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2nd Sunday of Advent 

03 December 2021

5 December, Malachi 3.1-4; for Psalm, Benedictus; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6

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CHRISTIANS know Malachi as one of the 12 minor prophets. But, as with Adam in Genesis, a general term — “my messenger” — has been taken as a proper name (adam means a human being in Hebrew). In reality, the text has no known author.

Nature abhors a vacuum, Aristotle said. Biblical interpreters agree. An anonymous book is not as interesting as one with a name attached. A name brings context and, with it, the possibilities of date and place. A name makes the text personal. As far as “Malachi” is concerned, we cannot supply all the details we would like. One idea stands out, however, ensuring that we continue to value this little book: that is, the prophet’s positive attitude to the Gentiles, the goyim (the “heathen” in less impartial contexts).

This is not to say that the prophet neglects his core calling. He pronounces God’s judgement, as he should. Amos, centuries before, had declared an adverse judgement on the Gentiles, and (daringly) at the same time on Israel (2.4). “Malachi” goes further, transferring the adverse judgement entirely away from the Gentiles, and on to the people of Judaea.

With his declaration that God’s people need cleansing, the prophet had evoked fear — but that fear was necessary for people’s good. Now, he provides reassurance to calm the fear: God will ensure that true worship is restored. Here, we catch a glimpse of the Advent message as we understand it, and as many a mission-minded preacher has wielded it, weapon-like. People will not see the value, never mind the urgency, of the prophecy unless they are taught the fearful consequences of ignoring it. Some might argue that faith born from fear is not true faith. I would argue that helping people to see how much they need God is not trading in fear, but selling honest wares. Anyone can check the terms and conditions by reading the Bible’s books for themselves.

The prophetic message is supposed to issue in a harvest of righteousness. People’s faith will bear fruit, and that fruit will set seed and grow in others. That is certainly Paul’s missionary model in Philippians. He, too, presses the point about the urgency of the task, repeating his warning about the coming “day of Jesus Christ”. He is not looking to a restoration of Israel. He has already discovered that “the Way” (the first name for the new faith, e.g. in Acts 9.2) must follow a different path from the faith of his fathers, even if it is a parallel track heading in the same direction.

Paul asks God to vouch for what he says, to convince the Philippians that he is serious. He tells them: “How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus!” This striking idea becomes yet more striking when we find that the Greek says “in”, not “with”. Paul is not simply following Christ’s compassionate example: he is somehow entering into the actual compassion of Christ himself. What precisely this says to us is hard to tease out: in Paul, the little words mean the most. But the heart of the message is plainly Jesus’s heart of love for humankind.

With this preparation to guide us, the Gospel stands today as a response to the cry of the prophet in Malachi 3. The messenger of the covenant is coming. Luke does his best to emphasise that, this time, the Bible message is not free-floating outside historical time: it does not shift between the political present and the imagined future, as prophetic texts do. He ties it to as many datable events as he can, emphasising its historical authenticity. The story of the adult Jesus begins with a prophet, a messenger. We know (roughly) his date and place of birth, his parentage, some details of his adult life, and also his name and title. That name is John. The title? The Baptiser.

Besides teaching the new church in Philippi, Paul also prays for it. This gives us another model for our own Advent prayers: “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best; so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Forthcoming Events

26 January 2022
Book launch: Entering the Twofold Mystery
Author Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley.

1 February 2022
Cathedrals and social justice
Book free tickets for this Church Times webinar with Mark Russell, Anne Richards and Adrian Dorber.

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