament, pre-Christian prophets, and the very first prophet to recognise Jesus for who he was.
Isaiah had foreseen John the Baptist eight centuries before, calling him:
A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
The coming of John he Baptist was so important that Luke actually went to the trouble to set it in the context of world history by linking it with the political situation of the time. He tells us that it was during the 15th year of Tiberius the Roman emperor. Well, Tiberius ruled from AD 14-37, which would make his 15th year either AD 27-28 or AD 28-29.
John the Baptist’s witness was almost the hinge of history, if you like. The age of the Law was ending, and God was about to make a new Covenant with mankind – one written in the blood of Christ.
From now on, the way to God was not through keeping the Law, but through repentence and forgiveness.
The middle one of today’s readings was from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, which offers each one of us some wonderful encouragement as we prepare for Christmas this year.
Paul writes that he is confident ‘that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….’
In other words, God is at work within us, through his Spirit, and He will never give upon us. We may have various troubles in our lives this Christmas, but we can be sure that God will never leave us or forsake us.
Indeed, Paul says that as we share in God grace,
- our love ‘will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
- we will be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless
- and we will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
All of which takes me back to my Christmas tree lights.
They cannot shine of their own accord, they need energy from outside.
They cannot shine if their filament is corrupted or twisted in any way.
They need to be properly plugged into the source of their energy.
Only then will energy from the Source be able to flow into them, and light them up,bringing glory to the tree, and being a light to all those around them.
Only when the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us will we, in our small way, become lights to the world, because his light is shining through us.