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Based on the Scripture readings:
Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 3: 1-6

2009 December 6
Second Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

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 Christmas Day.

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? Back to topWell, maybe not the clergy. Welcome back from sabbatical, though. Christmas is in nineteen days. Refine yourself.

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 Back to topin 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.  Amen.

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20091206.htm
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