“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” Malachi 3:1
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner r
This year, as much as I have tried to experience Advent through the eyes of my daughter as I wrote last week. It has been more or less an experience of Advent through the eyes of Wendall Berry, that is, a quote from him has been running through my head repeatedly and I have even featured it as a Quote of the Week, the quote goes like this: “It gets darker and darker and then, Jesus is born.” I first stumbled across it in a book by Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in 10,000 Places, A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. and now it has become the central theme to my observance of Advent in 2020, in large part, because 2020 has progressed from darker to darker and in that, hope has been squeezed tighter and tighter that it seems the only hope for light of any kind, for hope of any kind, is the arrival of Jesus on the Manger Throne and then his ascension to the throne of the cross to the final ascension to the throne of David. It makes me long for that day of the Lord that Malachi 4 talks about, the burning up of the wicked and the healing of the righteous.
I have had years like this before, many of you will remember my reflection on Christmas 2015 when I sat in a bus station in New York City on my way home from seminary reflecting on the year, my Job year, if you will, when God stripped everything (lit everything) from me and all I got in response was “I Am.” He was the dayspring of my restoration then, who would have thought that in March of 2016 I would meet Rachel, propose in October, Marry her in May of 2017 and welcome an amazing little child of our own in 2019 (and now we are adding another in 2021). My world in 2015 got darker and darker and then, God showed up. In a lot of ways, I am who I am today because of that dark day in February 2015 that I still cannot really remember. Now though, it feels as though the world has been drawn into a job year, but instead of the church mourning and seeking God, we have decided to add to the darkness.
I said in a sermon a few weeks ago that: “The most discouraging thing about 2020, and in fact the first decade of my Adult life has been seeing the way Christians have treated one another.” Case in point, I have had colleagues who have been threatened by their congregations for disagreeing with them on Politics, some national attention has been given to pastors stepping down over the way their churches have treated them. I have largely been able to steer clear of that kind of treatment, at least to my face, and have tried to gently remind my congregation that we, the Church, are supposed to be better than this. The irony, we are going to get the final answer to all this in the same manner Job did, “I Am” but many of us won’t get to experience the restoration because we have thrown our lot in with the wicked and will need Job to intercede on our behalf at the altar. Though in our case, it will be Jesus interceding if we truly repent and turn from the wickedness, conspiracy and fear mongering, lying and dehumanizing other image bearers whom God loves.
This year has provided me one major opportunity, I have always been a student of Biblical Theology, and while my duties as a pastor have expanded in 2020, so has my time to really dig into the nitty gritty of biblical theology. It started as I began to preach through Isaiah 7, 36 and 40 in the weeks leading up to the Election and it continued as I studied Malachi 3-4 and it continues as I prepare for my four week series on the question: “What is Advent?” Through this, the Spirit has been reteaching, and deepening my understanding of truths I always knew, but which have now gone so much deeper and have left me in awe. The first truth is that God is the maker of trustworthy promises. Isaiah speaks of a baby being born, or deliverance for Judah, if they would only trust Him, then He promises a forerunner, a way maker in the dessert for the coming of God. Malachi picks up these promises, placing the context of the fulfillment of 3-4 in a New Covenant world where Elijah appears and then after Elijah, God himself shows up, just as in Isaiah’s prophesy, except in Malachi he comes as the one who cuts a new covenant for them to delight in, a refiner of the religious and a judge against those who oppress the needy or who practice the vice lists of the Old and New Testament. Then he comes again, in power, to burn up the wicked, following another Elijah like figure (4:5) who does the work of reconciliation and again, prepares the way of the Lord to come as King.
Then we come to Luke 1 in the days of Herod and we find an old man and barren wife, a Priest of the order of Abijah who is selected by lots for the once in a lifetime opportunity to offer the incense offering after the afternoon sacrifice. Before him stands an Angel named Gabriel who tells him that the impossible is going to happen, his wife will conceive and have a son and his name is going to be John and he is going to be the forerunner, the way maker, that Isaiah and Malachi had prophesied about. He is going to begin that reconciling work, to renew the people to wisdom and truth and prepare the way of the Lord.
Six months later, hundreds of miles away from the glitz and glam of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, in a poor backwater named Galilee, in a town known for its roughens, Nazareth, the same Angel appears to a young girl who has found favor with God, but unlike Elizabeth who has been barren and is beyond child bearing age, this girl has never even had sex. Still, she is going to conceive and give birth to a son and this son will be named Jesus, Matthew calls him Jesus Christ, and He will have amazing titles, “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.” This is why the Church has long called Mary “The Mother of God” (Theotokos in Greek), because that is what Gabriel is calling her, that is what Luke is telling us she is. The Holy Spirit would come and plant the seed that would grow into the Godman, Incarnate Deity, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. Just as the Holy Spirit brooded over the waters in Genesis 1, it would brood over this virgins womb and just as God created by speaking The Word, God would create life in this girls womb even though she had never known a man. John, who was also a miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit in the once barren womb of the elderly Elizabeth would come six months before Jesus.
In John’s gospel we get a glimpse then of what Malachi is talking about in 3:1. John appears, preparing the way, then immediately God appears as the Incarnate Son and he enters the temple and cleanses it and works to cleanse and refine the Pharisees through extensive discourses and private conversations with men like Nicodemus. He also pronounces Judgement on the evil doers who claim to know Him, but whose works deny Him.
I know I am not the first to make these connections, you can find them in most Biblical Theological Tomes, but this Advent they have been ever before me as I read the Prophets and Gospels side by side. But they also stand out because of the context in which both Isiah and Malachi’s Prophesies are written into. Malachi is the last prophetic word spoken before 400 years of silence, Isiah witnesses the fall of one kingdom and the end of sovereignty of another, he lives through the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, he watches as things get darker and darker, as Ahaz refuses to trust God at the pool by the highway to the Washer’s Field and he sees, witnesses in vivid detail all the consequences for that one decision. It gets darker and darker and then, a voice cries in the wilderness. Malachi lives in Jerusalem after the return from Exile, a disgraced and reduced people, the Jews are living in poverty in Jerusalem and somehow they have found their way back into the same sins, both active and passive that angered God and sent them into exile in the first place. The Gospel renew of Ezra is still 40 years away, the wall rebuilding under Nehemiah is even further. It gets darker and darker and then, God stops speaking, but not without predicting a messenger and God himself appearing. Again, the words of Wendall Berry come to mind: “It gets darker and darker and then, Jesus is born.”
But the world Jesus was born into was far from sunshine and kittens, it was like the prophets, except, instead of a foreign power oppressing the people by itself, a religious system had also arisen, out of the good intentions of Ezra and Nehemiah, that was oppressing the people. Caiaphas, the shrewd leader of the Sanhedrin who was just a young priest at Jesus’s birth would, by his death, have formed a tense and uneasy alliance with Rome so that they were not just oppressing the people separately, they were oppressing them as one unit. For their part, the appearance of this teacher who claimed to be: “The bread of life” was something incredibly new and even foreign. They were used to getting their bread and circuses from Rome, suddenly they did not have to rely on the Synagogue or the Romans? Jesus is also born during the reign of King Herod, a usurper to the Davidic throne who tries to kill the baby king in the manger throne. Jesus is not even a year old and his life is threatened by a world that does not want Him. But, light has broken through, it is no longer completely dark, John confirms the Wendall Barry quote when he writes: “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Our own time is not much different, and I am not just talking about 2020, it seems the world has gotten darker and darker in the last decade. Are good things happening? Of course, they are, but we live in a world where negative news sells, and positive news is deemed “boring.” Our social media feeds fill up with negative story after negative story. We get on Twitter and see Christians acting like two-year old’s in one breath and sharing a scripture meme in the next. The world sees this and is surprised, you quote that scripture, but a second ago you did not live that out when you insulted someone you disagree with, how is any of what you say real? How can we trust you?
Should we be surprised though, Jesus and Paul both tell us that many will fall away, that there will be disasters and darkness, literal darkness, as the moon and sun go dark and other things happen before the day of the Lord comes. Still, most of what Jesus tells us the world will do to us is followed by the line: “But these things are not yet the end.” (Matt. 24:6). We like to think that things can’t get worse, but the Christian Experience around the world tells us that they can, and they probably will. How comfortable have we become that even the slight discomfort of not being invited to the part is considered being killed for our faith. Meanwhile we have brothers and sisters in countries whose names you know who will die, today, tomorrow, next week, just for professing faith in Jesus Christ. One of the points Jesus makes repeatedly is that the people who love him, who are found in him, will face persecution and likely death. But earthly death is nothing compared to the wonder that will be eternal life with Jesus. Losing our soul for the halls of this power in our world is not worth it, but one of the reasons it keeps getting darker is that the light of the world, the Church, in some places has fallen in love with and followed after the world, instead of Christ.
Even so, we should expect things to keep getting darker if what Jesus and Paul said are true, and we have to believe they are. Then if I may be allowed the liberty of slightly modifying the Wendall Berry quote to fit our own times: “It will get darker and darker and then, Jesus will come.” Christian, Advent amid the ever darker gives us the ability to look forward, to understand that while the age of salvation will end, just as the age of the fall did, like the age of the fall, what replaces it will be greater still than we can ever imagine, the age of total restoration for all who are found in Christ. At the same time while we are living here in the ever darker the light still shines and no matter how dark it gets; the light will continue to shine. The world cannot put it out, but it will someday put out the world.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center