Living in the Present

Abstract: The theme of Advent’s second Sunday is the coming of the messenger. The concept of a messenger whom God will send firmly links the O.T. reading from Malachi with Luke’s account of the arrival of John the Baptist upon the scene. There is a striking resemblance between Malachi’s messenger and Luke’s John the Baptist. The unexpected nature of the message poses a challenge to the hearer.

Malachi writes: See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly (unexpectedly) come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.

Luke writes: Hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness (wilderness is an unexpected place): Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Both are messengers of hope.   We long for the coming of the messenger, yet as Malachi poses the question: will we be able to endure the day of his coming? Who among us will be able to stand when God’s messenger appears? The unexpected nature of the message lies in its power to surprize and disturb the hearer.

John the Baptist’s message promises the longed-for salvation. Yet, its arrival  disturbs everything – as we know it.  To borrow an image from science fiction channels, the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a massive terra-forming of the planet; a reshaping of the world as we know it. Paths that presently are crooked are to be made straight. Valleys are to be filled in with the material of hills that are to be leveled flat. And the rough terrain is to be smoothed out. It’s an uncomfortable realisation that human beings have been despoiling the earth by terraforming the planet for centuries, the prophetic imagery here functions as a metaphor for the remaking of human society at the hand of the Creator.

Malachi is among a slew of prophets known as the minor prophets, or alternatively, as the Twelve. The term minor refers not to the importance of their message but to the shortness of their books. We don’t know much about the prophet Malachi, and in fact the name Malachi simply means messenger, which is clearly a reference to God’s messenger in chapter three.

All twelve of the minor prophets speak into the historical period in the decades following the return of the Babylonian exiles in the middle of the fifth-century BC. The rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple expressed a powerful hope for a return to the glory days of King David.  The hope in this period could be summed up in the soundbite -let’s make Israel great again!

As Malachi looked around him he saw a period of reconstruction that had failed to recreate the nostalgic dream for a new Davidic age. The renewed institutions of national life centered on the temple were corrupt and demoralized.  Worship had degenerated into a listless perpetuation of form. The study of the Law – neglected. Taxes – unpaid. The Sabbath routinely broken. Intermarriage with pagans seemed the order of the day. The priesthood – corrupt, and the political leadership – self-serving. Malachi proclaims God’s impending judgement upon this situation. 

A tension permeated the Post-Exilic period between a nostalgic longing to recreate a vanished past and a stalled hope for an as yet  – unrealized future. The result was a present-time – marked by disillusionment and moral malaise. Doesn’t this all sound rather familiar?

Advent 2018 arrives at the end of another year of turmoil, rancor, and fear; a world caught in transition between the relative stability of a recent past and the hope and fear for an as yet – unrealized future. The past is gone. The future has yet to arrive. Like post-exilic Jewish society we also sit in a similar place of tension. The tension between a desire to recreate an imaginary golden past and the fear of an unknown future paralyses us, rendering us incapable of making the fruitful choices and decisions that could shape our renewal in the present.

Hope is greater than an attitude of optimism. The unexpectedness of Advent’s message lies in the counter intuitiveness of hope. Last week on Advent Sunday, in a few short, pithy sentences Linda reminded us that Advent’s message comes to us in the midst of social and political uncertainty and the devastation of ecological disasters all around us. Yet it’s not a message of defeat but one that unexpectedly exhorts us to:

stand up and raise our heads. Look up, look around, pay attention. Wait. Hope. Live faithfully. Don’t hide. Don’t panic. God is God. We are not.

In a piece printed in the Guardian newspaper, Ibram X Kendi, the director of the AntiracistResearch and Policy Center at American University, expresses for me the unexpectedness of Advent’s message:

The times when all seem lost are the times when we most need to see the people and ideas trailblazing the way out of the muck.

We live in an age when there are no more messengers, in the sense of someone coming to show us what we as yet need to know. Godself became the ultimate messenger in the human experience of Jesus. There remains one more act in the drama of salvation which will involve God’s final restoration of the creation. However, the function of the vision of the end time is to refocus our attention on what we need to be getting on with in the present time.

We live in an age when there is now only the message, and we hold the power of choice to heed the message or not. We have no need for another prophet to show us the way. What is needed is a greater commitment to sparking in one another the energy for new ideas, and most crucially of all – the energy to risk bold actions capable of trailblazing a way forward out of the muck and mire in which we currently find ourselves.

Hope, the prophetic tradition reminds us, also disturbs our self-protections; the false certainties that provide the illusion of safety. The world of the first quarter of the 21st-century is in transition as the 20th-century’s social and political tectonic plates break apart and begin to realign. The rampant creed of individualism – unchecked, of globalized, unrestricted venture capitalism  -unleashed, of wholesale destruction of the environment have brought us to a sticky end. As the tectonic plates of former certainties shatter, it will be the kind of stories we embrace that will really matter.

There will always be those who are easily manipulated into embracing the small and pernicious stories of our culture, which whenever previously embraced, have led to moral bankruptcy. I speak here of traditions of racism, of gender oppression, of military adventurism, of planetary exploitation for personal profit, of both laisse faire economics and nationalist protectionism.

The Advent hope is the greater story of the reign of God’s justice which is a vision: 

+ where racism is no longer intersecting with other bigotries to manipulate people away from their self-interest.

+ Where native and immigrant are united by common interest.

+ Where we honestly share our racial history.

+ Where free high-quality healthcare is a universal right.

+ Where guns are as controlled as much as motor vehicles.

+ Where voting is easy and accessible.  

+Where human activity is no longer the principle cause of environmental catastrophe.

Where we all can be fully human through embracing humanity fully?

Ibram X Kendi

Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming? The future begins now!

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