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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Are You Ready to Listen?

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

In 1970, as college campuses were rocked by student strikes and protests over the widening of the war in Vietnam, a small book was published entitled The Late, Great Planet Earth. Written by former Campus Crusade staff member Hal Lindsey, the book became the best-selling non-fiction book of the 1970's. To date, it has sold over 28 million copies. The premise of the book is that -- as of 1970 -- the world may be in its last generation before the rapture of Christians and the beginning of a great tribulation preceding the thousand-year reign of Christ. The beginning of the end times was the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948, Lindsey inferred, and one generation -- thirty, then adjusted to forty years -- afterwards would be 1978 or 1988. That, Lindsey implied, was about whom Jesus was talking when he said "this generation shall not pass away before all these things take place."

Do you all remember the panic ten years ago that the world -- at least the part of the world governed by IBM-related computers -- was going to come to an end at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve? Preachers had so-called Bible prophecy lined up to prove their case for the end. Of course, those of us with Macintoshes, which had four-digit year clocks, knew we were safe.

For the last two thousand years, there's been no shortage of prophecies of the end -- or of prophecies in general. Augustine thought that when the Goths sacked Rome in 410, it was a sign of the end of the world. Luther thought that the Pope was the anti-Christ. William Miller, a preacher in western New York state, researched biblical dates and carefully calculated that the world was ending in 1844. His followers, who believed they had been spared for a special purpose, are now called Seventh Day Adventists. Charles Taze Russell decided on the basic of biblical study that Christ would return in 1874. His followers are now called the Jehovah's Witnesses. Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe, and a host of preachers and teachers have made hay, and some a great deal of money, predicting the imminent end of the world, all on the basis of what they called "Bible prophecy."

Today's lessons are actual Bible prophecy. The Book of Malachi was probably written about 450 BC to condemn priestly corruption in the Second Temple. Today's reading refers to a messenger who will come before God's arrival to purify the Temple and the nation. The messenger may be Malachi, warning the priests to clean up their act before God arrives. Or, it may be a reference to someone who was already stirring up trouble among the priests, trying to reform them. This troublemaker, Malachi says, is God's agent.

In the lesson from the gospel, Luke interprets the mission of John the Baptizer in the light of Isaiah, chapter 40. Isaiah, writing at the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon around 525 BC, was interpreting something that had already happened: Cyrus, King of Persia, had conquered Babylon and had freed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem and their Temple. A great leveling was taking place, Isaiah said, and God was preparing a metaphorical interstate for the Jews to travel back home.

Six hundred years later, Luke looked at the ministry of John the Baptizer, who prepared the way for Jesus by announcing the coming of the Messiah and by calling the Jews to repentance. It was just like Isaiah, Luke said: John was out there in the wilderness, preparing the way. God was at work evening out all the inequities -- the low places and low people would be lifted up, and the high places and high people would be brought down.

As we look at these two passages, it's important to understand what Bible prophecy is, and what it isn't. It is NOT fortune telling or prediction of the future. That is at best the misunderstanding, and at worst the outright lie, that many Christians promote. The prophetic books of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic passages in the New Testament, especially Revelation, are not about the current nation of Israel or the European Union or President Obama or Social Security or nationalized healthcare or Osama bin Laden. They are first and foremost about the times in which they were written: scholars can date the Book of Daniel almost to the month of its writing because its thinly veiled references to King Antochus Epiphanes IV are historically verifiable up to a certain point in chapter 9, but then unverifiable afterwards. The Book of Revelation was understood in the second and third centuries AD to have been written during and about the persecutions of the Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century AD. If you read Revelation with the Bible in one hand and a history of first-century Rome in the other, the book becomes astoundingly clear.

In the Bible, the role of the prophet is not to predict events, but to interpret them. What we see all around us, the prophet says, is part of a much larger picture. Here is what is going on underneath, within, above, and beyond the obvious. So, when Luke appropriates Isaiah's imagery to describe John the Baptizer, Luke is telling us that God is doing once again, through John, what God did before in Babylon: God is going to restore a broken and enslaved people to new life, new faith, and new hope. John was not some accidental crazy man out in the desert: he was part of Jesus' ministry and an agent of God's redemptive work in the world. The power of Biblical prophecy is that again and again it points to God's never-ending work to heal, reclaim, and revive the Creation.

Beware of people, no matter how sterling their pedigree, who use the Bible to predict the future. That's a fundamental -- irony intended -- misuse of the text. The Bible doesn't claim to be a kind of spiritual Farmer's Almanac, telling us what's going to happen and when. Anyone who uses it for that purpose is abusing it. What the Bible does is point us to the meaning beneath the surface. It's true over and over and over because the meaning is always the same: human beings are always trying to live as though God does not exist, and God is always trying to get them to understand how much they are loved and how much better everything would be if they lived in love with God and in love with each other.

If Advent is a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, then we need to listen to the prophecies. Not the prophecies of the end of the world and of the conspiracy of the day. We need to listen to the prophecy that says God is always trying to level the playing field, to straighten out our crooked ways of living and moving, to smooth out the roughness of our lives, and to clear all the ways we cloud God's grace, mercy, and love. God is shouting that good news in the sound of sheer silence: are you ready to listen?

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