Sermon 9 December 2018


Malachi ch 2v17 to 3v4 

You have wearied the Lord with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice? ”
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

Luke ch3v1-14 

Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely —be content with your pay.”

Prayer Isaiah 55:

10 & 11 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is the word that goes out from my [God’s] mouth.

It will not return to me [Him]empty, but will accomplish what I  [He]desires and achieve the purpose for which I [He] sent it.


As you well know, the season of Advent in the life of the Christian faith is a time of waiting, a time of reflection, a time of expectation, a time of preparation……..but maybe increasingly a time of competition…….when the essence/the heart of the significance of the birth of Christ is challenged more and more on a  non stop 24/7 basis by the other worldly voices and enticements clamouring for our attention.

For me, one wee girl’s observation captured this juxtaposition – in our house we celebrate the birth of Jesus by eating a turkey!

But that ongoing challenge of what we render unto Caesar and what we give to God is not confined to this time of year alone. It is a daily choice within an eternal time frame.

And in Advent we “juggle” – as it were – with these three time frames

  • firstly – pondering and celebrating the breathtaking, awesome wonder that Christ should come to earth for our sake; and in awe and humility reflect on how we might praise and serve him – and our neighbour – in response to his love.
  • Secondly – Advent also points us toward the second coming of Christ on a day and hour only his Father knows – how are we preparing for that day, are we primed and ready?
  • Thirdly – Advent is, in many senses, with us on a daily basis – Christ is always present – he comes to us/he accompanies us. As the apostle Peter puts it –  Life is a journey we must undertake with a deep sense of the presence of God. How do we cultivate that deep sense on an ongoing daily basis?

Our two readings were both rooted in their times – addressing the needs, the issues, the problems of their day and looking to the future.

The prophet Malachi had a challenge to the people of his time. They were hard times. The people were poor. They were ground down by foreign powers. They had not seen the prosperity they were promised by Haggai and Zechariah come to fruition –  and so they began to feel God had forgotten them and had let them down. Disillusion set in and this manifested itself in their increasingly casual attitude to worship and to the standards God had set them. The priests’ poor leadership  compounded the situation with their own contemptuous attitude to worship. A sorry state of affairs.

Malachi confronts the situation but, significantly, his message from God begins with a reassurance of God’s constant and continuing love for his people. [ Should  this not also be the same starting point for us when we have an opportunity to talk to our contemporaries about God.] That reassurance by Malachi then sets the context for the rebuke that follows ending with that great timeless and universal invitation to return to the Lord.

Malachi also looked ahead in the passage we read to the messenger who would prepare the way of the Lord.

In his time John carried that thread on – challenging the people of his time, calling them to repentance and pointing towards Christ and his ministry.

And Christ’s ministry, as recorded by Mark, started on that same note of a call to repentance – The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.

This Sunday – in the Advent scripture – what can we learn from John the Baptist?

Luke, the historian, places him historically with a number of points of reference – in relation to the occupation of his country by the Roman Empire – in the reign of Tiberius Caesar when Pontius Pilate was Governor of Judea; in relation to his own race – the split of Herod the Great’s kingdom among his 3 sons after his death; and in relation to the religious situation – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.

I always struggled in history – I knew Henry 2nd came after Henry 1st ! But these these reference points of Luke’s made an impact, not just in terms of a historical authentication, but it struck me quite forcibly – and I know this is self evident – that John’s ministry and  our ministry are rooted in the times we live in.

Malachi and John looked at their society – as it was – compared to what God was seeking and desiring – and challenged the people to return to a relationship with God and walk with him on the path he charts.

If we take three reference points for our time and our place – you can choose your own – but for starters – in the years of Brexit; in the years when scientists issued an  even starker warning about our climate and our environment; in the year you moved in to a new place of worship [in the year your minster went to the States] – the church here took this message to the community…….it is for you to fill this in…….what is it you are doing and saying….as we think of Peter’s words to be prepared in season and out of season to give a reason for the hope that we have.

This time is both a thanksgiving and celebration of the work and witness already in place and, in this time of vacancy, your sense of where God might be leading in the future.

As an aside – in a way – Mark records people going out to John the Baptist who wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

Jesus alludes to people being attracted to go and see John because of his distinctive – his odd lifestyle even for these times – his diet, his fashion sense! I think that John’s choices, which began with giving up a priviledged position in the priesthood, have a resonance today with all the analysis and discussion around the cumulative global impact of what we eat – what some waste; the materials our clothes are made of – how much we buy and so on. I’m not suggesting a Scottish parallel with John whereby we don wool coats and live outside off nuts and  berries but I do believe that in our time – as we regard the earth as a gift from God – that the church has something important to say, from the example of John, about needs versus desires; sufficiency contrasted with excess where, again, these tensions are heightened in the Christmas season.

In terms of the questions that came his way as to how people should respond to his repentance  call there were two broad categorieses – people with more than they needed – with two coats and with food in their cupboards – should share with people in need; and those in positions of authority were not to abuse their positions but to carry out their duties diligently and honestly.

John, in his time and place, was clear about the core purpose he was to fulfill and the message he had to deliver. I think one of the prophetic voices of our time is Pope Francis. He has done a lot of reflection on the role of the Catholic church – its decline and its declining influence  – and what its message and place is in this day and age. His analysis could apply across the board to the Prebyterian churches as well. In one of his articles he speaks about this picture he has in his head of the church. He says  – in my picture I don’t see Christ knocking on the door outside to come in BUT knocking on the door inside to get out!

What needs to get out? Martin Luther King Junior made the observation – our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.

Malachi wasn’t silent about the things that mattered; John wasn’t silent about the things that mattered; Christ certainly wasn’t silent about the things that mattered – and likewise the church today shouldn’t be silent about the things that matter – it needs to exercise its prophetic voice.

To do that, as a subscriber wrote recently in Life and Work, we need to regain our confidence – not in ourselves – but in our God.

Perhaps, like John, this is our wilderness experience with declining membership and a need to focus on what is our key/our collective core ministry at this time. In the wilderness John – and indeed Jesus – when all else was stripped away, John came out with a clarity of who he was in relation to Christ and what his message was to his generation. That, I believe, is one of the main challenges – if not the main challenge facing the Church and each of us individually today – to relate the Good News of Christ to the times we live in.

A story is told – probably apochryphal – as I’ve heard a number of variations of it.

It tells of the time John F Kennedy was visiting the NASA space station in the early 1960s. As well as meeting the top brass he also wanted to meet the blue collar workers. On meeting the guy who swept and kept the grounds tidy he asked what his role was to be met with the answer – Mr President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon!

Apocryphal or not it contains a truth about how we view our role – do we talk it down – he could have said “I’m only a cleaner” – or do we see our own calling/our own witnessing as part of God’s great plan – what do you do in the church – “I’m helping to bring about God’s kingdom!”

The Christian writer Adrian Plass wrote a number of short stories – which he called his parables.

One of them was entitled The Visit and it begins

Our church used to be very okay. We did all the things that churches do just about as well as they could be done, and we talked about our founder with reverence and proper gratitude. We said how much we would have liked to meet him when he was around and how much we look forward to seeing him at some remote time in the future.

The unexpected news that he was going to pay us an extended  visit now, in the present, was, to say the least, very disturbing.

All confident statements about the “faith” tended to dry up. People who had always seemed reasonably cheerful looked rather worried. Those who had been troubled appeared to brighten up considerably.

Each of us, I suppose, reacted to the news in our own way, but I think the thing we had in common was a feeling that the “game” was over. No more pretending when he came. He would know.

Among all the games the world would have us play as we wait for the “visit” – Christ’s birth; Christ’s daily presence; Christ’s coming again – and like John as we withdraw to a quiet time and place, what is our sense of God’s call to us in our time of waiting, our time of reflection, our time of expectation, our time of preparation ?

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