Advent is a season in which the messengers (Jesus, John the Baptist, and Mary) give us stark and mysterious language through which to look at the present from the vantage of the future. Visions of the future come from prophets.
We preachers like to talk about the eschatological focus of this time and put that important-sounding language on the days instead of seeing Advent as a time merely to “prepare” for the birth of Jesus. But to speak of end-times, that eschatological realm, is to speak of what we are preparing to witness, because that future is now, the babe is past and coming, and time has collapsed. What Advent does is help us to clarify what real preparation entails.
John the Baptist was of the lunatic fringe. He was physically on the fringe: on the banks of the Jordan, on the edge of the Promised Land. . . . He was psychologically on the fringe: a raging personality, insulting persons in authority, calling them to repent.
And yet the gospel tells us that John spoke a message of truth. This is the truth from the wild to the world. In the world persons live steady, stable, “normal” lives, constrained by the necessity of making a living and a desire to get along. In the wild, one is loosed from constraint and able to speak with a freedom that knows no bounds. With his wild ways, the voice of John the Baptist brought the world to attention.
For the people of Israel, the world was the promised land, which the Lord had carved for them out of the desert. The promised land had meaning, order and safety. The temple gave meaning as a reminder of God's presence. The Law provided order. Safety came from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Surrounding this ordered world was the desert, dangerous for the body as well as the soul. Wild animals threatened the body. . . Temptations threatened the soul. . . Only the holy could survive there. Elijah or Jesus went there to be tested. If order and meaning were to be found in the world, truth and holiness were to be found in the wild.
It is similar in the Western imagination. Whether in Europe or in America, the “world” of order was that settled place, carved out of the dangerous wilderness. . . . The world needs to stay in conversation with the wild. Though Israel was born in the wild, during forty years of wandering in the desert, they could not leave it behind them. Once in the promised land, they could forget the wild only at their own peril. The prophets reminded them of it. – Fritz West
The prophet Malachi points to the voice from the wilderness, as well, the place where what is not essential is burned away. We Christians link the prophets of the Old Testament with the one for whom we are to “prepare the way.” We may also see the image of the fire that refines as an image of salvation for which we are preparing.
Is Immanuel the one who comes as a fire to burn away the dross and refine us, like the descendents of Levi processed into pure gold and silver, so that our offerings, our lives, will please God (Malachi 3:3)?
. . . Perhaps the question is less about the character of the Coming One, and more about us. If we are hard-pressed and need rescue, we require a strong savior riding upon the clouds and smiting those who oppress us; if we enjoy relative comfort, especially if our wealth and privilege are derived from the exploitation or oppression of others, we must expect that the new order will ensure that those who are hungry now are filled while we may be sent empty away. – Scott Haldeman
In Malachi, the refiner's fire and the fuller's soap (the latter reappears in descriptions of the Transfiguration) do not bring purity as an end in itself. Rather, they purify so that we may present offerings in righteousness. . . . But what might this mean for the “royal priesthood” (1 Peter) of the baptized? . . . How do we prepare ourselves to be pure and blameless, producing the “harvest of righteousness” (Phil. 1:10–11)? – Ron Anderson
Fritz West, a liturgical author and retired pastor of the United Church of Christ, lives in Marine on the St. Croix, Minnesota, and serves as the Presiding Member of the Association for Reformed & Liturgical Worship Steering Committee.
W. Scott Haldeman is associate professor of worship at Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.
E. Byron (Ron) Anderson is the Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Worship and the Director of the Nellie B. Ebersole Program in Music Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
Homily Service 40, no. 1 (2007): 21-30.