Christmas is approaching. Sometimes there is a joy in the waiting, like counting down the days before vacation or a party. Other times, it feels like that snowball rolling down a mountain that is going to swallow you up before you can get out of the way. Just like sometimes we can’t wait to go home because it is a respite, a blessing, and a joy to be enfolded back into those loving arms again. But other times, it scares us, frankly. It is often a place of judgment, of division and pain. We are overwhelmed trying to have the sense of family that the Christmas specials say we ought to have. We’re afraid to go home, and we aren’t ready. We may be a long way from being ready to go home.
It's easy to slip into that mode, to recognize that there is much to do before Christmas gets here. We've got to move heaven and earth; we've got to shovel out; we've got to clear the path. It is as if we are in those airplane disaster movies and we've got a crippled jetliner coming down on a runway that isn't cleared. Everyone is shouting; the machines aren't working; there is disaster on the horizon. It is as though there is never enough time, like it is all going to fall apart this time, and it is all your fault! When I was in seminary, there was a drugstore chain that used the advertising tagline, "Christmas is closer than you think." It sounded like a warning or a threat.
That is why John the Baptist seems to fit in so well with the Advent season. There is threat aplenty in the early part of the Gospel of Luke. Sometimes, we'd like to skip over John's tirade and get on to the angels and the baby and the sheep. But no, let's pause and listen in again: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Luke 3:4.)
The thing that really jumps out is that Luke located this event with six different points of reference. He confirmed it six-ways to Sunday, to coin a phrase. There must be something in that, don't you think?
OK, the locations don't help us all that much, since there is some fudge factor in the dates of the various rulers mentioned in the first couple of verses. No one, for example, is really sure who Lysanias really is. The Lysanias everyone knows about (well, everyone who is really into ancient governmental history, that is) was long dead by the time of John the Baptist. So, did Luke mess up, or was there another Lysanias who isn't as well known?
Does it matter? Not to me. What matters is that Luke wanted everyone to be sure of something. And if it isn't the pinpoint accuracy of the date of the launching of John's ministry, then what it is it?
It must be that Luke was interested in grounding this whole event in the real world—a least on one level. He wanted the readers and hearers of this story to know this wasn't a “once upon a time” thing, but a “shake the foundations of the real-world” kind of thing. If the Bible scholars who claim that Luke was a Gentile are right, then we can understand this insistence on veracity. For a Jewish teacher, the story was truth enough. Facts are not convincing; truth is. And a truth wrapped in a parable, written in a poem, sung in a song is still true. But for the Gentiles, it has to connect with facts. Just the facts, ma'am. So, Luke says, you want fact? Here you go, "in the fifteenth year . . ."
But wait. That can't be the whole story. It is just a little too vague for that. I think there is something else going on here, something theological. Ah, there's a word that many of us shy away from. But all it really means is thinking about God. All the Gospel writers were more theologians than they were historians, or even writers. What they all cared most about was making sure that we understood something about the nature of God. So, what do we discover about God in these first few verses of Chapter 3?
Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas were all powerful leaders in the world at the time. They were emperors, governors, rulers, and high priests. They were the ones who held the reins of power. They were the ones who determined the course of civilization; they were the ones who determined what was a priority, where the efforts would be placed in the world of their day. But notice what Luke does: after listing all these worldly powers, Luke then says simply "the word of the Lord came to John in the desert."
It was like there was this smorgasbord available, this wealth of choices, and God chose “none of the above.” In the voting booth of the ministry of reconciliation, God had a write-in candidate. Instead of the ones that we would have chosen, instead of the ones who seemed to be the proper starting point, God chose a nobody in the middle of nowhere. And God told him to get things started.
"Prepare the way." He then went about launching the construction project that would bring the source of real power onto the scene. So, make way, he says, straighten the highway, fill in the trenches, smooth out the bumps in the road. The point here is that there is work to be done: getting-ready work; opening-up work; pulling-the-kinks-out work.
And lest we think this is easy work, Malachi jumps up there at the back end of the Old Testament and says, “Hang on! You think this is going to be a picnic? You think this is a walk in the park?” Not a chance. “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver . . .”
Who can endure? Remember room cleaning day? Your first response was always, “It’s clean enough.” Then mom says, “I’m going to check!” That got a response! First, you’d try to talk her out of the inspection. Then you would try to bargain with her. Then, at last, you’d admit there was some work to do. Sometimes with words and shouts and grumbles; sometimes by charging up the stairs ahead of mom to get back to work. It was clean enough for you, but not for mom; it wouldn’t pass inspection. Who can endure? Going home to that level of scrutiny is scary to say the least, a reminder of all the times you didn’t measure up.
Would we? Do we measure up – even to our limited expectations, let alone to all that God intends for us to be? Who can endure that kind of scrutiny? Who can measure up? Who can stand when the refiner comes; when the purifier shows up?
But wait, tucked away in this passage is a glimmer of hope in the midst of the call to cleanliness, in the midst of the warning or the threat. There is a little, almost hidden promise in these words from Malachi to which we need to pay attention. Here it is: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” (3:3). Uh, hope? Really? Really!
Think for a moment: why silver? Why not gold? Gold was more valuable then and now. Gold gets mentioned later: “refine them like gold and silver.” But the silver is still there. Just excess? Not at all – theology! There it is again, creeping in all over the place this week.
Silver is harder to refine. Silver takes longer; the purification process is a long-term one. The one who sits to refine silver often gets burned. The one who tends the fire sometimes has to suffer in the process. You can’t leave it in the middle; it has to be watched. It isn’t easy, it isn’t quick. But it is worth it.
Malachi says that God is willing to be with us throughout the process. Malachi says that God is willing to hurt for our salvation, for our purification. Malachi says that God is willing to endure the fire that we might be made whole. Malachi says that we can endure because God endures with us. Hope. We are not alone.
Maybe “Christmas is closer than you think” isn’t a warning after all. Maybe it shouldn’t make us feel more frenzied, feel more behind, more afraid we won’t be ready in time. Maybe that phrase ought to be a promise, a comfort. Maybe it ought to be an assurance that we are not alone in this season of Emmanuel because God is with us. Maybe it ought to be a means by which we can overcome the fear of going home.
Christmas is closer than you think! Praise God.