A voice crying in the wilderness. A messenger sent to prepare the way before the Lord. Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, preparing the way of the Lord, making the paths straight
This is how some time after it all happened the gospel writers came to understand the work of John the Baptist. As the work of a messenger, a forerunner, as of somebody preparing the way for somebody else that was still to come.
A rather strange man this John, preaching fire and brimstone in rather colorful language on the borders of the river Jordan, wearing a cloak of camel hair and eating locusts, submerging those he convinced of their failings in the murky waters of the river.
There was probably some politics involved in the way the gospel writers wrote about the Baptist. It is highly likely that at the time of the development of the gospels there were those who believed John the Baptist to be the Messiah and Jesus only a disciple and a follower. The gospel writers were probably trying to prove the opposite and set the record straight while writing down the story of Jesus as they saw it.
They turned to the prophets, whom they must have known very well, for support of their argument. The text from Malachi one that fit the reality as they saw it very well: Jesus the long awaited Messiah, John his messenger there to announce and prepare his coming.
The image of the messenger going before his King had its origin in the imagery of the courts of the mighty of those days. A king would send a messenger ahead to announce his coming, or even as a locum when He himself had other commitments somewhere else. This messenger represented the King in a quite radical way. He was, in a certain respect, the King. If he was treated well, it was considered homage to the King. If he was maltreated, the king was maltreated. His words had as much authority as the words of the King. He stopped existing as a private person while in the service of the King. Often He would carry the ring of the King or another image with him as a sign of the trust that had been placed in him. As a sign of the importance of his office, as a sign he could act like a locum in the absence of the King himself.
So when we talk about John the Baptist as the messenger, were talking about a role of significance, a likeness that is very close to the real thing, a carrier of the image of the King that is to come.
Malachi, of course, when he wrote at around 450 BC had no idea there would be a John the Baptist, or even a Jesus of Nazareth. All he knows is that the services in the temple are neglected and that people have lost faith. The people around him wonder what difference faith makes. They see the wicked prosper, they see the pious suffer and they wonder out loud: what difference does it make? One is probably better of without a faith! They are disappointed with the world, disillusioned, the good times Isaiah predicted would follow exile have never come. So where is God? What is he doing if not making our lives comfortable? Is He perhaps no longer interested in the world? It looks like doing the right thing doesnt pay, so why bother?
It is against these sorts of views that Malachi takes up arms and he does it by placing the ball firmly in the court of those who are asking all the questions. God is waiting for you he says, patiently waiting until your righteousness will start to shine.
I found a story this week that explains it well:
A group of women were studying the book of Malachi. They came to verse three of chapter three, which says, "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver." This verse puzzled the women. They wondered what they could learn from it about the character and nature of God. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and report back to the group at their next Bible study. She phoned a silversmith and made and appointment to watch him work. She didnt mention anything about the reason for her interest other than her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched, the silversmith held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that he needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire, where the flames are hottest, in order to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us where the "flames" are hottest. She remembered that the verse says God "sits" as a refiner and purifier of silver, so she asked the silversmith if its true that he has to sit by the fire the whole time while the silver is being refined. The man answered that, yes, he not only has to sit there holding the silver, but he must keep his eyes on it the entire time because if it is left even a moment too long in the flames, it will be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked, "how do you know when the silver is fully refined?" He smiled at her and said: "Oh, that is easy when I can see my image in it."
I thought this quite a moving illustration of what Malachi meant when he talked about the messenger and about God as a refiner and a silversmith patiently refining and purifying the silver until He could see his image in it. God patiently waiting for the raw material to start shining and reflecting his image. God holding the material while it is in the flame, suffering but gaining brightness, more and more able to show up Gods imagine as the process runs its course. The question not what God is doing and why he is waiting so long, the question is what we are doing and why we that are held in the flame take so long. But held, all the time, by the hands of a craftsman that knows exactly what he is doing: waiting for his image to show up in every part of his creation.
John the Baptist showed quite a bit of the image of God. Jesus was the perfect image of God in a life of righteousness and love. He was born in a stable and died on a cross. The God we are expecting is not a God who comes to put things to rights with a few well aimed hits from on high. He is a God who comes in the night, a vulnerable child that waits for the image of God to show in those around him, a man on a cross, surrendering himself unto death into the hands of men. He is a God who after overcoming death itself again puts himself in the hands of people.
Gives himself to them, asking them to live out His life in theirs.
This is my body, broken for you, this is my blood, shed for you. And says: Eat, drink, and become part of me. Communion itself an image of who this God is: Giving, sharing, of Himself until all is spent, and all are satisfied, gathering his people together from east and west and north and south, feeding them, loving them, showing them what life could be like if it was lived in his image. A life of giving, sharing, spending everything on love, peace, and unity.
In us the Lord seeks to find messengers that will carry his image in the world. Messengers like John, who speak Gods truth in the wilderness and look for signs of the Kingdom coming, prepare the way of the Lord. Held by God, in the flame of the refiner, mirroring his image more and more as they go. In us Christ seeks to come, again and again, it is in us he is preparing the road towards his Kingdom, in us he wants to offer to the world his righteousness.