Sermon: Becoming a True Messenger of the Lord

The Sermon preached by the Revd. Canon Michael Penfield, the Vicar-General of the Convocation of the West in The Missionary Diocese of All Saints, at St. Luke’s Chapel in the Hills, Los Altos Hills, CA, on Sunday, December 5th, 2021, the Second Sunday in Advent.

        “‘Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come,’ saith the Lord of hosts.” [Malachi 3:1]

Today, in our Old Testament lesson, we read from the apocalyptic text of the prophet Malachi. Now many of us, when we hear the word “apocalypse”, think of some sort of horrific end of the world. This is actually a misinterpretation of the word “apocalypse.” It is a result, in part, of the writings and sermons of some evangelical preachers and, in part, of Hollywood, which loves a good horror/action film. But this is not the true meaning of this word.  “Apocalypse” comes from the Greek, meaning, “to pull back a veil.” This word was later correctly translated into Latin by the Church, which gives us the word “Revelation”. Again the Latin means to “unveil”, which you can almost hear in the English word “re-VEIL-ation”.

And this is precisely what the Prophet Malachi is doing. He is pulling back the veil and revealing to mankind what will happen. The only problem is that, with most revelations like this, time is sort of “squished” together. Malachi reveals both the first and the second coming of Jesus, the Christ. Isaiah did the same. So, we have both the Messiah coming as Savior and as Judge in the same prediction, and it sounds almost like it will happen at the same time. It was not until Christ fulfilled His role as Savior that mankind began to realize that the judgment would come later.

This is precisely why our Psalm for today is so important. It reveals in the last stanza the fact that these two “comings” will happen at different times AND it unveils this truth using terms that the average Israelite, being agrarian, would understand:

He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. [Psalm 126:6]

He that “goeth forth” is none other than Christ. Picture for a moment His precious death upon the Cross. Jesus bore all our sins and wept from the burden of it all. He did so to save us. And we who become Christians and accept Christ as our personal Savior are His precious seed. When He comes again as our Judge, He will, with great rejoicing, bring in His sheaves, as the old hymn recalls.

But, that being said, the message from Malachi is a powerful one and predicted accurately the coming of and the ministry of Saint John the Baptist:

“‘Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come,’ saith the Lord of hosts.” [Malachi 3:1]

And this is what we also see in the Gospel lesson for today.

As many of us may recall, Saint Luke was very concerned to document the historicity of Jesus’ life, death AND resurrection. So, for that reason, we often get references to who were ruling the areas involved and who was the high priest at the time of the events being reported. At this particular time, when Tiberius was Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor, and Caiaphas was High Priest, Saint John was in the desert when “the word of God came unto” him. Now, please note, this passage has the possibility of a double entendre. Does Saint Luke mean that Saint John received a message from God, or does he mean that Jesus went out and met with Saint John? After all, we often refer to Christ as the “Word of God.” I wonder.

Regardless, Saint John then started his ministry. And this ministry is well documented. The great, ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about Saint John’s ministry and execution. And Saint Luke quotes Isaiah to prove that Saint John is the fulfillment of prophecy and apocalyptic scripture:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” [Luke 3:4b-6]

Saint John is the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He fulfilled this revelation by Isaiah, and he fulfilled the apocalyptic prediction of Malachi. And both of these things point to the legitimacy of Jesus as Messiah.

But that brings us to the Epistle of Saint Paul. What does this section of his first epistle to the Corinthians have to do with the role of Saint John and the apocalyptic vision of the prophet Malachi? Why was this passage placed in the readings for today? Praying on this very question I started to see something. I started to ask and see why these passages are important to all Christians:

“Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God.” [1Cor. 4:1]

Let us look at what the Malachi prophesied so many centuries ago:

“‘Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and the Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come,’ saith the Lord of hosts.” [Malachi 3:1]

I submit to you that the point of Saint Paul’s epistle is to stress that all of us are to be like Saint John; all of us are to announce the good news of our Lord to a doubt-filled world.

If we are to look at the epistle for today, we will see a troubled Saint Paul. He is troubled because the very sophisticated members of the church he had formed in Corinth are starting to look down on him as rather shallow:

“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ. We are weak, but ye are strong: ye are honorable, but we are despised.” [1 Cor. 4:10]

Saint Paul uses sarcasm in this section to make a point, and his point is a powerful one:

“For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now, if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” [1 Cor. 4:7]

The Corinthians became Christians like everyone else. They received salvation from the grace of God, and not by any act on their part; they were filled with the Holy Spirit and were baptized. Then they started thinking that they saved themselves. This is a common heresy, which is attributable to Pelagius. It is the belief that we can save ourselves, that we do not need the grace of God and that, in turn and through extension and implication, we do not really need Christ. As Saint Paul tells us, the Corinthians were becoming “puffed up”, which is a very vivid description.

But there is more. In the course of his writing on where the Corinthians are going astray, Saint Paul speaks of his own ministry. He speaks of his ministry bringing people to Christ. He is another “crying in the wilderness”:

“I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.” [1 Cor. 4:14-16]

What we can see here is that we have Saint Paul wanting the Corinthians to imitate him in “the Way”. “The Way” is referenced in the Acts of the Apostles as a synonym for “Christianity” and was used in the early Church. He also wants them to see himself, Paul, as their spiritual “father”, and here we also see how “Father” became a title of respect for those who are our spiritual leaders.

But I also see this as a call to all of us to be messengers and to be disciples of Christ, crying in the wilderness.

It is easy to say, “Well that was Saint John’s role”. It is easy to say, “Look at that guy over there passing out pamphlets. No one is going to listen to him. He is a fool.” It is easy to come up with reasons NOT to spread the good news. But, are we fulfilling our role. Are we doing what we ought?

George McNeely used to love an old preacher by the name of J. Vernon McGee. McGee was an evangelical Presbyterian minister down in Pasadena. He had a Bible study that went through the entire Bible in 5 years, and George gave me that study for my own edification.

There was one part of Mr. McGee’s lecture that has always stood out in my memory. Mr. McGee would tell of a time he was a young man, hitchhiking across this country. When a driver picked him up, he would wonder if he should speak to the driver about Christ. He confessed that he found this quite difficult. So he prayed. He prayed that, if God wanted him to speak to this driver, God would provide an opening in the conversation. And sure enough, it happened. McGee was able to speak to the driver about Christ. That is how he approached spreading the Gospel, and his church in Pasadena became one of the biggest.

Do we speak to others about Christ? Or are we afraid to? Or do we think that this is “not our role”? These are the questions we must ask ourselves. These are the questions I often ask myself. If speaking to others is NOT our calling, what is? How do we show the world that we are Christians? How do we show the love of God in what we do AND also in what we say? These are not easy questions, but they are critical.

We have something precious and beautiful to share. Is it really good to hide it away? We need to let the world know what we know. We are to be messengers. This may mean “crying in the wilderness,” and it may mean being fools for Christ. But, we are to do this anyway, not because it is we who saves, but because God is telling us that He wants us to proclaim the Truth. We need to let others know, and then let the grace of God work on them.

Time is short. We need to act. We need to proclaim. And we need to do it in all humility and love, and not as if we are all puffed up and self-important. And the best way to do this is through – listening.

We must listen to others, and we must listen to God. If we do this, then maybe our parishes will grow. Maybe others will come to Christ. But most importantly, we will be fulfilling God’s great commission to all of us. We will become messengers for Christ. We will be ones crying in the wilderness of this world. But maybe, just maybe, by God’s good grace, someone may hear. Someone may listen. Someone may come to believe and may be with us when Christ comes to judge the world. And then we will have them with us in that blessed land when we are resurrected and the world is remade.

Amen. 

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, be ascribed as is most justly due; all might, power, majesty, dominion, and glory; world without end.  Amen.

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