Herald, The Way-Clearer

Read Luke 3:1-6, Malachi 3:1-4 here

Listen here:

The word for today is “herald.”  Not the proper name, but the noun, with a little bit of the verb thrown in.  A herald is a messenger, someone bringing news.  That’s why there are a lot of newspapers named Herald:

  • There’s the Boston Herald.
  • The Miami Herald.
  • Omaha has the World-Herald.

A common name for newspapers is the “Herald Sun,” probably because newspapers hit the streets first thing in the morning, like the sun.

Both of our Bible readings today are about heralds, people God has sent to get our attention.  There are lots of these stories in the Bible because God is continually trying to get our attention.  God sends angels, prophets, unusual circumstances and events, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  God is continually calling to us to turn from anything that is keeping us from having a relationship with him, anything that is keeping us from following him, anything that is keeping us from knowing and sharing his love, and growing in that love.

How is God trying to get our attention?

Malachi is one of those heralds God sent to get the attention of the people of Israel.  Malachi was the last of the prophets in the Old Testament.  He lived in Israel about 100 years after the end of their captivity in Babylon, 100 years after they had returned to Israel and rebuilt the city walls and the temple.  Even after everything that had happened, Israel had fallen back into old sinful routines. Malachi’s name means messenger.  He brings God’s message, and also tells about another messenger that is to come.[1]  Malachi says:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me (Mal. 3:1)

This could be Malachi himself, but it is also a prophecy about John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus. God was about to do something big, and John the Baptist comes to make sure people don’t miss it. Jesus himself referred to Malachi’s words about John the Baptist, saying:

This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way before you.’  (Luke 7:27)

What do John the Baptist and Winnie the Pooh have in common?  They have the same middle name.[2]

1840 Ivanov from Getty Gabriel and ZechariahIn the story of John the Baptist’s birth we meet another herald, the Angelic messenger Gabriel.  Angels definitely get our attention!  John’s dad Zechariah is a Levite, a descendant of Levi, which means he is part of the rotation of men serving in the temple.  Zechariah and his wife are old and haven’t been able to have children.  They’ve been praying about that for years and have probably given up expecting God to do anything about it.  One day Zechariah is taking his turn inside the temple when the Angel Gabriel shows up and tells him he’s going to have a son.  You’d think the angel showing up would be enough of a sign to Zechariah that God’s involved, but Zechariah has gotten cynical from too many years of disappointment, so he questions the angel.  “How will I know this is true?” (Luke 1:18)

I love what happens next.  Gabriel says, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to bring you good news.  But now, because you didn’t believe me, you will be unable to speak until all this happens.” (Luke 1:19-20)

And then Zechariah finds that he indeed cannot speak.  If the angel didn’t get his attention, the fact that he cannot speak definitely gets his attention.  When he finally gets his voice back on the day that baby John is being named and circumcised, Zechariah shows that he’s had a spiritual renewal during his time of silence.

Zechariah’s song of praise has been used in worship ever since.  It’s the benedictus used in services of morning prayer.

Blessed are you, Lord, the God of Israel;

you have come to your people and set them free.

You have raised up for us a mighty Savior,

born of the house of your servant David.  (Luke 1:68-69)

His song goes on:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
 to give knowledge of salvation to his 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.  (Luke 1:76-79)

The light will break upon us and guide our feet in the way of peace.

Luke tells the story with details that should get our attention. The angel had told Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born.  Later on, when Mary finds out she’s going to have a baby named Jesus, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, who is by this time pretty far along in her pregnancy with John.  When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy (Luke 1:41-44), already filled with the Holy Spirit, just as the angel had said.

Another set of details we should notice from Luke are these verses from chapter 3, Luke’s way of giving us the context for John’s ministry:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Seven names. This is how Luke makes sure we know that this is a historical event happening in this specific time and place.  This is when the word of the Lord comes to John, the message that clears the way for Jesus.  John is sent to get people’s attention and prepare them for the ultimate messenger, Jesus.

Malachi had said John’s message would be like the refiner’s fire.

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, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Mal 3:3)

That refining and purifying is in John’s message: “Repent!”  Turn. Change.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)

People were about to meet God in the person of Jesus.  Those who had nothing to hide would welcome his coming.  Those who weren’t ready to turn from their sin wouldn’t receive him well, or wouldn’t be able to see that he was God.  It’s a humbling thing to come face-to-face with God.  Pride gets in the way and keeps us from turning and listening. Cynicism blinds us to God’s words and actions.

Our season of Advent, these four weeks of preparing to celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, are a time of listening and waiting and watching.  God continues to speak to us, but we aren’t always listening.

How is God trying to get our attention today?

  • We tend to like things to stay the same, so sometimes God gets our attention through new things:
    • Reading the Bible in a different way, singing old songs in new ways
    • Changing routines or patterns
    • Something drawing us outside of our comfort zone
    • Something happens in a new or unexpected way

nativityangel

  • Sometimes God gets our attention through symbols, signs, or repetition
    • Images, ideas, beautiful sights and sounds make us pause and listen and notice
      • The heavens are telling the glory of God. (Psalm 19)1-christmas-sunrise-robert-mcgreevy
    • I’ve learned to pay attention when the same scripture keeps popping up from disconnected sources. By about the third or fourth time, I realize it is happening and ask God what he is trying to show me through that verse.
    • I’ve also learned to pay attention to songs that get stuck on repeat in my head. They can be playing for hours, and sometimes even days, before I’ll realize it and ask God what I need to notice about that song.  Sometimes the song has been the key to figuring out the direction for a sermon.
    • The prophet Samuel, when he is still a boy, hears someone calling his name in the middle of the night. He doesn’t know what it is, so the priest Eli tells him to ask God, to say, “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.” (1 Samuel 3:4-18)

1-Just-Feeling-Good-Betty-Newman-web

  • Sometimes God gets our attention through a feeling
    • Stirring, energy, passion, lack of peace
      • In the book of Esther, the king is unable to sleep, and his restlessness prompts him to get up and read. In his reading, he finds the report from Mordecai that results in the King revoking his order to kill all the Jews. (Esther 6:1-14)
    • Sometimes we aren’t sure at first why we have this feeling, so we have to ask God about it and watch and listen for God’s answer and guidance.

The interruptions are not the point, they are just the means for getting our attention, prompting us to stop and look and listen for what God is about to show us or tell us.

Zechariah had prophesied that his son John the Baptist would “guide our feet into paths of peace” (Luke 1:79) with his call to repentance.  If we have been settling for a shallow peace, peace just on the surface, inevitably something will disturb that peace.  Sometimes that disturbance is God trying to get our attention.

My husband’s uncle realized he’d had a wake-up call from God when he survived cancer.  When he was first diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, we all started praying hard.   After going through the surgery, chemo, and radiation, he said:

“As a recent Cancer Survivor I’ve learned not to expect my life to eventually get back to the “old normal” life I had. I know it won’t, and that’s okay because I’m finding the “new” after cancer normal is richer, more meaningful, and less full of insignificant things that I’ve found don’t matter after all. My hope and prayer is that everyone can experience the peace I’ve found without going through the hell I did to find it.”[3]

How might God be speaking to us today?  What might God be calling us to change?

Why does it matter?  It matters a lot, because it’s not just for ourselves, but for all people.

The angels came to the shepherds announcing good news that would bring great joy and peace to all people. (Luke 2:10)

We are also to be heralds, to tell people about the hope and peace and joy and love that come through Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul referred to himself as a herald of the good news in his letter to Timothy:

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. (2 Timothy 1:11)

Peter said that Noah was a herald in his letter:

Noah, a herald of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5)

Isaiah tells us that anyone bringing the good news of the gospel is a herald:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”  (Isaiah 52:7)

Anyone who announces the good news is a herald.

Jesus said about John the Baptist:

“I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

John the Baptist boldly prepared the way for Jesus.  He was a great prophet.  But we have the opportunity to be even greater.  John announced that God was about to do something, not knowing what all that would entail.  We have the rest of the story, the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit going before us,  guiding us, and encouraging us.

When we go to see a play or a musical, they flash the lights to let us know the show is about to start.  John the Baptist is the flashing light that tells people to be prepared for Jesus.  And we are the audience that has seen the play and goes out to tell about what we have seen and heard so that others might go see and know the joy and peace we have found.

From now on, each one of you shall be called Herald.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3911

[2] http://www.mormonzone.com/jokes.aspx?joke=18&cat=1

[3] Facebook post on January 28, 2012.

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