06. December 2023
Advent 1 Midweek
Malachi 4:1-6; Luke 1:57-80
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The practice of holding additional evening services on Wednesdays in Advent and Lent comes from the Ember Days. In historic Lutheran practice, one Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were set aside each quarter of the year for a penitential and catechetical focus. While two quarters have fallen from use, the days were expanded to the entire season of Advent and Lent. (See Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 21. A simplified Latin mnemonic for remembering the Ember Weeks is “Lente, Pente, Luci, Cruci” — the full weeks of Lent 1, Pentecost, St. Lucy Day (Advent) and Holy Cross Day.)
This year’s midweek services focus on the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist, the one appointed by God to prepare the way for the promised Messiah by calling sinners to repentance, even to the point of martyrdom. Advent, along with Lent, are penitential seasons in the Church. This theme of repentance has gotten lost as Christ’s Mass has been moved from its historic twelve days of feasting, consuming everything from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve for secular observance. You might even see Christmas trees at the curb on Christmas Day, and almost no one keeps them up until Epiphany, the Christmas for Gentiles.
This is partly why Christmas has lost its brilliance and luster for us. Without confronting the darkness of sin, death, and hell in Advent, the salvation we have in the Christ Child loses its contrast. You might even suspect it by satanic design that we no longer take pains to fast, pray, and study intensely before coming to Christ’s Mass. Satan will do whatever he can to diminish Christ Jesus, our Daystar, in our lives, homes, churches, and communities. He’s glad to have the themes of sin, judgment, and death shuffled off in any serious consideration. Whatever can distract us from Jesus will do the job, like the sweets of materialistic consumerism, Hallmark-style sentimentalism, and traditions that fail to confess Christ.
But God will be your God and His Son your Messiah. He will tear down whatever gets in the way of His coming. The last prophet of the Scriptures, Malachi (which means angel/messenger), gave this fearful warning: “‘For behold, the day is coming, Burning like an oven, And all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ Says the Lord of hosts, ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch.’” He sends His prophet to warn us that we should take stock of ourselves lest we burn up in that oven.
This fear comes from the Word. Without God’s Word, we’d neither know, trust, or fear Him. Thus, the prophet exhorts us, “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments.” This is the prophetic task. God’s Word is preached and taught to accuse, convict, and expose.
But without a promised gift, we’d have nothing to say or do. We’d be stuck in the mud, overwhelmed by the darkness, and without hope. So the prophet quickly adds, “But to you who fear My name, The Sun of Righteousness shall arise With healing in His wings; And you shall go out And grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, For they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet On the day that I do this.” Now, there’s good news! There’s healing, strengthening, and victory in the Sun of Righteousness, Jesus! This is the promise for those who fear the Lord.
So now, we know judgment for the proud and wicked is coming. But we know there is a victorious salvation for those who fear the Lord’s name. We even know how that fear is given. But who are you? How can you be taken from among the proud and wicked who trust in themselves and brought to fear the Lord, trusting in Him alone? Now, we return to that central job of Advent. Everything is given to call you to repentance and faith in Jesus for forgiveness.
This call cannot come from within. The proud and wicked don’t even know it. Without a preacher, with God’s Word proclaimed extra nos, sinners would never know they’re in darkness and the shadow of death. After the prophet messenger Malachi died during the reforms of Nehemiah, God was silent. He did not speak to them another Word from 397 B.C. until our focus for this Advent series, John the Baptist. For all Judea knew, they were on their own, left by God to fend for themselves. Of course, this was not true. The final Word from Malachi was to be their central hope.
He said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” God promised them one more prophet, Elijah-Who-Is-To-Come, to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. For without forgiveness of sins, we would be cursed to the darkness.
John’s task of calling sinners to repentance and faith in the coming Christ is further seen in the closing phrase of Malachi 4:6. The day of “utter destruction” will come upon all who refuse to repent and trust in the righteousness of God that is revealed in Christ. This is part of the basis of what is prayed in the proper preface of Advent, which speaks of John the Baptist’s preparation of the way of the Lord by “calling sinners to repentance that they might escape from the wrath to be revealed when He comes again in glory.”
Thus, Zechariah’s song, The Benedictus, looks back over Israel’s history to the promises concerning the Christ that God made to David (v. 69) and Abraham (v. 73), and through all the utterances of the prophets (v. 70). It then looks forward to what John will do to prepare the way of the Lord, chiefly by giving “knowledge of salvation … in the forgiveness of sins” (v. 77), speaking of John’s preaching of repentance and his baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). The basis of all God’s activity — in Israel’s past, the events of Luke 1, and our own day — is His “tender compassion.” This is not His ordinary mercy by which He grants and sustains all things as creating Father, but His intimate, profound, and limitless mercy from His innermost part, seen in the Sunrise (or Dayspring) that dawns from on high. This refers to Mal. 4:2, which speaks of the Messiah as the Sun of Righteousness. He is the revelation of God’s deepest mercy and compassion.
The Old Testament ends with God’s promise to send Elijah the prophet to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). This is the very passage referenced by the archangel Gabriel in the annunciation to Zechariah (Luke 1:16) as he offered the daily prayers for Israel, including the hope for God to send the promised Messiah. The people who heard the news of John’s birth and naming said, “What then will this child be?” We do not need to wonder, for his identity and role have already been set forth for him (see Mal. 4:5–6; Luke 1:15–17).
While Zechariah was rendered mute for his unbelief of the angel’s words, it was at his direction to name the child “John” that his lips were loosed to sing the praises of God. With John’s birth and naming, he begins his work as his father’s heart is turned in repentant faith to recognize what God has begun to accomplish. This preparatory task of Advent and John the Baptist is seen even in his leaping as an unborn child over the presence of the Lord. John is the “new Elijah,” tasked with testifying to the Christ. Thus, we pray that we, too, would receive John’s call to repentance and follow in the Savior’s way of forgiveness and life.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin