Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6.
Advent knows of Messengers, who appear with world-encompassing warnings.
(This is the alternate reading; the primary is Baruch 5:1-9.)
I have chosen to comment on the alternate prophetic reading for this Sunday, from the book of Malachi.
The term “malachi” is not a name; it is the phrase “my messenger,” later taken up and used as if it were a proper name. See Special Note on Books, Scrolls, and Malachi below.
The Malachi prophecy itself comes from a time when the priestly establishment in Jerusalem was in sad condition (between 500 and 450 BCE). Priestly duties were neglected and corrupt; morale was very low. The anonymous prophet who speaks here announces that a radical change is coming. God in person is about to come, and is sending a “messenger” to clean house in preparation.
Messenger. This word is usually translated, in other contexts, as “angel.” The imagery behind the term is the heavenly court of God Most High, conceived as the mighty world sovereign presiding over his chief retainers, who are powerful lords in their own right. (These heavenly lords were later thought of as angels, each with a nation or province as his responsibility, as can be seen in Daniel 8-12.)
This emperor is going to make a “VISIT” – a grand assize of one of the provinces. A member of the heavenly court – himself a powerful lord – will go ahead and put things in spit and polish order for the great royal visit. This heavenly noble (with military connotations intended) is the awesome power announced in this prophecy:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord [a title, not Yahweh] whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming says the Lord [Yahweh] of hosts. (Verse 1, NRSV.)
This, of course, is a very awesome thing.
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…and he will purify the descendants of Levi [the priests] and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord [Yahweh] in righteousness (verses 2-3).
The early Jesus followers soon recognized that this prophecy had been fulfilled in their own times: John the Baptizer was in fact this Messenger!
The psalm reading comes, not from the book of Psalms, but from Luke’s cycle of birth stories. It is the psalm called the Benedictus, after its first word in the Latin translation, and it presents the first ecstatic speech of Zechariah after his nine months of silence. Zechariah had been struck dumb for doubting that God could give him a son in his old age (1:18-20). Now John, later to be the Baptist, has been born and named, as the heavenly messenger had instructed, and Zechariah can speak. The Benedictus is what he says.
This hymn anticipates a salvation and speaks of a redemption as if it has already happened. God is blessed because God has (already) “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” A “horn of salvation” has been raised “in the house of his servant David.” This “horn” cannot be a reference to John, because he was born to the house of Aaron. The reference is to a Davidic messiah, and by Luke’s time that can only be Jesus, yet to be born and identified.
This redemption through the house of David, however, will fulfill what was spoken by the “holy prophets” of old, meaning such prophecies as the shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-5). There a spirit-empowered ruler “with righteousness … shall judge the poor,” and “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth [in the process of delivering wise judgments].” The fulfillment theme also extends back to the covenant with Abraham, which includes the past salvation (exodus) and the establishing of the people in holiness and righteousness.
There is a sharp transition in the blessing at verse 76. Now Zechariah is talking to the newly-born John and declares he will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. The hymn does not require that “the Lord” here mean Jesus, though Luke’s audience probably understood it that way. Read strictly in its own terms, this passage can refer to John preparing the way for God’s own coming, in judgment and salvation, as in Isaiah 40:9-11 and Malachi 3:1-5.
Even in the Gospel as it stands, however, this hymn claims Israel’s inherited promises to David and to Abraham as the basis for John’s place in history as well as Jesus’.
This Benedictus proclaims this modest priestly birth as a major event in the destiny of Israel.
The Epistle reading is almost a rerun of last Sunday’s reading from I Thessalonians, only this time with the church in Philippi. The passage has the same climax, the confidence that the faithful in Philippi will hold their course of faith and love so that “in the day of Christ,” they will present “the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (verse 10, NRSV).
The very strong ties of affection between the Apostle and his converts in the Roman colonial city are lifted up: He can count on them “because you hold me in your heart,” and “God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (verses 7-8).
These opening thanksgivings of Paul’s letters make it clear that for many, at least, Apostle and people were caught up in a great love affair.
The appearance of John the Baptist is a traditional feature of Advent, here given in the Gospel reading from Luke.
Luke’s presentation is distinctive because he sets John in the full context of world history. Two verses are given to the names of emperors, governors, minor provinces, and high priests – names often hard to pronounce during readings in services.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly, however, that these names and titles are very central to Luke’s Gospel. This is the Gospel that is continued in the book of Acts, which traces the work of the Holy Spirit from John the Baptist to the preaching of the gospel by Paul in Rome. For Luke above all, the gospel enters into history, and the power and meaning of that gospel are to be unfolded by relating its history.
Thus the greatest of Roman emperors, Augustus, stands at the head of the chapter telling of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:1), and the next emperor, Tiberius, stands at the head of the narrative of John’s appearance and preaching. Besides Tiberius, of course, are Pontius Pilate, a couple of sons of Herod the Great, each ruling his own domain in John’s time, and two high priests, both of whom will appear when Jesus is in Jerusalem. John’s appearance is dated by Luke to the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign, making it approximately the year 29 of the Christian Era.
But while the location of John’s appearance in Roman history is important to Luke, even more important is the location of John in relation to prophecy. That is what the rest of our reading is about. God spoke to John and sent him to fulfill the great prophecy in Isaiah about the breaking out of good news for Zion:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord …
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
(verses 4-6, NRSV)
John’s preaching work is preparing the way; it is the message of judgment imminent, with repentance urgent now, before the axe falls. Next Sunday we will hear John’s words of Judgment, which prepare for another more blessing word yet to come.
Special Note on “Books,” Scrolls, and “Malachi.”
Modern Christians think of Malachi as the last book of the Old Testament, and so it is in printed Christian Bibles.
In ancient times, however, there was no Bible – no single large “book” containing all the scriptures. The Jewish scriptures in Hebrew occupied 22 to 24 separate scrolls, and in Greek closer to 30 scrolls. “The scriptures,” therefore, consisted of one or more large cupboards with pigeonholes for the many scrolls scribes (or the few others who could read) needed in their studies. The only order of the “books” was by content: the Exodus narrative followed the Genesis narrative, etc. Books like Psalms, Job, and Proverbs were shelved as the presiding scribe thought fit. Prophetic books were grouped vaguely by historical period of the prophet mainly involved. Fixed order of scrolls was established only after the invention of the codex, the “book.”
Christians adopted the codex (quires of pages fastened at the side – our “book”) around 200 CE. – at first, to put all four Gospels in one big “book.” (Each Gospel had previously been a separate scroll.) The first complete Bibles, containing both Old and New Testaments in Greek – huge works, very expensive – were made by or for a few wealthy churches in Egypt and Syria beginning in the 4th century, a generation after Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman empire. (Jews kept using scrolls for their scriptures until sometime in the early Middle Ages – and still use scrolls today for their Torah readings in Synagogue.)
How We Got Malachi. In both Hebrew and Greek there was a separate big scroll called “the Scroll of the Twelve [Prophets].” This scroll, almost the size of the big Isaiah scroll, contained mostly smaller collections of prophetic oracles from such as Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc., but also included a short story about a prophet – the story of Jonah.
At the end of this scroll there were three prophetic pamphlets, all beginning, “A burden: the word of Yahweh to/concerning...” The Hebrew technical term massā’, translated “burden” in the King James Version, is variously translated “oracle” (RSV, NRSV, ESV), “prophecy” (NIV 2011ed), “message” (NJB), or “pronouncement” (NJPS 1999 ed, CEV). The word literally means a load, something lifted, something picked up and carried, thus, metaphorically a message carried to someone else. The word is so used many times in the scroll of Isaiah.
These three pamphlets headed “burden” followed the original collection of Zechariah oracles (Zechariah 1-8). The first two pamphlets (now Zechariah 9-11 and Zechariah 12-14) came to be treated as continuations of Zechariah, though they are very different in content from Zechariah’s original prophecies. Modern scholars call these first two pamphlets Deutero-Zechariah, the second “book” of Zechariah.
The third pamphlet had the heading, “Burden: the word of Yahweh to Israel by the hand of my messenger.” “My messenger” in Hebrew is mal’ākî, which, after going through Greek and Latin, became “Malachi” in Modern English. The Greek translation of the heading of the pamphlet is, “Burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel by the hand of his angel [Greek angelos means “messenger”].” The heading of the pamphlet, therefore, does not contain a proper name. “My messenger” is a title, not a name – until later pious folks needed it to be a name. It was then decided that this whole pamphlet was a separate prophecy by someone named Malachi. This process of turning the title into a name probably happened when it was decided that the big scroll contained the writings of exactly TWELVE prophets. The last pamphlet was peeled off to be the twelfth “book” of the scroll. That would have happened sometime between 350 and 200 BCE.
Thus the “book” of Malachi is actually an anonymous pamphlet that was added to the other “minor” (that is, “small”) prophetic scrolls to make up the “twelve” someone had decided was the number needed. This pamphlet has its own character and historical setting (a century or so after the exile), addressed to the degeneration of temple service, plus a couple of social evils, before the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were carried out around and after 450 BCE.