“Messengers of Change”
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
December 5, 2021
It is the Second Sunday of Advent. And so, we are still discussing that two-pronged focus—the story leading to Christ’s birth, and the insistence that it foretells a future event as well, Christ coming again. In the birth narrative we are hearing the blessing of John by his own father, a priest named Zachariah. If you do not know the ins and outs of that interesting story (which has a scene in the Holy of Holies, an angel’s vision, and Zachariah’s punishment for not believing the angel, leading to John’s birth and eventually the blessing we read today), I invite you to go to the first chapter of the gospel of Luke and read it for yourself.
The reading from Malachi tells of God’s prophet who will prepare the way for God who will come “suddenly into [God’s] temple,” reminding us of the stories of Christ coming again without warning. But today I want to thread the needle between past (baby Jesus’s coming) and future (Christ coming again)—and talk about us in the here and now. And my musing is prompted by the Seasons of the Spirit commentary suggesting that we hear the blessing of John as a blessing for us, and my thoughts are in conversation with three Advent/Christmas hymns.
First let’s hear part of Zachariah’s blessing again—and this time, I want you to listen to it, as if hearing it for you, for your life. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare God’s ways, to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
What might it mean if we imagined ourselves as messengers of change (for isn’t that what a prophet is supposed to be)? What if instead of focusing on how weird the prophets are, living in out of the way places, and wearing strange clothing, and basically looking like they were from another planet—we started seeing them as activists, as those who were emboldened to talk about God’s vision for our world, and willing to get out there and DO something as part of the preparation for the Christ. Might we begin to see ourselves as in the line of those activists—hearing the call once again in Advent to “prepare the way”?
This isn’t too far off the mark. The church for centuries (often calling itself Zion) has been talking about preparing the way for God’s coming reign. Listen to a verse or two of a Swedish hymn that has been in use for two hundred years and fashions their own version of Malachi’s vision. (#106)
Prepare the way, O Zion, your Christ is drawing near!
Let every hill and valley a level way appear.
Greet One who comes in glory, foretold in sacred story.
O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.
He brings God’s rule, O Zion; he comes from heaven above.
His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth and love.
Lift high your praise resounding, for grace and joy abounding.
O blest is Christ who came in God’s most holy name.
Yes, we are to lift high our praise resounding, for the grace and joy we have been given, for the reign of God that will bring Shalom (peace and freedom, and justice, truth, and love). But what are we doing to make that level way appear? Doesn’t the Advent of Christ call us to something more—just as John the Baptist (the child who was blessed now all grown up) called the people around Jerusalem to repent and be baptized? What might that look like in our lives?
A more recent hymn set to an old Welsh hymn tune might give us some suggestions as it pushes us to hear John’s voice again. (#163)
Wild and lone the prophet’s voice echoes through the desert still,
Calling us to make a choice, bidding us to do God’s will.
“Turn from sin and be baptized; cleanse your heart and mind and soul,
Quitting all the sins you prized, yield your life to God’s control.
“Bear the fruit repentance sows: lives of justice, truth, and love.
Trust no other claim than those; set your heart on things above.
Soon the Lord will come in power, burning clean the threshing floor:
Then will flames the chaff devour; wheat alone shall fill God’s store.”
Malachi’s refiner’s fire is red hot in the words of this hymn—we can’t pretend that Christ’s coming, along with a day of reckoning, is something we will never face. Bear the fruit repentance sows: lives of justice, truth, and love—pushes us again to consider “what exactly are we doing to help justice, truth, and love become more prevalent in our world?” There are many answers to that question, and many ways of engaging. But the gospel (along with the prophetic voices of the Old Testament) seem clear about one thing—this is something that ought to be number one on our “to do” list. It is an essential way of life, not an optional one.
So, pastor (I can see you saying) what is it that we are to do? How do we make sure that we are the wheat and not the chaff? That we have been refined (to the best of our ability)? That we have not put any other claim above justice, truth and love?
It might be best explained in an African-American Christmas song, “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” (#136). Sing the refrain with me.
Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
Go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!
Go, tell. As Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery, the first African-American dean of Duke University Chapel and an associate professor of homiletics (that means preaching) says in his book, “Rise Up Shepherd!: Advent Reflections on the Spirituals”—“It’s the [‘go, tell’] combination that is key. We can go somewhere and never say one word. Or we can speak but never go. Witnessing to the birth of Jesus requires both—going and telling, acting and speaking—because Jesus requires our whole being, not just one part but our bodies and voices, the fullness of who we are.”
Do you see the connections with “prepare the way” and “trust no other claim”? These are just different meters and moods to talk about the same reality. That we need to be the messengers of change—not just talking about it, or not just silently working in the background—but leveling the playing field actively and vocally, lifting up a vision of justice, truth, and love and moving towards it, going and telling with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.
For that is the message of Advent. Yes, we are caught in the now (when God has already come but God must come again). But that now/not yet shouldn’t make us paralyzed or static. I know we don’t always see the kingdom, the reign of God, in our everyday lives. But this is where God’s story that we help tell each other over eons comes to the fore. This is where Kairos, God’s time, needs to take precedence. Jesus tried to get us to understand that God’s rule here on earth has already started—so the preparations are more important, and we need to cling more tightly to even a mustard seed of trust and faith in God’s final rendering of the world, and ultimately we have a responsibility to find our way of following, of going and telling, each and every day.
That’s what Advent insists on. That God made promises, and God’s promises are sure. That God is with us, Emmanuel, yesterday, today, and forever. That the seed has already taken root—the reign of God is already spreading underground. That there will come a time when Shalom will cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.
And so we gather to light our candles and sing our songs and pray our prayers. And if we listen closely enough, we will hear the call once again—“you too are called to be messengers of change, to prepare God’s ways…for it is promised, it is sure, that the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace.”
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.